Phoenix restaurant El Rincon Poblano serves Pueblan-style Mexican food – The Arizona Republic

On a quiet weekday afternoon at El Rincon Poblano, Felipe and Maria Tehuitzl man the front of the house while their kids giggle and play behind a display case loaded with ice cream. A little fellow emerges, barely knee-high, musters the courage to say hello to a group of diners, and the table melts.
Felipe’s brother, Guillermo Jr., is out running errands while their parents, Ester and Guillermo Sr., are in the kitchen preparing for the evening’s service. The elder couple has been here since 4 a.m. It’s a difficult but necessary schedule when you’re committed to making everything fresh, every day.
“People told us to make the rice once a week, freeze it and thaw it little by little,” Felipe says. “But it’s important to us to make it fresh every day.”
It’s a small difference maybe, but an important one. And the neighborhood is starting to notice. El Rincon Poblano opened in March, and though the weekdays are still slow, the weekends are already hopping.
That’s partly because it’s an inexpensive, unassuming place to get a hearty meal. But it’s also because this family-run shop boasts flavorful “made this morning” Mexican fare and a selection of Pueblan specialties that should raise some eyebrows.
It certainly raised mine.
Felipe and his brother grew up in Arizona, but their family hails from Cholula, located in the state of Puebla, a couple hours’ drive southeast of Mexico City. Though Mexico is a complex puzzle of distinctive regional cuisines, Pueblan is among the most revered. In Phoenix, it’s also in short supply.
Though Ester has catering experience, this is the family’s first time running a restaurant. Now, in a spartan but homey storefront restaurant, they serve a tight list of family recipes.
The Valley offers an enormous wealth of Sonoran cuisine. And while Pueblan cuisine isn’t absent, it is a lot tougher to find. So, human nature being what it is, we tend to take for granted the things we have and wish for the things we don’t. Wishing leads to longing and longing leads to obsessing…and that’s how a dining critic ends up giggling along with the kids and doing a happy dance over a Mexican sandwich called a cemita.
The cemita is a Pueblan specialty — and one of the hottest items on my personal wishlist since I arrived in Phoenix in 2010.
They’re tortas, yes, but a particularly beguiling subset thereof. Variations exist, but the archetype starts with a sesame bun (“cemita” can refer to either the sandwich or the bread itself), usually with a brioche-like eggy flavor. Meats vary widely, but condiments tend to focus on sliced avocado, Oaxaca cheese, slivers of raw onion, pickled chipotle chiles and a peppery, cilantro-like herb called papalo — a true rarity around these parts.
I’ve found cemitas in Phoenix once or twice before, but this is the first time worth writing about.
The rolls, baked in-house at El Rincon Poblano, aren’t the eggy version, but they are a delight — light and crisp, studded with toasted sesame and big enough to support a hefty sandwich. I start with a personal favorite, the milanesa de res, featuring a substantial slab of breaded and crisply fried beef.
The restaurant offers multiple options for chiles, but for a first pass the chipotles caseros are the way to go. Smoky dried chipotles are pickled in-house to create a sweet, sour and spicy condiment that lights the sandwich up with a fiery neon glow. And there’s practically a bushel of papalo on board, lending the pronounced herbal punch that makes a cemita so distinctive.
Round two is filled with carne asada and a different chile. Spicy serrano rajas prove to be a formidable second string, and an excellent complement to sizzled beef. Round three is an exercise in Pueblan pucker power: a return to the chipotles caseros, plus pata de res — tender, slightly chewy cubes of tendon-packed pickled cow’s feet, a double dose of vinegar and spice.
This, finally, is the cemita I’ve been seeking. But there’s more, of course, and it all deserves attention.
Quesadillas are the forearm-sized variety, and a specimen filled with delicate, fresh squash blossoms is a treat. Even better are the memelas — thick, freshly griddled tortilla-style cakes layered with a paper-thin smear of black beans, topped with salsa, fresh onions and cheese. You could go red or green, but honestly, why choose? The bandera merges both into the same plate-sized morsel.
Roasted central Mexican meats are ascendant, and El Rincon Poblano’s mixiote is a great dish — chunks of goat wrapped up in parchment with chiles, garlic and spices that mingle and melt. Puncture the white paper sack and a torrent of fragrant, ruddy juice spills out, ready to be sopped up with huge, thick, handmade tortillas in a cloth-lined basket.
Of course, mole Poblano is in the house, and it’s an exceptionally smooth and mellow variety. It’s complex without being aggressive, enrobing a tender stewed chicken leg and a pork spare rib, alongside rice and beans. The mole, however, should not distract from the pipian verde. Unlike brighter, more tomatillo-forward renditions, this one is deep, dark and nutty, a tighter distillation of the toasted pumpkin and sesame seeds within. Remarkably, to ensure its freshness, they’ll prepare it in small batches as needed throughout the day.
The way things are going, they’ll need to make a whole lot more.
Where: 3302 W. Thomas Road, Phoenix.
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays through Fridays (closed Tuesdays), 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturdays, 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Sundays.
Price: Antojitos $1.75-$4.50; huaraches and quesadillas $12-$13; burritos and cemitas $7.50-$9.50; platters $11-$12.
Details: 602-301-1479. Search Facebook for “El Rincon Poblano Mexican Grill.”
Tried something delicious lately? Reach the reporter at or at 602-444-8533. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @skilletdoux, and on Facebook at
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