People say Sonoran tortillas are the best in the world, and for most of my life I tended to agree. The wafer thin, flour tortillas we know and love here in Arizona and Sonora are the perfect medium for grilled meats, guacamole and savory refried beans. But then I tasted the tortillas from Chihuahua.
Puffier and thicker, the tortillas from this Mexican border state are good enough to enjoy simply rubbed with a little butter,but the best way to appreciate them is in burrito form.
And when it comes to burritos, Chihuahua knows its stuff.
Widely considered the birthplace of burritos (although that claim is debatable as some historians peg them as being from Sonora), Chihuahua has perfected the medium by serving burritos with simple and homey guisado stews like shredded beef and creamy rajas in these hefty flour tortillas. The burritos themselves are thinner, rather than bulging with fillings, and they’re not sealed up on the ends.
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Chihuahua is the largest state in Mexico and home not only to this unique burrito style, but to the vibrant alcoholic spirit sotol, a tribe of world-renowned indigenous athletes and a stunning canyon system that rivals the Grand Canyon in size and beauty.
It’s also the birthplace of Fernando Hernández, who owns Testal, a counter service restaurant on Grand Avenue in Phoenix.
Hernández grew up in Arizona as an undocumented immigrant and fell in love with his Mexican birth state after he was able to obtain legal residency and travel back an adult. His restaurant is named Testal after the Spanish word for an uncooked ball of tortilla dough, and through it he hopes to teach people about the rich food culture and heritage of his northern Mexican state.
What sets these Chihuahua-style burritos apart?
Testal’s burritos really blew me away. In fact, they were better than many of the fabulous burritos I’ve had during my travels through Chihuahuan cities like Juárez and Nuevo Casas Grandes, not to mention Texas and New Mexico, where the burritos are also popular.
What really sets them apart is the tortilla, made from flour, water and vegetable shortening, with no preservatives. The restaurant’s kitchen staff follows Hernández’s mom Ana Saldaña’s recipe. They roll them by hand and run them through a machine every morning.
Packages of the freshly-made flour tortillas sit on the counter of the cute contemporary space, which is decorated with petroglyph motifs and National Geographic-style photos of Chihuahua’s natural wonders.
After eating almost every burrito on the menu, I realized that the fillings themselves play a minor role in this epic performance. They’re all delicious, whether made from soft chicharron, shredded beef in chile verde or one of the vegan options like picadillo with vegan ground beef. They’re solid, but the tortillas remain the star of the show, no matter which filling you choose.
What to order at Testal
You won’t find carne asada on the menu. Instead you’ll find stews like vegetarian rajas, a comforting medley of chopped poblano peppers in rich cream. The poblanos are cooked down until the vegetal crunch is gone and they’re supple and pliant.
Potatoes make an appearance in several of the fillings, like the deshebrada with shredded beef in green chile sauce, and in the chile colorado—chunky pork in a heady red chile sauce that gets mellowed by the spud squares.
Beans were actually my favorite of the bunch, because who doesn’t adore a lush refried bean burrito, especially when the thin burrito shape allows for more sumptuous tortilla in every bite.
You can order any of the fillings in a housemade gordita, made here with a flour tortilla instead of the typical corn. The tortilla pockets are thinner and crunchier than the burritos, and also very delicious. I ordered my gordita with one of the restaurant’s many vegan options, picadillo made with Impossible-brand ground beef and potatoes. Almost equally as tasty as the burritos, albeit in a different form.
The restaurant also offers tortilla-less bowls, filled with the soft refried beans and any of the toppings. I tried one with a vegan chile colorado made with Impossible pork and potatoes. It didn’t have quite the same juiciness to it that real pork has, but otherwise it was tough to tell the difference. It was good, but at Testal, you don’t want to miss out on the tortilla, so stick to the burritos and gorditas.
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A Chihuahuan drink to wash it down
Testal’s small bar focuses on cocktails made with Chihuahua’s iconic distillate sotol, which is similar to a Tequila or a mezcal, but is made from a different succulent plant called the desert spoon.
The agavelike plant has dozens of very thin spiky leaves coming out the center and is harvested wild rather than being farmed. Its liquor was the star player in a boozy Mangoneada, made with mango puree and nectar that’s spiced up with fruity chamoy sauce and Tajin chile powder. Admittedly, it’s hard to tell if you’re drinking sotol or a silver Tequila in a concoction like that, but the smokiness of the spirit did come through.
My favorite drink on the menu is a nonalcoholic agua fresca made with chia seeds. Called iskiate, it’s a staple drink of the indigenous Rarámuri people who live in Chihuahua’s stunning Copper Canyon and are known for their exceptional long-distance running skills. The natural energy drink gives them the strength to run long marathons and is mentioned in the 2009 book about the tribe called “Born to Run.”
The drink is assertively sour and limey, with a glutinous texture from the chia seeds that have soaked up the liquid and turned into bouncy little bits. The spunky drink cut through the richness of these northern Mexican burritos, which offer a delicious, regional taste of Chihuahua in the land of Sonoran food.
Testal Mexican Kitchen
Where: 1325 NW Grand Ave., suite #1, Phoenix.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; open until 1 a.m. for special events.
Price: Burritos and gorditas $4-$5.50; bowls $5.50-$10; cocktails $10-$13.
Details: 602-384-9993, testalphx.square.site.