When you grow up in the Valley, your experience of it is greatly dictated by which part you’re from. Phoenix and its sundry suburbs and surrounding cities are so spread out that if you grew up in Mesa, say, you’d have absolutely no reason to go to Avondale – at least not in the course of your daily life. We largely live in our own little community bubbles and only venture out to go to an event (pre-COVID) or try a new restaurant (and even then, it’s only people like me who do that – my partner refuses to drive more than 20 minutes for a meal, whereas I will drive almost any amount of time for good food).
This proximity theory is why I, a daughter of the West Valley, knew nothing of the East Valley until I took college classes at Arizona State University’s Tempe campus. I’ve since explored Chandler, Gilbert and Mesa for work and have driven to Queen Creek, Apache Junction and San Tan Valley for restaurants and such. But there are cultural touchstones for East Valley denizens that are still foreign to me. For years, I’ve been working on an informal East Valley foodie bucket list, checking off eating at Flancer’s, Joe’s Real BBQ, Liberty Market, the late Wimpy’s Paradise, The Burrito Shack and countless others I grew up reading about in The Arizona Republic.
Recently, I had the opportunity to check one more East Valley icon off my list: Serrano’s Mexican Restaurants, which started as a general store in Chandler before morphing into a department store and then a restaurant and then restaurants (five locations, all in the EV). We bandy about the word “institution” a lot in magazine writing, but Serrano’s is a legit institution: It has been family-owned and operated for more than 100 years. 100! It has been around since the last big pandemic, and is still going strong amid this one. In an industry where the rate of survival is negligible in normal times, Serrano’s continued success is quite a feat.
As I’ve written many times on this happy hour blog, I am still staying home as much as humanly possible and not dining out. I’d planned to take advantage of Serrano’s excellent takeout happy hour options and enjoy a spread a la casa. (This was before the recent prohibition of takeout alcohol sales, which I hope is reversed stat so we all can continue to safely support local.)
My hosts, though, were concerned about the shlep between my North Phoenix home and the Chandler flagship and the food wilting during the journey. They went out of their way to create a safe, isolated space for me to try their signature happy hour items and exciting “test kitchen” items available only at that location: a table for one behind the restaurant, in front of a giant mural depicting the business’ history. So cool, and so very sweet of them. My server, Ernesto, was accommodating, kind and full of helpful information and menu hacks (see The Insider Tip below).
They are providing just as much care for dine-in and takeout experiences, with top-notch and vigilant sanitation efforts and a streamlined parking lot system for to-go orders. It really feels like the family business it is, with employees welcoming you into their “home” as beloved guests.
The Chandler test kitchen offers fun and experimental happy hour dishes at discounted prices. If they do well, they’re rolled out to the other restaurants. Monthly specials are offered at each location at discounted prices, and the classic appetizer menu is the same price all day long.
The Chandler folks treated me to a tasting menu of classic, test kitchen and monthly special items. It was so much food that I left feeling like an overstuffed chimichanga, but it was all so good and so worth it. Menu highlights and my commentary:
Chips, Salsa and Bean Dip: Home of the original bean dip, Serrano’s dine-in and to-go customers receive complimentary chips, salsa and bean dip with every order!
- Zippy and creamy bean dip with crunchy and delicious chips! The dip tastes like the canned bean dip we all gorged on in college, but fresh, homemade and 100 times better. I can’t believe they offer this gratis.
Mini Taco Salads: 3 bite-sized corn cups layered with refried beans, ground beef, shredded romaine lettuce, pico de gallo, queso fresco, cilantro and the cutest lime wedge you have ever seen! $8.99
- Why are these not on the menu of every Mexican restaurant? They’re adorable, tasty and surprisingly filling. Test kitchen item – Chandler only.
Mini Appetizer Platter: Beef flautas, machaca chimis, chicken and cheese rollups and stuffed jalapeños, served with guacamole and seasoned sour cream. $13.99
- At some Mexican restaurants, all meats taste the same, no matter which animal they came from. Are you eating a beef flauta or a chicken flauta? Who’s to say when they’re seasoned identically and taste primarily of grease? This is not the case at Serrano’s, where each protein is seasoned perfectly and braised to luscious, tender and blessedly distinct perfection. This crispy, cheesy trio would make an excellent meal on its own.
Mexican Corn Lollipop: Traditional elote with grated cotija cheese, Tajín and lime. $4.99
- Petite and satisfying! Love the creamy coating and the tang of cotija and lime.
Loaded Fundido: A twist on our classic fundido dip! Mixed with our house ground beef, pico de gallo and spinach. Paired with flour tortilla chips and seasoned with our specialty fajita grill spice blend and finished with cilantro. $10.99 (classic queso fundido without ground beef available for $8.99)
- If queso fundido and spinach-artichoke dip had a baby, this would be its tasty offspring. It is so creamy and full of big, bold flavors: cheese, chile, onion and cilantro. With ground beef, it is a full meal for one or two people. The flour tortilla chips are an unorthodox and fun touch. This is a November special available at all locations.
Quesadilla Stack: Shredded pork slow braised in our tomatillo salsa layered with queso fresco and refried beans in your choice of flour or corn tortillas. $7.99
- I’m not a huge quesadilla person – I love crunch! – but the tomatillo-braised pork in this one has me saying, “Crispy tacos who?” It has the perfect balance of richness and acidity and is fall-apart tender. Test kitchen item – Chandler only.
Chimi Stix: Creamy cheesecake, Nutella, fresh strawberries and bananas rolled and fried to perfection then tossed in cinnamon sugar. $5.99
- This is like 10 desserts I love all smooshed into one glorious package. I don’t even like bananas, and I loved this. That’s how powerful cream cheese, Nutella and cinnamon sugar are. The presentation is also gorgeous – quite sophisticated for a casual family joint. Test kitchen item – Chandler only.
Churro Donuts: Covered in cinnamon sugar and sprinkled with powdered sugar; each order includes two. $3.99
- Softer, less messy and more luxurious than a regular churro, these puffy delights are a grown-up take on childhood favorites.
House margaritas are $5 during happy hour, and imported and domestic beers will set you back just $4.50-$5. I slurped a regular margarita and felt a physical pang of joy at finally having one outside of my home for the first time in several months. Ernesto says flavored margaritas are very popular with regulars, especially the strawberry, mango and raspberry varieties. There are daily marg specials, too.
I sampled two specialty cocktails in addition to that magical margarita:
Taco ’Bout a Bloody Mary: Tajín-rimmed house–made bloody mary loaded with elote corn, a mini barbacoa taco, pepperoncini and a stuffed jalapeño. Ask your server to make it spicy. $12.99
- I am a well-known spice pansy, so they kept it mild for me. The tomato-y concoction was the perfect foil for the snack attack that came piled on top of the cocktail. I’ve seen burgers, olives, bacon, grilled cheese and cocktail franks piled on bloody marys, but never tacos. Serrano’s is onto something here. Test kitchen item – Chandler only.
Horchata Paleta: Creamy house–made frozen horchata, perfectly paired with an arroz con leche paleta from Chandler-based Paletas Betty and sprinkled with cinnamon. $7.99 or spiked $9.99
- Dreamy! This smooth, icy horchata will trigger nostalgia for anyone who grew up on Mexican food and drink. It makes a delicious virgin sipper for teetotalers or kids, or you can make it “adult” with booze. My favorite part was the arroz con leche pop from fellow Chandler business Paletas Betty perched atop the glass. You can dunk it, eat it separately or plop it in the glass and let it slowly dissolve while keeping your horchata cool. I did a little of all three. Test kitchen item – Chandler only.
THE INSIDER TIP
Ernesto was a fount of Serrano’s menu-hacking knowledge. To wit:
- Add a Paletas Betty pop to any drink for $3.50. Paleta margaritas cost $9.99. You can also purchase paletas to go from a cold case on your way out of the restaurant.
- Serrano’s offers discounts for military members, Perry High School students and city of Chandler employees.
- You can order queso fundido dip draped on just about anything. Ernesto loves it on chimichangas.
- The Chandler location has banquet rooms you can rent for private dining.
- If you want lighter fare, Ernesto recommends the Pollo Serrano – two chicken breasts with lime seasoning, rice and beans.
All five locations offer happy hour to-go, save for the Tempe restaurant, which is temporarily closed for renovation. In normal times, happy hour is offered from 3-6 p.m. Monday through Friday. “But everything you tried is available all day, every day until further notice due to COVID! Dine–in or takeout,” Serrano’s PR rep Stephanie Jarnagan says. “Anything we can do to make people happy at all times right now is considered a win.” See what I mean about the family feel? Now if only they’d open a location near my house in North Phoenix. I guess I’ll just have to make the occasional drive until then.