PHOTOGRAPHS BY NATE ABBOTT
Many of El Mexicali’s regulars would say the restaurant feels like home. For owner Monica Murguia, that’s the truth. Murguia and her three sisters grew up in the eatery’s kitchen, learning how to cook and serve their mother Carmen’s delicious family recipes. Of all the dishes Murguia has mastered, costillas de puerco con nopales is her favorite. The cooks at El Mexicali simmer pork riblets in spices and a made-from-scratch red sauce until the meat falls off the bone. They finish the entrée with tender slices of cactus pad, or nopales, and add rice and beans and housemade tortillas on the side.
Nopales also appear in another traditional favorite, the El Mexicali special. Carmen’s recipe pairs the cactus with grilled skirt steak and whole beans. Other popular offerings include fajitas, fresh seafood, and some of the Coachella Valley’s yummiest enchiladas. Every entrée goes well with a drink from the restaurant’s full bar. Pick sweet sips like flavored margaritas or a piña colada, or have a glass of wine or an ice-cold beer. At happy hour, transform that Modelo into a chavela — a spicy beer cocktail with tomato juice and hot sauce — for only one extra buck.
Try the chiles gueritos rellenos de camaron, or yellow peppers stuffed with shrimp. The flavor-packed appetizer, which comes with mayonnaise and soy sauce for dipping, is the restaurant’s bestseller. “We produce about two million a year,” Marguia says.
Friendly servers deliver all these eats to your table. “My mother’s motto was always ‘good food, good service — it’ll be a good business,’” Murguia says. “We’ve been here ever since, living by that standard.”
Carmen’s wisdom has kept diners coming back to the little restaurant by the train tracks for 40 years. “We had a customer who has passed on, but we’d known him and his wife and his kids since we opened,” Murguia says. “We saw his family grow up, catered his daughter’s wedding and his birthday for many years. His kids continue to come in because it was his sacred place.”
Forging those connections is, for Murguia, one of the great joys of leading El Mexicali. “[We] get to be a part of customers’ lives,” she says. “And they get to be a part of ours.” elmexicalicafe.com
Winners Voted by Our Readers
While away an afternoon on the sunny patio with chunky guac and a glass of sangria. The menu offers hard-to-find favorites such as chicken topped with pipián, a creamy sauce made from roasted pumpkin seeds and dried chile. elmirasolrest.com
Desert Hot Springs
Casa Blanca (Tie)
Casa Blanca owner Juan Carlos De Leon opened this beloved Desert Hot Springs spot for fajitas, tortas, and seafood shortly after graduating from Coachella Valley High School. The robust menu offers more than 150 entrees. casablancamenu.com
Desert Hot Springs
Order a quesadilla packed with pork belly, spicy chicken, or shredded beef. Or, try the mushroom or pumpkin flower version. Don’t miss the housemade horchata with fruit garnish. fb.com/deliciasmexicancuisine
Desert Hot Springs
This no-frills outpost serves satisfying, budget-friendly eats such as carne asada and chile verde. Visit on weekends for menudo, a warming red-chili soup made with tripe. zapopanmexicanfood.com
Mood lighting, colorful artwork, and live music make this a fun spot for dinner with friends. Order a pitcher of Cadillac margs for the table, chow down on a shrimp chile relleno, and finish with a sweet, corn flake-coated scoop of fried ice cream. latablitamexicanrestaurant.com
Las Casuelas Nuevas
Las Casuelas emphasizes the family recipes that Mary and Florencio Delgado made locally famous. String lights and shady trees ensure the patio’s a relaxing place to dig into a combination plate. lascasuelasnuevas.com
One word: margaritas. More than 15 varieties mean you’ll find the perfect pairing for shrimp fajitas, chile Colorado, crunchy taquitos, or one of the many vegetarian dishes. freshagave.com
Housemade tamales star on the Don Diego’s menu. Choose from chicken, beef, or a flavorful meatless version filled with corn, Anaheim chiles, and cheese. dondiegoiw.com
This Old Town restaurant is open until 11 p.m. on weekends, so you can linger late over crowd-pleasing appetizers like empanadas and queso fundido (chorizo and poblano peppers over melty Oaxaca cheese) — plus a drink from the giant tequila list. casamendozamexicangrillandbar.weebly.com