Down by Weekly World Central, off East Valencia Road near the Tucson International Airport, the quick-lunch restaurant selection is a bit dismal. Sure, there are a handful of national fast-food joints that all pretty much taste the same, and a few local sandwich joints. But really, how many burgers and sandwiches can one person eat?
Enter ChickeNuevo, a small, locally owned chain of fast-food Mexican restaurants serving asadero-style chicken. The menu is limited, and mostly has chicken offerings (not surprising for a chicken-themed restaurant, after all), but you can opt for beef in some of the burritos, quesadillas and the like. We stuck with the chicken for both of our visits, and visited only the East Valencia Road location. (There are four more ChickeNuevos in Tucson.)
I met Ted for a midweek lunch date and was first struck by how large the interior of the restaurant was. There is plenty of seating for both small and large groups, and though the décor is dated, it's bright, clean and comfortable enough for a quick lunch or dinner. Ted was running a little late, so I ordered for both of us, thinking that the food would be ready about the time he arrived. By the time I had filled my water glass, picked a few of the different salsas from the salsa bar and grabbed a table, my order number was being called.
The five crispy chicken tacos ($1.50 for one; $4.49 for three; $5.49 for five) were piled high with shredded lettuce, crumbled queso fresco and pickled red onions. They were messy and a bit difficult to eat, but pretty tasty. Made with moist, shredded chicken stuffed into a corn tortilla and deep-fried, they were sort of a hybrid between a taco and a taquito. Stack your lettuce, onions, queso fresco, salsa and guacamole onto the top/outside part of the shell, and dip it all into the accompanying sauce and deliciousness ensues. But it's definitely not recommended for drive-through eating, unless you're looking for your lap and car to be covered in taco toppings.
I also ordered the traditional style ChickeNuevo burrito ($5.49, also comes with plain beef or plain chicken), which includes beans inside. It was a deceptively dense burrito, though not quite as large as those at some other local chains—but who really needs 2 pounds of burrito? The chicken was again very moist, and seemed to be mostly dark meat, with good flavor. The tortilla was super-thin, fresh and chewy—yum. With a little fresh lime, some salsa and pickled jalapeños from the salsa bar, our order made for tasty lunchtime eats, for less than $15 for two people.
Halloween seemed the perfect evening to put ChickeNuevo to the test again. I needed some filling and relatively healthy food before going home and gearing up for an evening of sugar and neighborhood goblins. The menu at ChickeNuevo is dominated by "Grilled Combos" in several individual and family sizes. On Wednesdays, there's a special: $14.99 gets you a whole chicken and half chicken, two sides, salsa and tortillas ($20.99 on other days). And because Halloween fell on a Wednesday, it seemed a reasonable option. I also ordered some chicken enchiladas with green sauce ($4.29; there's also a red-sauce option), a flan and a rice pudding ($2.29 each). I picked refried beans and macaroni salad for my sides, but ChickeNuevo also offers regular beans, rice and garden salad as options.
Everything survived the drive home—the chicken, enchiladas and beans were still hot, and the macaroni salad and desserts were still cool—and we immediately dug into dinner. The enchiladas were OK, though next time I would try the red sauce, because the green was devoid of much flavor or spice. The chicken was good, although the breasts and thighs were much, much better than the legs, which were a bit over-grilled, making them dry and too crispy. The refried beans were pretty standard, but the macaroni salad was a disappointment, with overcooked pasta and little-to-no flavor or seasoning.
The desserts were quite good, with one exception. The rice pudding had large shards of sharp cinnamon stick that hadn't been removed—ouch. Otherwise, it wasn't too sweet, and the rice wasn't too soggy or mushy—the biggest downfall for most rice puddings. The flan was excellent, with a firm consistency, delicious caramelization and rich flavor.
All in all, ChickeNuevo is a superquick and tasty lunch or dinner option that doesn't come with french fries, which is a welcome addition to the Weekly's neighborhood.