When the Auld Dubliner on University Boulevard shut down a few years ago, most people I know took the news with an unsurprised "Huh." The small San Diego-based chain was OK at best, grinding through bartenders because they quickly got sick of making that crowd-pleasing Harry Potter shot, a sugary mess that involved setting the rim on fire and sprinkling cinnamon to make it "cast a sparkly spell" for a second or two. Then the space sat dead as the campus crowd moved to more established joints providing familiar fare and pitchers of affordable beer.
In late September, a sign went up in the unused space advertising something called Americano Mexicano. I wasn't too sure what that meant, but the name alone made me suspect another conventional corporate concept. But I dug a bit deeper and couldn't find any franchises opening up under Americano Mexicano. My sleuthing turned up the name of the new owner, David Pena, who was born and raised here in Tucson. Well heck, I thought. University Boulevard could always use another independent eatery as it vies to be a culinary destination in the spirit of Fourth Avenue, Congress Street and South Sixth Avenue. It seemed smart to offer Mexican fare in that location, as there really isn't any nearby anymore—at least nothing besides chain juggernauts.
Pena has worked in restaurants for more than two decades, but he left the biz in 2013 when his daughter was born.
"I started selling insurance and I hated it," he says. "When we moved back to Tucson, my wife introduced me to raspados and before long we started selling them at farmers' markets."
The sweet, icy, fruity treats they sold did so well that Pena began looking into a permanent location to set up shop. It wasn't until his mother-in-law began considering taking over a recently closed corner restaurant on Fourth Avenue that Pena devised the initial notion of Americano Mexicano.
"My vision is to have an authentic cantina look and feel but serve delicious food you get down at Rocky Point," Pena says. "We might look corporate, but this is all me. I've opened up a few concepts here in Tucson and I always went big. I wanted to open a place of my own and now that I made that happen, I knew I had to go big."
As he remodeled the University Boulevard space, Pena and his crew began working on authentic Gulf influenced dishes, with variations on seafood, street-stand favorites and home-cooked staples. He knew he'd have to do a lot to stand out in a town filled with a taco stand on nearly every corner.
Open since October, Americano Mexicano is showing early signs of becoming a neighborhood hangout. Pena's plan was to serve food you could find in a rickety beachside hut equipped with a small grill and packed cooler, but the portions here are anything but modest. The Super Nachos ($10.99) can easily appease a table of UA athletes, with a mountain of corn chips layered heavy with meat, beans, guacamole and sour cream. And speaking of athletes, the burros and chimichangas ($9-$11) are the size of a Wildcat running back's calf. Same goes for the shrimp cocktail ($16.99), served in a goblet nearly the size of the Stanley Cup. If this is "street food," then it must be the main drag in Giant City. Please note, dear reader: Come to Americano Mexicano hungry and expect to leave with a to-go box for lunch tomorrow.
"I am Mexican but I don't speak Spanish," says Pena. "That's where the name came from, that little society of people like me. Plus, it just made me chuckle. I could turn this place into a Coyote Ugly, but that is not going to happen. This is a restaurant, not a club or DJ bar. I put my heart and soul into the recipes and wanted to bring a new vibe to the university. In time I think we will become a Tucson staple."