This family-owned traditional Mexican restaurant sits snugly in a small plaza around 7th St. and Butler Dr. in Phoenix, AZ. It opened in 1982. I conducted an interview with Lorraine who is the daughter of the owner. I chose to conduct ethnography at El Bravo for multiple reasons. First, my mother and I have known the family for almost thirty years. I have eaten at dozens of Mexican restaurants in Phoenix and El Bravo is still my favorite. Second, El Bravo was the first traditional Mexican restaurant in the Valley of the Sun, according to Lorraine. Third, of Phoenix's 1.6 million total population, 38.4% are Mexican (Source). Lastly, Mexican food is one of the most common cuisines in the city, thus to explore its origins will illuminate to society just how big of an impact the largest immigrant demographic has had and continues to have on the sunny landscape.
Lorraine explained to me that her mother, Carmen Tafoya, who is around 90 years old now, recently was in a car accident that has rendered her unable to work any longer. Nonetheless, Lorraine revealed to me just how much of an impact Carmen and her family have had on Phoenix. She explained that Carmen was born in Miami, Arizona where her father worked as an electrical engineer in the copper mines. Carmen's parents and two brothers were born in Mexico, then emigrated to Arizona.
Carmen had already opened El Bravo in Sedona in the early 70's, but they relocated to Phoenix. So El Bravo started serving customers in the metro area in 1982. Lorraine also mentioned that all of the workers at El Bravo are immigrants from Mexico. Carmen has always been feisty, passionate, kindhearted, and a very hard worker. She often would be working alongside her employees instead of watching from afar even at 90 years of age. She would have continued to work well into her nineties if it weren't for the car crash. Nonetheless, Carmen has always had an abundance of good qualities and El Bravo's success only reinforces this.
When I asked Lorraine- what changes has she observed regarding other Mexican businesses, she proudly said “we were the first traditional Mexican restaurant in Phoenix, AZ, and that shortly after we opened, Tex Mex taco trucks started sprouting everywhere”. To Lorraine, tacos are not authentic Mexican food. [Click here for historian Jeffrey Pilcher’s take on the origins of the taco, “Where did the Taco Come From?” 2012].
Lorraine further added that El Bravo has always been family owned, operated by Mexican immigrants, and cooks with real ingredients imported straight from Mexico. It was important to her that El Bravo never “sold out” as it were, to become a corporate chain; they have remained true to their heritage just as their many customers do.
When El Bravo began and until the recent intensive immigration from Mexico, Phoenicians thought only in terms of generic “Mexican food,” which most often represented northern Mexico’s Sonoran style of cooking. But now a drive thru Phoenix quickly reveals that restaurants cater to the tastes of specific regional Mexican cuisines from Chihuahua, Mexico City, Guadalajara, Baja, Oaxaca, and more, not to mention New Mex Mex and Tex Mex. In Mexico the cuisine is regionally varied and diverse. Migrants from all these regions have brought their cuisines with them and this blended diaspora has vastly enriched the more finely tuned culinary palate of metro Phoenix. But at least among the old-timers in this city burgeoned by recent migrants both from within and without the US, there will always be a sacred place for El Bravo's style of traditional Mexican dishes.
In this vein, Lorraine mentioned with pride many famous political people have eaten at and recommended El Bravo. Rose Mofford, the first female Governor of Arizona, ate here many times. So did former Arizona governors Jane Hall, Janet Napolitano, and others. If political figures dine at and spread the word of El Bravo's scrumptious food, this portrays just how connected El Bravo has been to people of all walks of life throughout its history, from immigrants to top politicians. Outside of politics, Lorraine said that El Bravo gets 80 tables a day, with some seating one person and others entire families. El Bravo is a very small restaurant, space wise. So if we take a moment to complete some simple math, taking into account that El Bravo is open six days a week, 80 tables would translate to around 25,000 people a year. This is an incredible amount considering how small, and hidden away family-owned El Bravo is.
El Bravo has existed for what seems an eternity. I've been eating there my entire life. The diverse array of people that have enjoyed El Bravo reflect the many shades of colors of the Mexican cuisine itself, with its green guacamole, brown beans, red tomatoes, and orange cheese. Why does El Bravo continue to flourish even after 30 years? Is it the imported ingredients shipped straight from Mexico? Is it that everything is made from scratch? Or maybe it's the local, family owned hospitality? Perhaps it's due to El Bravo being the first traditional Mexican restaurant in the Valley? Actually, it's all of these reasons. El Bravo has helped shape the Mexican restaurant business in the metro area into what it is today and lined the stomachs of its innumerable customers with nothing but joy and a little extra dose of... aribaaaaaaaaaaaa!