The Tucson Mexican Restaurant Rule of Relatively dictates that a restaurant's location must be taken into consideration while evaluating it. For example, a Mexican restaurant considered "good" in the foothills would not be considered good at all if located on, say, South Sixth Avenue.
Therefore, I headed to El Coronado out in Rita Ranch with no small amount of trepidation. After all, when it comes to Mexican food, Rita Ranch ain't no South Sixth Avenue, and last time I endeavored to review a Mexican joint on the far southeast side—a good 6 1/2 years ago, in the very same location now occupied by El Coronado—it didn't go so well.
Much to my pleasant surprise, I actually found some rather fine Mexican food at El Coronado—and I don't mean it was fine just by Rita Ranch standards.
Take the chorizo and egg plate ($6.29). This simple dish—with two eggs, refried beans (or home fries) and a small pile of chorizo, with tortillas on the side—was fantastic, almost on par with the stuff you can get, say, at Mary's Lucky Dollar. There are few bites of food more satisfying, in my humble opinion, than the combination of a good tortilla, eggs, well-prepared chorizo, beans and salsa. Yum.
We were also delighted with the stuffed quesadilla with green chili meat ($6.79). Turns out that "meat" is beef, and that "stuffed quesadilla" is just a big tortilla folded in half with ingredients placed inside. Those ingredients included tender cubes of beef, cheeses, beans and bits of tomato and chiles; our only complaint with the dish was that the quesadilla came without being cut into pieces, and we had to cut it up ourselves.
I'm also a big fan of El Coronado's tortilla soup (offered as a soup of the day on both visits, $2.59 for a cup). Although way too many tortilla-chip strips were placed on top, after I brushed them off, what I found underneath was a vegetable-and-cheese-rich soup that actually tasted like corn tortillas, and not just chicken (like the vast majority of so-called tortilla soups offered in our dusty burg).
Unfortunately, not all dishes at El Coronado—where breakfast is served all day, with lunch/dinner items available from 10:30 a.m. onward—were so amazing. Garrett and I actually disagreed regarding his carne asada taco plate ($8.99). I thought the tacos were excellent, if a just a little bit dry; they included chunks of nicely seasoned (probably marinated) beef, guacamole and cabbage. Garrett thought the tacos were merely OK, victimized by the presence of too much shredded cabbage and too little moisture.
We did agree that my green chili chicken enchilada plate ($7.89) was a big disappointment. After enjoying the flavorful green chili beef in the "stuffed quesadilla," I was disheartened to receive three enchiladas containing dry shredded chicken and covered in a watery green sauce that had no pep and very little flavor.
On my weekday brunch visit—when I enjoyed that delectable chorizo and egg plate—I was also looking forward to some albondigas (meatball soup, $5.49 for a bowl). I wanted to have a cup of it on our dinner visit several days before, but the server said that only full bowls are offered, and a bowl would have been too much food, so I passed. Sadly, on that brunch visit, El Coronado was "out" (at 11:30 a.m.?) of albondigas, so I decided to try the menudo instead ($5.49). While I applaud El Coronado for offering this notoriously labor- and time-intensive soup on their regular menu, I can't say their version wowed me. It wasn't bad—the hominy and the tripe had the proper consistency—but it wasn't all that flavorful, even after I added the entire cup of cilantro and green onions that was served alongside.
If dishes like menudo and chorizo seem too adventurous for your palate, no worries; El Coronado offers an extensive menu of breakfast items (including American standards like pancakes, omelets and biscuits 'n' gravy, and, um, Belgian standards like Belgian waffles), requisite Mexican fare (chimichangas, burritos, tacos, etc.), gringo classics (hamburgers, grilled-cheese sandwiches and even a chicken-fried steak dinner, $9.29) and desserts (from empanadas, $1.49, to apple pie à la mode, $3.79).
The servers are competent and friendly, and the restaurant feels clean and comfortable, with a mixture of booths, half-booths and tables, surrounded by fake plants, two TVs (tuned to Dancing With the Stars on one visit) and various knickknacks. However, country music is played on the restaurant's radio system, and the music is especially loud at the tables nearest to the door; consider yourself warned.
El Coronado is a very nice Mexican restaurant, especially considering its Rita Ranch location. Would El Coronado shine as bright if it were located near, say, South Tucson? No—but certain dishes, like that chorizo and egg plate, are excellent, period, regardless of location.