TUCSON — This city is jammed with Mexican restaurants, but none pack quite so much character into so few square feet as Tanias “33” Dos Mundos. Dos mundos means “two worlds” in Spanish, which refers to the restaurant’s dual menu of both traditional and vegetarian dishes. The “33” is the number of burrito options. Here’s an even more impressive figure: Owner Rudy Lira estimates that the vast selection of choices on his combination plates yields a potential 22,000 possibilities. Surely there is one that will please everyone.
Tanias “33” pays tribute to the cuisine of the Mexican state of Sonora, which lies across the border and due south of this little strip mall outpost. Here, Sonoran cuisine manifests itself in a preference for flour tortillas over corn and for beef over pork. In addition, regional specialties such as green corn tamales and dishes packed with red chilies — as in the limon colorado burrito and red pozole — are on the menu. The restaurant is so accommodating to vegetarians and vegans that there’s an entire vegan breakfast burrito section, including fillings like soy chorizo with beans or papas rancheras. The soy seviche, another meatless dish, is heavy on cucumbers and not unlike a gazpacho with lots of lime and bits of what could pass for chicken if you didn’t know otherwise.
It’s something of a mystery how a small restaurant can wrangle so many kinds of burritos. The first variable is the size, which includes small, regular, large, or a whopping extra large. But that’s just the beginning. Patrons then select from a wide range of meat and vegetable fillings, and these are rolled up with selections from an even longer list of accompaniments (including cabbage or a mixture of cilantro and onion). Any three are included in the starting price of the burrito, and then there are add-ons: bacon or chicharrones for 99 cents.
Splurge and spend an extra $1 to bring another chimichanga into the world. The deep-fried burrito is said to have been born in Tucson, though more than one restaurant claims to have invented it. Prices are reasonable, starting at $2.99 for burritos; tacos, tostadas, tamales, and enchiladas are three for $4.99; and those nearly infinite combination plates top out at $10 for four items. The largest burrito at $8.99 is allegedly two pounds.
Machaca is another Sonoran specialty, dried and finely shredded beef with a feathery texture that lies somewhere between cotton candy and jerky. The cheese crisp topped with machaca and strips of green chilies is especially good. Its fried flour tortilla foundation is reminiscent of the thinnest pizza crust, though crispier, and the richness of the savory machaca and melted cheese pairs nicely with the heat and tang of chilies. More chilies would be even better (surely that could be arranged). The dish is also quite pretty and brings to mind an edible wagon wheel with chili spokes. It looks better beside a vivid, red glass of Jamaica, but if you order horchata, be prepared for a drink as sweet as eggnog.
Lira’s vision for his place is to be unusually accommodating. As such, breakfast is served all day, and ranges from menudo to huevos rancheros. A dozen soups are always available. Sometimes, the menu grows even longer with seasonal specialties such as capirotada, a dish of bananas, dates, raisins, brown sugar, bread, and peanuts that is reminiscent of bread pudding and served during Lent.
Humor is another feature here. “Fish rejoice — soy seviche is here” says one sign. Another declares a dessert to be “flantastic.” And then there’s “Huevos Huendsday,” a weekly special.
Chef and owner Allan Rodriguez of El Centro in Boston’s South End knows Tanias “33” well. “I like it a lot,” he says. Rodriguez, a native of the Sonoran capital Hermosillo, frequently visits Tanias “33’’ when traveling back to Mexico via Tucson. “Some places in Tucson, they sell only tacos, nachos, queso fundido. But there I’ve had birria and chili colorado with rice and beans, which are unique to where I’m from.”
Lira and his wife, Patricia, have owned Tanias for over 25 years, though he says the concept is closer to 40 years old and originates with his mother-in-law, who used to sell tortillas out of her house. Tania was the name of her first granddaughter. Other family members run other restaurants in town with similar names.
Lira added vegetarian options only in the past few years and they’ve gained him a wider audience. He thinks of Tanias as a place where vegans and vegetarians can bring friends who are “heavy-duty beef eaters,” and where both will find plenty of choices.
“Even with the nationwide recession the last few years, well, we’re still here,” says Lira.
There are thousands of reasons why.
TANIAS “33” DOS MUNDOS
614 North Grande Ave., Tucson, 520-622-0685, www.tanias33.com.
Aaron Kagan can be reached at email@example.com.