It was one of those days where worlds collided and I had to find a way out. Basically, I was hungry, didnt want to cook, but didnt have much cash on me. Payday was still a few days away and I had five dollars in my wallet, a $5 winning scratch ticked and a handful of change in the car. Adding it all up, I had a great total of $12.25 to spend on dinner.
I certainly didnt want fast food and I was trying to think about where I could go, sit down, have my order taken and then get a decent lunch. This was tough and then it occurred to me where to go.
Many years ago, there was an IHOP at 38th Street and Thomas Road in East Phoenix. Back in those days, IHOPs were all in A-frame buildings. It was their trademark. Well, that and the multi-syrup holder on the table. The IHOP at 38th Street never really did much business and about 40 years ago, someone bought the place and made it a Mexican food restaurant called Don Jose. (Don Jose is actually the son of the man who bought the place.)
So, for the last 40 years, this place has been lovingly called the IHOT The International House of Tacos.
I remembered that their plate meals were dirt cheap and I decided to try it considering I hadnt been there in a couple of years.
I arrived and the parking lot was almost completely full. I parked and entered the building and was handed a menu and told to take any open table. I was able to secure a booth on the west side of the building. The interior is a mix of wood paneling, black velvet paintings and decorative art.
I reviewed the menu and my server arrived with water and a bowl of chips along with a small pitcher of hot sauce sitting in a little bowl. I dove into the chips. They were warm, slightly oily, but very crisp and had a great taste. The sauce was really good. Not incredibly spicy, but the garlic was heavy and there was just a touch of sweetness. I really liked it.
My server asked if I was ready to order and I decided to keep it simple and cheap. I went for the #6 Combo ($5.90) that included a taco, tostada and a cheese enchilada. I also went with a cup of the Albondigas Soup ($1.20). I wanted to get a Cheese Crisp but wasnt sure I would have enough money, so I opted for the Corn Crisp ($1.50) instead. I also got a Diet Coke ($0.70).
I looked at the menu again before handing it to the server. It was still the same menu they had offered for years. Nothing fancy. Nothing unique. Nothing expensive. The most expensive thing on the menu was the Don Jose Special for $9.00 which included a tamale, enchilada, tostada, taco, rice or beans, flour tortilla, and choice of beverage.
My drink arrived shortly thereafter and my server returned with my soup. A cup was present with about six ounces of soup. The broth was spicy and tasty. A scoop of rice and a meatball had sunk to the bottom. It was decent, but I wanted another meatball, darn it.
My corn crisp arrived about the same time I had finished my soup. A corn tortilla had been deep fried, covered in cheese and then placed under a broiler to melt the cheese. I poured some of the sauce onto the cheese and munched on the crisp. The tortilla was very crisp and the cheese was thick and thoroughly melted. It was exceptionally simple and yet I was enjoying it. It was pure comfort food.
My plate lunch arrived and I was anxious to see if the food was the same as the last time I was at Don Joses about 2-3 years prior. One taste confirmed that it wasnt only the menu that hadnt changed in many years. The taco was crisp and the shredded meat filling was moist. I would have liked a lot more seasoning on the taco meat, but it was acceptable. The tostada was good. The beans were a tad too salty than what I would have preferred, but the shell was thin and crunch and the lettuce and cheese on top were very fresh.
The cheese enchilada was simple enough. A corn tortilla was wrapped around some cheese and then covered with a very basic red sauce and covered with some more cheese. The sauce wasnt spectacular, but it held its own and I was pleased. I especially like the fresh chopped onion on top that gave the enchilada a little contrast in texture.
I finished the meal and was a very satisfied, my full stomach signaling that it was satisfied as well. It was all just simple, basic Sonoran Mexican food with no flair, but it sure filled the void. Since I went in knowing that this was not going to be a restaurant that would even think of rivaling Los Sombreros, Barrio Café, or even Manuels or Tee Pee, I came away feeling like I had a decent meal at a very, very fair price. Less than six bucks for a plate lunch. Not bad.
My only complaints were that refills on soda and chips were extra. Considering the small bowl of chips and the small 8 oz. glass they used for the soda, I felt that was a bit of the restaurant going on the cheap for a few pennies of profit. I did, however, love the utility of the hot sauce in a syrup pitcher where you could apply the sauce easily and with little chance of spills. My guess is they inherited a few boxes of those pitchers from the IHOP it replaced.
I got my bill and breathed a sigh of relief that the total was $10.02 including tax. I left two dollars on the table for the tip. Service was quick and friendly and everything was served hot and fresh.
Sure, Don Jose is nothing special. It is a small restaurant with little creativity on the menu and pretty basic, plain, simple food. But for little pocket money, and some decent food and service, plus a reminder of how IHOPs used to look like in the 50s and 60s, I thought this place was a gem.
I went with few expectations other than a filling, tasty meal, and I wasnt disappointed.
3736 East Thomas Road
Phoenix, AZ 85018
Notes: Cash only. Closed on Tuesdays.