On the Border: Traditional Mexican Fare with a Nuevo Southwestern Twist

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

SCOTTSDALE, AZ - If you've ever been to Southern Arizona, you've got a favorite, funky little Mexican restaurante. You know the one, with the hole in the wall storefront with the wait staff that solamente hablan Espanol, and the four dollar plate of Machaca that peels a layer off your stomach but always has you coming back for more.

Just don't look for this favorite dive in North Scottsdale, because you'd have a better chance of finding the dozen Top Flite balls you deposited in the Sonoran desert around the corner at Grayhawk.

North Scottsdale is actually part of Scottsdale, but the two areas are bound together only a similar name and an aggressive annexation plan. "Regular" Scottsdale feels like its part of Phoenix - an affluent appendage that lies somewhere between semi urban, and suburban. North Scottsdale is unmistakably exurban, and feels like the last true civilization you'll encounter before heading north to Flagstaff.

North Scottsdale is new, fresh, and clean, and chain franchises anchor every corner. On one of those corners, at Tatum Blvd. in the neon Desert Ridge shopping center, is home to a pretty darn good chain Mexican restaurant called "On the Border, Off the Map."

Not a dive, and not a snobbery, On the Border is a solid mix of traditional Mexican favorites and Nuevo Southwestern specialties served in a casual, and might we say, bright, atmosphere. Purple, yellow, and orange are the preferred hues of the house, and after a few giant margaritas and 20 ounce draft beers, the entire restaurant starts to look like one big plate of Mexican food.

On this night, the joint was jumping, and the best seats in the house were actually at the bar. There are no shortage of tan, young, blond girls in the Phoenix area, and a number of them work at On the Border. One worked behind the bar, and she made sure that the drinks and free chips and salsa flowed freely.

The specialty of the house is fajitas, but we're not just talking the regular steak and chicken garden variety. In a new twist on an old staple, you can choose from the "traditional" selections of peppercorn steak, blackened Chicken, Portobello mushrooms, and pork carnitas, and two "top shelf" offerings, shrimp and tenderloin tips. For $10.99, you can choose two of the traditional selections, and for $1.50 you can substitute for the top shelfers.

"About eight out of 10 people that come in here order the fajitas," says the bartendress. "We could probably get by on being a fajita place, alone, but we are starting to get a following with some of our other dishes."

Ah, but when in North Scottsdale, do as the North Scottsdale folks do.

After a strong pull from a 20-ounce Flat Tire Ale (try finding Flat Tire Ale in Mexico!) the pork carnitas fajitas seemed like the right thing to do. They came drenched in a chile pepper sauce that was advertised as zesty, but actually came out on the sweet side.

Traditional New Mexican carnitas almost come across as sliced pork tenderloin stewed in green chile sauce, but the On the Border rendition was a bit more like shredded pork in a melted candy glaze.

Nonetheless, they were tasty, and served with a healthy portion of Mexican rice, refried beans, lettuce and warm, homemade tortillas. It was later revealed that the carnitas are new to the menu, are still a bit of a work in progress, and that the pepper corn steak fajitas are as popular with the regulars as the World Champion Arizona Diamondbacks.

If for some reason you are fajita-ed out, On the Border offers burritos, chimichangas (deep fried burritos), salads, and a slew of mesquite grilled plates including BBQ ribs, salmon, steak and chicken, and chicken. A favoritos section of the menu includes house specialties ($8.88 to $10.79) like the carnitas plate, smoked chicken flautas, and fajita chicken with a chile relleno.

On the Border's appetizer list goes well beyond that of the typical chain Mexican chain. Empanadas (flaky pastries stuffed with ground beef), Texas wings (chicken wings in chipolte BBQ sauce), and smoked chicken flautas top the list, and can stand as meals of their own.

On the Border won't whisk you away to old Mexico, or even remind you of your favorite little Mexican joint in downtown Phoenix, but you won't leave hungry or angry, and there's something to be said for that.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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