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John Burcham

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The Late-Night Burrito Joint That Saved Me From Suburbia

Finding the real Tucson in sturdy, meat-filled burritos topped with sour cream and cheese

I can’t remember the first time I ate at Nico’s, the chain of greasy taco shops in my hometown, Tucson. It’s been a constant in my life for so long that it feels as if I’ve always done it, like tying my own shoes or brushing my teeth. If I were to guess, I’d say that it was sometime in high school, when my friends and I started getting our own cars and our own money, and exploring the new freedoms those things afforded. No longer was I consigned to the meals my parents prepared, a revolving series of rib-sticking classics from their Midwestern upbringings: steak Diane, chicken a la king, pork chops, potatoes au gratin from a box. I could finally eat whatever I wanted, provided it was within the budget of a 15-year-old busboy at a mid-level bar and grill.

Nico’s was generally reserved for late nights, the last stop after seeing a friend’s band or going to a party on the other side of town before heading home. There were various Nico’s locations, but the only one that mattered was at the intersection of Fort Lowell and Campbell. It wasn’t much to look at, a simple white building with red trim and a gable roof. The structure had once housed a Long John Silver’s; you could still see where they’d sawed down the logs from the ornamental boat dock. A gazebo in front sheltered a few tables under corrugated tin, while two identical signs atop doors at either end of the building beckoned, “OPEN 24 HOURS” and “FAST FAST FAST MEXICAN FOOD.” Inside, seating was limited to a handful of those laminated plastic booths you see everywhere from dollar-slice shops in Manhattan to truck stop diners in Oklahoma. There were two arcade games tucked into one corner, near the swinging door that led to the bathrooms, but I can’t recall anyone ever playing them. People were there to eat.

The counter at a Nico’s in Tucson, Arizona

The Nico’s menu is standard Mexican-American food for Arizona: tacos, taquitos, tortas, quesadillas, enchiladas, nachos supreme, which are like regular nachos but covered in what seems like a pound or two of carne asada. Despite the variety, I can’t remember ever ordering anything but the burritos. Back when I ate meat, my go-to was the pollo asado, which consisted of tender, peppery grilled chicken unadulterated with anything but sour cream and some hot sauce. Since becoming a vegetarian, I have a custom order: beans, rice, cheese, and lettuce.

Connoisseurs might describe Nico’s as having “San Diego-style” burritos — that is, burritos centering around meat, with few to none of the “Mission-style” embellishments, like beans, rice, or lettuce. A standard carne asada burrito at Nico’s comes with meat, some guacamole, and a little pico de gallo. Anything else is extra. The tortillas are buttery but firm, and large enough to build burritos roughly the size of a child’s forearm. It’s possibly not the best burrito in the world. Indeed, editorial rankings of America’s greatest burritos perennially overlook Nico’s. But it’s my platonic ideal of a burrito, the one to which I’ve grown accustomed, the one that I’ll stand up for when its goodness is challenged. It’s maybe an illogical appetite, but, if you think about it, that’s just another way to describe love.

The first Nico’s was founded in Ocean Beach, San Diego, a seaside community full of hippies and surfers, two groups known for their abiding burrito appreciation. After becoming a small chain and starting to franchise, Nico’s appeared in Tucson in 1994, at the original Fort Lowell and Campbell location. It was popular with me and my friends soon thereafter, and it stayed so even as many of the businesses around it changed. For a time, there was a Taco Bell next door to Nico’s, so close that they almost shared a parking lot. I believe it’s a testament to Tucson that the Taco Bell was nearly always empty, even when the Nico’s line snaked out onto the patio.

The default seating at Nico’s is the standard American fast-food booth

In 2001, a McDonald’s across the street from Nico’s was burned to the ground by activists aligning themselves with the Animal Liberation Front. I’ve always assumed that to be the work of one of the vegans who regularly patronized Nico’s while glaring across the street at the towering, glowing arches. Perhaps it seems hypocritical: an animal-rights zealot eating at a taco shop known for its carne asada. But Nico’s felt like a dignified rejection of all the corporate fast food regularly marketed to people our age. And in Tucson at that time, getting away from corporate monoculture seemed difficult.

It’s hard to believe if you’ve been to both places in the past decade, but for a long time Tucson was bigger than Phoenix, which is now America’s fifth-largest city. In 1880, a Southern Pacific train depot brought promise of new commerce and visitors to downtown Tucson, and five years later, “the Old Pueblo,” as quaint locals like to call it, was awarded Arizona’s first university (although, technically, it wasn’t even Arizona at the time). In 1919, Tucson got one of America’s first municipally owned airports. It had just about everything a prominent city needed back then. Unfortunately, it didn’t have abundant water, and proximity to two rivers helped Phoenix overtake Tucson in population just before World War II. Nevertheless, Tucson kept growing, and like many other cities in the American Southwest, it expanded outward rather than upward. Communities began sprouting up far away from downtown, to the east, the south, and the northwest, places where the land was cheap and plentiful. Sooner or later, many of these towns began incorporating, resulting in a little constellation of semi-distinct factions dotting the desert landscape around Tucson’s center.

Decades later, I was born in Tucson’s Catalina Foothills neighborhood, at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains, the picturesque, unintimidating range in the background of thousands of photos of the city, typically with a saguaro or two standing prideful in the fore. My family moved overseas for a short time, and when we came back to Tucson, we put down roots on the southern border of a town called Oro Valley. Founded in the early 1970s, Oro Valley was one of those upstart settlements that blossomed in the immediate vicinity of Tucson and then, against Tucson’s wishes, opted to incorporate. Tucson and Pima County politicians tried to block Oro Valley’s establishment for years, but eventually they lost in the state supreme court. By the time I came around, Oro Valley was a bustling, self-reliant suburb — and growing all the time. Retirees flocked to Oro Valley for the warm winters and the dry air. Planned communities with Spanglish names like “Sun City Vistoso” started cropping up seemingly overnight in empty swaths of sand and desert brush. For a period in the ’90s, Oro Valley was the second-fastest-growing community in Arizona, just behind Marana, its westerly neighbor.

As a child, any environment into which you’re placed seems normal, because it’s all you know, until you’re gradually conditioned by life. That can be a good thing — children aren’t born racist or homophobic, for instance — but it can also result in accepting as commonplace things that aren’t common elsewhere, or things that shouldn’t be common anywhere. At the time of the 2000 census, which took place the year I graduated high school, Oro Valley was roughly 93 percent white, and the median age was 45. (For comparison, in that same year, Los Angeles, where I live now, was only about 47 percent white, and the median age was 32.) Oro Valley’s median family income in 1999 was $67,000, $30,000 more than the median family income in the city of Tucson. I took it for granted that everywhere in America was largely old, homogenous, and affluent. I assumed it was normal to rarely see people who looked like me and my family: a white mother, a black father, two black brothers from my dad’s first marriage. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for a person to approach my mom while she was holding me and ask, “Is he your real baby?” “Yes, he’s real,” she’d deadpan.

Outside of Nico’s, which is open 24/7

This isn’t to suggest that hostility and casual racism were the norm. Far from it, in fact. In many ways, I had a wonderful life growing up. Oro Valley is surrounded by natural beauty. It’s sunny and warm most of the time, which meant I could play soccer year round. I went to good schools, where I got close with some people who are still my best friends today. But there was a chafing sameness to everyday life that started to feel claustrophobic as I aged into adolescence.

It was around this time that I started going to Nico’s a lot. People at Nico’s were mostly young, and not so many of them were white (Tucson gets slightly blacker and a lot more Latino the farther south you go). More exciting than that, though, was the atmosphere, a raucous energy generated by the confluence of drunks and teenagers and insomniacs and drag queens and college students and stoners and people just getting off work and old men in Hawaiian shirts and straight-edge vegan hardcore kids and cops, and various combinations of those things. Nico’s presented a different Tucson than I’d ever known before. One that stayed up late. One that was diverse and lively. It wasn’t just a clubhouse for me and my high school friends like the Max, or wherever the smoldering “teens” of Riverdale hang out. It was a flophouse into which we were funneled along with hundreds of other night owls in a town that largely shut down after 9 p.m. We’d put in our order at the counter and then try to find a booth from which to wait for our food and people-watch. If there was nowhere to sit, we’d stand in the parking lot and eat.

Before long, we became chummy with the Nico’s staff. They gave us free food and didn’t hassle us when we filled up our plastic cups for water, which was gratis, with soda, which was not. A few times they even gave us beers, which weren’t on the menu and were presumably part of their own stash. Some friends of mine asked if their band could play an impromptu show at Nico’s, which obliged. The crowd ate nachos a few feet away from the drum kit while the lead singer perched atop a table and wailed on his saxophone. The night we graduated high school, a bunch of my friends ended up at Nico’s just before dawn. They sang karaoke on the intercom system and helped the employees mop the floors in preparation for breakfast patrons. (I would have been there, but earlier that evening I broke up with my girlfriend for the last time and walked home from a kegger crying melodramatically, like I was in an Aaron Spelling teen drama.)

Some bad things happened at Nico’s, also, as is the case in places where drunk young people congregate. Once, a man pulled a gun on me after I intervened in him beating a woman with his shoe. His jeans were so baggy that the gun fell from his waistband and slid into his pant leg, forcing him to hop on one foot until the pistol came clattering out onto the pavement. Another time, a guy in sunglasses and a glittery T-shirt punched me in the face after my friend, fed up with his aggressive solicitations, threw her tray of food all over him. My head smacked into the edge of a table on my way down and I came to in a puddle of my own blood. A man reached into my friend’s car one night and put a knife to his neck in the drive-thru; another man brandished a shotgun at me in the parking lot — I can’t even remember why those things happened. I do remember what happened the night a very drunk marine mistook my friend saying “rancors,” the space monsters from the planet Dathomir in Star Wars, as “Marine Corps” in the sentence, “Rancors are no match for the Jedi.”

“Did you say the Marine Corps?” asked the soldier.

“No,” said my friend. “But Jedis could beat the marines, too.”

The subsequent argument grew so intense that the marine punched out my friend’s car window as he fled.

Tucson Weekly declared Nico’s to be the city’s best Mexican drive-thru in 2014

Though violence was rare, it occurred often enough at Nico’s that my mom finally asked me to stop going altogether, but I ignored her. If I’m being honest, the potential for danger was probably one of the draws for me. Kids do a lot of reckless stuff in an effort to conjure a moment’s excitement — skateboard down big hills, eat Tide Pods. I frequented a small Mexican restaurant where fights sometimes broke out.

After telling people I’m from Tucson, a response I’ve heard on more than one occasion is, “Oh, I’ve been to Tucson, I think.” Unless you go to college there, travel there for the internationally renowned gem and mineral show, or go to rehab there, Tucson can be forgettable. It has neither the grandeur of New York nor the quiet specificity of Santa Fe. Its stucco homes and strip malls can start to blend together in such a way that you’d be forgiven for mixing up Tucson with Tempe or Mesa, or even Albuquerque. And much of that similarity is by design. Tucson, like a lot of the Southwest in the past few decades, has been, and continues to be, built with speed and capacity in mind, not individuality.

My freshman year of high school, the New York Times published the headline, “Urban Sprawl Strains Western States”; 11 years later, the Arizona Daily Star reported that “urban sprawl is translating to meteoric growth in the suburbs surrounding Tucson.” For a time, this unchecked swell seemed exciting to people, particularly real estate agents and developers. At the height of the housing boom, before the crash in 2008, the Phoenix area saw about 60,000 single-family homes built in just one year. A few hundred miles northwest, Las Vegas was getting around 30,000 homes a year. After my parents got divorced and my mom moved out, she bought her own place in a subdivision similar to many others that were going up in the early 2000s. Residents could choose homes from one of three floorplans and one of four colors, and still all the houses came out looking the same.

When the fun was over and the bubble burst, many of those subdivisions sat empty. The maniacal real estate grab slowed as Americans reconsidered homeownership and started renting apartments within city limits. Municipal money was reinvested in public transportation. Downtowns were revitalized (including downtown Tucson, which is mostly unrecognizable to me these days). It seemed like there was a sea change afoot. But then, there wasn’t.

In 2017, new census numbers showed that of the 51 metropolitan areas with more than 1 million residents, density only grew in 10, while shrinking in the other 41. In other words, 80 percent of metro areas have become more suburban since 2010, not less. Barclays now has a plan to build a 38,000-home megaproject in the area just outside Albuquerque. And in 2015, Benson, a town about 45 miles outside Tucson, approved a development that will accommodate 28,000 homes. Dubbed the Villages at Vigneto, it will have a Tuscany theme.

The Nico’s burrito, in all its glory

Presumably many people live in and visit the Southwest because they want the monotony. Big, hectic, noisy cities aren’t for everyone, and places like Tucson and its surrounding hamlets can be pleasant respites from the congestion and grime that accompany life in a major urban center. In Oro Valley, the grocery stores have huge parking lots and wide aisles. Traffic’s never too bad. You can feed two people at a good restaurant for less than $80. It’s easy to understand why seniors and corporate retreats flock to the Southwest in droves. But if you’re different, and you’re interested in exploring the Southwest in earnest, it’s important to get out of the gated communities, banal resorts, and remote housing developments that now make up so much of the Southwest. If you visit Tucson just to stay at a spa or McMansion on the edge of town, play golf, and sit by the pool with people who remind you of you, I’d suggest that you haven’t visited Tucson at all. I’d suggest that you’ve actually visited a parcel of land designed by businesspeople to be broadly appealing and inexpensive to build. That’s fine if that’s what you’d like to do, but I think it’s also how people come away from this region going, “Oh, yeah, I’ve been there, I think.”

The Nico’s at Fort Lowell and Campbell was shuttered and razed several years ago, but another opened a block away shortly after. The new building feels a little less decrepit and a bit cleaner than its predecessor. If you go there at the right time, usually late at night, you can get a look at the Tucson not depicted in a brochure handed out at the airport. I went there one Friday in October with a friend, the one whose band had played at the old location 20 years before. We realized that we hadn’t been to Nico’s together in a long time, longer than either of us could remember. A lot had happened in the interim. He lives in Chicago now. His family had moved away, as had some of mine. His fiancee had just recently called off their wedding. My mom died, and I now keep a storage unit in Tucson full of her things, stuff that I don’t need but that I can’t bear to throw away. Both of us had lost touch with many of the people we’d once known, people we might have gone to Nico’s with a decade ago. Surely many of them were now raising children of their own in planned communities just outside of Tucson or Phoenix or Vegas or Salt Lake City or Albuquerque. Our burritos were good, and there was a smattering of white punk rock kids rubbing shoulders with a couple tables of Latino teenagers, just like there used to be. But we didn’t linger to revel in the scene. We were staying in a resort up north, and we had a drive ahead of us.

Cord Jefferson is a writer in Los Angeles.
John Burcham is a photographer based in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Fact checked by Pearly Huang
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter

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