James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

In Praise of South Tucson’s All‑You‑Can‑Eat Mexican Breakfast Buffets

In Praise of South Tucson’s All‑You‑Can‑Eat Mexican Breakfast Buffets

Breakfast in South Tucson

I was a broke college student living in a 250-square-foot studio apartment in Tucson. I slept on a lumpy futon with my head five feet away from the toilet. My sleep was regularly interrupted by the sounds of my neighbors’ headboard knocking against the wall.

It was cramped and awkward quarters, but I loved that tiny, colorful room, for which I paid a whopping $375 a month. Mostly, though, I was besotted with Tucson itself: the cheap rent, the kaleidoscopic desert sunsets, the historic barrios steeped in the ghosts of Tucson’s long, storied past.

Sometimes, though, I felt my body wracked with a gnawing kind of loneliness. The kind of loneliness that makes your bones itch. The graduate program I was enrolled in was overwhelming white, and my well-off cohorts always seemed to be jetting off to yoga retreats in Costa Rica. Meanwhile, I was scraping change off the floor of my car to rustle up a cup of coffee.

Whenever I felt the weight of being the only brown person in my classes, I pointed my car toward South Tucson, one of the oldest Mexican-American communities in the United States.

I was familiar with South Tucson from childhood. My uncle owned a radiator shop on South Sixth Avenue for decades, and I loved to road-trip with my dad from California, and then Phoenix, to visit him. In those days, a trip to South Tucson inevitably meant lunch at one of the local Mexican restaurants. I daydreamed about those restaurants, and their promise of cheesy Sonoran-style combo platters, the way other kids daydreamed about going to Disneyland.

Now, in my lean and lonely college years, I returned to South Tucson. It was the closest thing to home for me.

[Read: Albuquerque’s most formidable breakfast burrito]

One morning, with less than $20 in my pocket, I stumbled onto one of South Tucson’s great, unsung culinary traditions: the all-you-can-eat Mexican breakfast buffet.

I found it at Crossroads Restaurant, a Mexican restaurant whose old-fashioned Spanish mission facade looked gently faded under the Arizona sun.

A waitress pointed me to the enormous spread of all-you-can-eat machaca, huevos revueltos (scrambled eggs), Mexican chorizo, chilaquiles, beefy mini-chimichangas, and nopalitos in a red chile sauce. There were steaming cauldrons filled with white menudo, pozole, and birria (goat stew). A stack of tortillas, thin and powdery in classic Sonoran fashion, sat steaming in a plastic bag.

Every time I stood up to get more food, my friendly waitress refilled my mug.

As I would learn, the Mexican breakfast buffet is a well-established Tucson tradition. Many local restaurants offer daily or weekend buffets. For me, these buffets represent everything great about Sonoran-style Mexican cooking. A food of abundance and generosity, where carne, rice, beans, and tortillas the size of pillowcases are standard.

All-you-can-eat buffets, of course, get a bad rap in food circles. But I worship this Tucson breakfast. It’s a meal for uncertain times: basic, intensely hearty, and always delicious. It’s the breakfast you want when you’re lonely and hungry, and you have no clue what’s for dinner.

Crossroads Restaurant
2602 South Fourth Avenue
South Tucson
Sunday through Thursday 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.,

Friday and Saturday 8 a.m. to midnight
Daily Buffet: 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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