Seeing is Belize-ing at this homey little Caribbean soul food joint in the East Valley.

Elvira’s Belizean Café

Written by Nikki Buchanan Category: Food Reviews Issue: August 2017
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Owner Elvira Lopez. Photo by Blake Bonillas.
Lemon meringue pie. Photo by Blake Bonillas.

Before I visited Elvira’s Belizean Café in Chandler, I thought Belize was an island in the Caribbean visited by Hollywood celebs like Leonardo DiCaprio. As it turns out, Belize is a small country on the eastern coast of Central America, south of the Yucatan Peninsula. OK, so geography isn’t my strong suit, but I’m pretty solid on celebrity worship.

My mini geography lesson may be helpful should you visit this clean, pleasant, family-run outpost – the first and only Belizean restaurant in the Valley, where Mexican, Caribbean and colonial traditions mingle in novel and delicious ways.

Elvira’s doesn’t have a liquor license yet, so you can’t order a Belizean-made Belikin beer or a tropical cocktail, but fresh watermelon and coconut juice, served in their scooped-out natural containers, are cool and refreshing. Go native and try the soursop – big, green, spiky fruit – juice, a sweet, creamy elixir that looks like milk and tastes like... pineapple? Banana? Maybe just itself. 

Street-snack starters are my favorite part of the menu, and I especially love crispy panades, a Belizean take on the empanada. Reminiscent of tiny fried tacos, they’re fashioned from masa (the corn dough used for tamales) and stuffed with creamy beans or flaky tuna, then dunked in a spicy pickled onion relish similar to Salvadoran curtido. Fabulous! Salbutes – lightly fried disks of masa topped with shredded chicken, fresh cabbage and tomato – are softer and puffier than panades but every bit as delicious. Don’t miss them. The most accessible snack may be the garnaches, fried corn tortillas smeared with refried beans and what the Belizeans call “Dutch cheese,” a hard, nutty, grated cheese that tastes like a cross between Gouda and Parmesan. They’re basically Belizean tostadas, cheap and habit-forming. 

Most of the main dishes are simple stews – fatty oxtail, even fattier pig tail, beefy short ribs, chicken, beef or pork – the tender meats falling off their respective bones. Each stew is served in a shallow bowl, sided by your choice of rice (plain white or seasoned with coconut milk), beans and excellent, pea-studded potato salad. Pour the stew right over the rice so that none of the greasy goodness in the bowl goes to waste.
For now, seafood selections are limited to crisp, fried red snapper or tilapia and the occasional daily special. Although the snapper, served whole with lemon wedges, is wonderfully moist and flaky, it’s even better with vinegar-y curtido or a dash of Marie Sharp’s famous Belizean hot sauce.

Elvira’s Belizean Café
Cuisine: Belizean
Contact: 2386 N. Alma School Rd., Chandler, 480-899-9024
Hours: M-Tu 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 3 p.m.-close; W-Th 10 a.m.-2 p.m., 3 p.m.-close; F-Su 9 a.m.-2 p.m.; 3 p.m.-close
Highlights: Panades ($4); salbutes ($3); garnaches ($2); fried red snapper ($15.99); oxtail stew ($13.99); fry jack (99 cents, breakfast only)

Fry jack, puffy squares of deep-fried bread dough eaten with refried beans and eggs, are only offered on the breakfast menu, but they’re well worth the special trip at only 99 cents each. I can’t say I’m equally enthusiastic about Belizean desserts, at least not stringy, cloying sweet potato pudding. Next time, I’ll spring for a beloved Belizean staple: lemon meringue pie. Who knew? 

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