By Noah Weinberg
In a divided country, it becomes harder to find common ground, but one restaurant in Phoenix says otherwise.
Ajo Al’s Mexican Café is a staple in Sonoran-style Mexican food and a shared commonplace for politicians on both sides of the aisle. David Garcia and Doug Ducey, a Democrat and Republican respectively, frequent the restaurant.
During his time as an Arizona senator, Republican John McCain called Ajo Al’s one of his favorite restaurants.
“You can say we are bipartisan,” says Daniel Dains, owner of Ajo Al’s owner. “I might even have called John McCain a regular. He would just keep coming in.”
Dains learned his restaurant’s reputation spread to Washington, D.C., when he received a call in 2017 from Vice President Mike Pence’s advance team informing him that that Pence wanted to dine there.
“When they came and looked at the place, they immediately thought it was a perfect location and the perfect ambiance for the occasion,” Dains says. “He liked our food so much that in May of 2018, while the vice president was in Phoenix, we catered Air Force Two.”
Dains is confident in his abilities. For 33 years, Ajo Al’s has served Sonoran-style feasts, many of which are based on his mother’s recipes, and offered a family-friendly atmosphere.
His parents, Pat and Karen Dains, met after the Vietnam War when Pat moved to Phoenix and started bartending where Karen was working as a cocktail waitress.
When they started Ajo Al’s in 1986, “it was a shared loved of Mexican food and each other that compelled them to open the restaurant,” Dains says.
“Just about all the recipes are my mom’s original cooking. My mom was born and raised here.”
Ajo Al’s has four locations Valleywide—Phoenix, two in Scottsdale and one in Glendale—with an additional one coming to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport’s Terminal 3 in about a year.
No matter the location, when guests arrive, they know they’re eating quality food in a timely manner, Dains says.
“They can come in for lunch and get a quality bite to eat and be out of there in 40 minutes.”
Among Ajo Al’s most popular dishes is the shredded beef taco ($7), a featured item at the 2018 Arizona Taco Festival, and the pollo con queso ($13), a chicken burrito with cream cheese and cheddar cheese on top.
“We sell over 100,000 shredded beef tacos a year at our locations, and over 3,000 of those were sold at Taco Fest,” he says.
Dains, however, cites the shrimp and pork belly taco ($16) as a standout item. After smoking the pork belly in house for three hours, the taco is topped with shrimp, a mango salsa, cilantro and cheese.
Papa chowder—a hearty potato soup with jalapeños and corn, topped with bacon, onions and cheese—is the December special for $7.
“People start calling in July to see when they can get the chowder,” Dains says about the favorite item. “We’ve been doing this dish for about 20 years and it’s pretty much the same recipe that my mom used to make for us when we were younger.”
Diners, no matter which side of the aisle they sit, come together for Ajo Al’s food regardless of location. After seeing the success of Ajo Al’s at the 2018 Taco Festival, Dains expects they will be back. Over the two-day festival at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale, patrons gave it the El Neato Meato Taco award, along with prizes for its veggie, seafood and pork tacos and its salsa.
“I don’t know which tacos we will bring, but we’ll definitely return.”
Ajo Al’s Mexican Café’s 5101 N 16th Street, Phoenix, 602.222.9902, visit ajoals.com for additional locations.