Aunt Chilada’s, with roots going back upwards of 120 years, oozes local lore and atmosphere, serving up stories of eccentric Phoenix characters along with enchiladas, nachos and house specialties including a killer pollo fundido.
Sisters and co-owners Tiffany Allison and Michelle Woods love to share that lore with customers.
Aunt Chilada’s sits at the base of Piestewa Peak near the Dreamy Draw. The building dates back to the 1890s when it was a grocery store for miners who dug ore from the nearby Rio Rico mine. The miners were digging cinnabar — an ore processed to extract mercury — and the intoxicating substance caused many to finish work in a woozy state from the fumes and dust.
“That’s how it got the name Dreamy Draw,” Woods said. “In the 1960s, George Cocreham, who was a captain in the Phoenix Fire Department, bought the place and opened it as George’s Ole!”
He expanded the building and found a novel way to obtain building supplies.
“The beams came from the downtown railroad line after it was broken up,” Woods said. “George would pay firefighters with beer and food if they’d bring him a railroad tie.”
There are more than 3,000 ties in the structure — that’s a lot of free suds and tortillas. The fireplace uses stone from nearby Piestewa Peak.
When they did a recent remodel, they tracked down old railroad ties to fit in with the décor.
The growth and renovations continued recently with an update of the patios.
In the 1980s Pointe Resorts bought the place and renamed it Aunt Chilada’s. (There’s another Aunt Chilada’s in Tempe, but it’s part of the Pointe Resorts organization, not affiliated with the original in North Central Phoenix, and is only open for private events.) Ken Nagel, an executive with the company, bought it in the 1990s and today his daughters have taken the reins. In fact, most of the family has worked in some aspect of the business over the years, the sisters said.
“I started when I was 16, and Tiffany was 13,” Woods said. “When the children wouldn’t take a bottle, my husband would bring the baby in to nurse during my shift.”
“Michelle and I are what’s left,” Allison said. “Just the two of us run it and are considered partners. “The next generation is getting involved and Michelle’s daughter is starting to train for her job (managing group sales) this year. I manage the kitchen and the front of the house.”
When Aunt Chilada’s began, the menu focused on traditional Sonoran Mexican food familiar to most Arizonans, Allison shared.
“Tacos. enchiladas, chimichangas — that sort of thing,” Allison said. “We really didn’t branch out. Even today, cheese enchiladas, machaca, pollo fundido, fish tacos and seafood enchiladas are items we’ll never take off the menu.”
But over time, with food fusions and food trends, and Allison’s extensive travels — she’s been in more than 50 countries all over the world — some of those flavors have found their way onto Aunt Chilada’s menu.
A case in point is the shrimp-stuffed pineapple. Think Thai-Mexican mashup that starts with a hollowed-out pineapple half that’s grilled to caramelize the fruit’s sugars, then packed with shrimp, bell peppers and green onions, all tossed with a pineapple salsa laced with Thai chili sauce. And there’s no oil — so it’s great for dieters.
“You also have to keep with trends, like gluten allergies,” Allison said. “And we have variations of menu items that are rebuilt to be vegan.
“We have a 100 percent scratch kitchen, with the exception of our tortillas. It’s literally a morning, noon and night job making the flour and corn tortilla chips.”
And they’ve developed their own “magic seasoning,” with 18 different spices that goes into many menu items.
“Tiffany is the chef of the family; she went to the Cordon Bleu in Paris,” Woods said. Fluent in French, Allison worked as an interpreter there while studying. “She did an entire salsa challenge for 100 people a few weeks ago — in French.”
The challenges are especially popular corporate team-building events where Tiffany demonstrates how Aunt Chilada’s makes salsa then brings out and breaks attendees up into groups who have to create their own salsa.
“Part of the competition is they have to act out a commercial and sell it to us,” Allison said.
“We’re locally owned for three generations of our family. We eat, sleep and breathe this business,” she continued.
Remodels, menu adaptations and innovative group events notwithstanding, Aunt Chilada’s remains what it began as — a place for people to gather, enjoy great food and celebrate friendships and community.
“We are sharing memories for our community’s families,” Woods said. “We have baby showers and when those kids grow up, we have their college graduations.
“It’s really touching to see what a community Aunt Chilada’s has created, and we want that to go on forever. We never want to take that for granted.”
Aunt Chilada’s, at 7330 N. Dreamy Draw Drive, is open 3–9 p.m., Monday through Thursday; and for dining 10 a.m.–10 p.m., with the bar open until midnight, Friday and Saturday; and 10 a.m.–9 p.m., Sunday. For more information, call 602-944-1286 or visit www.auntchiladas.com.