Carolina's is a Mexican food institution. Don't leave without trying this menu sleeper hit

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The butter tortilla at Carolina's is whisper thin and brimming with melted butter.
Andi Berlin
Arizona Republic

Two words: butter tortilla.  

A last minute addition to my order, this simple menu item turned out to be the one I still rave about.

It was listed on the menu board at The Original Carolina's, directly underneath the similarly simple-sounding "cheese tortilla." The price, according to the replaceable numbers dangling from little hooks — $2.25.

Excited to dive into the history of this old school Mexican restaurant, I'd already ordered two burritos and a chimichanga. But then I thought, Oh, what the heck. Let's go for it.

Turns out, the butter tortilla is the best thing on the menu. 

A tortilla living in the shadows of a spectacular chimichanga

It was not my first visit to Carolina's. But despite the slogan on the vintage sign that read "best tortillas in town," I still thought their standout dish was the deep fried burrito.

Back in 2018, I'd driven a group of southern Arizona food writers to the original location tucked into a neighborhood called Nuestro Barrio, just west of Sky Harbor Airport. I was helping my friend Rita Connelly with research for her book "Arizona Chimichangas," a history of this classic borderlands food and its disputed origin story. (Though several Arizona restaurants claim to have invented the dish, I think the evidence points south to Sonora.) 

To see what Phoenix had to offer, we spent the day sharing mini chimis at Aunt Chilada's and cutting into a salty spinach and feta cheese chimichanga at the Greek fusion restaurant Mi Patio. 

A Phoenix institution since the 1950s, Carolina's was our first chimichanga of the day. Smaller than most other chimis and served in a styrofoam box, it had a perfect ratio of soft green chile beef to deep-fried flour tortilla. Every bite was crunchy and I never got tired of it. 

At the time I thought, "This is the best chimichanga I've ever eaten." 

The chimichanga features a scoop each of sour cream and fresh guacamole from Carolina's Mexican Food, as seen in Phoenix on Jan. 20, 2014.

The real Mexican pizza:Try these Phoenix mulitas and pizzadillas instead

Fair warning: The Original Carolina's is unique among Carolina's 

Before we get back to the tortillas, I have to say one more thing about the Carolina's experience. The restaurant now has several offshoots throughout the Valley, but the Original Carolina's speaks to a previous generation of neighborhood spots, and still has that local charm, despite the constant hum of jet planes flying overhead. 

Carolina Valenzuela opened the place with her husband Manuel in 1968, but was forced to move it three blocks to the west after the entire neighborhood was set to be demolished to make way for Sky Harbor Airport.

Carolina's Mexican Food has been in this brick building since 1985.

They moved to their current location in an old white brick building in 1986 and you can still see signs of gentrification in the surrounding area. The building next door to Carolina's is plastered with funky, hand-written messages directed toward a "business person who frequents this area from California" who may want to buy their parcel of land.

Despite changing venues and neighborhoods, Carolina's has remained an icon of Phoenix Mexican cuisine. 

Carolina herself passed away in 2002 and the business is now run by the couple's children and grandchildren, but the menu stays true to its Arizonan-Sonoran roots with burritos, deep-fried chimichangas, red beef tamales and a big selection of housemade flour tortillas served plain, by the dozen, stuffed with melted yellow cheese like a quesadilla or simply rubbed in butter and stuffed piping hot into a tinfoil wrapper. 

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Okay, back to the iconic Carolina's tortillas

About that foiled wrapped, buttered tortilla, it may not have the widespread recognition of the chimichanga, but locals know that buttered flour tortillas are a best-kept Arizona secret and a classic comfort food in Mexican-American homes.

Butter tortillas are an after-school snack, midnight snack, makeshift lunch and maybe even breakfast or dinner. The bubbly flour tortilla is basically Arizona's version of bread and a big hunk of smeared butter is the best topping. Although, this only works when the tortilla itself is good. At Carolina's, it's wonderful. 

Carolina's has a simple order-at-the-counter dining room with a few tables and a soda machine.

Oblong and super thin, with a crackly chewiness to it, the butter tortilla at Carolina's will leave you with melted butter all over your hands.

Just like a tortilla straight off the stove or from the microwave, it's prime when it's searing your fingertips. So, unwrap the foil and eat it quickly, because once it cools down, it loses all momentum.

Why Carolina's is an Arizona Mexican food icon

On my latest visit, I enjoyed it even more than Carolina's green chile chimichanga. I also liked it more than the Oaxaca special, which has very little to do with the Mexican state of Oaxaca, but is also very good. Named in honor of the now-closed landmark Oaxaca Restaurant & Cantina in downtown Phoenix, the Oaxaca special is actually a bean burrito with chorizo and potatoes in it. Flawlessly Sonoran, with an Arizona touch. 

And that's why Phoenicians love this place, and will swear by it, even in the most inconvenient of circumstances.

Nearly a decade ago, I was traveling from Tucson through Sky Harbor Airport with a dozen tortillas packed in my carry-on. Security flagged my luggage, opened it up and found them. 

"Where did you get these?" the agent asked suspiciously.

"Anita Street Market," I said, wondering if there was a rule against transporting food. 

"Anita Street?" he asked.

"I wanted to bring them to my friend in San Francisco," I hurried to explain. "They don't have good tortillas there." 

"Alright fine," he said, closing my suitcase and handing it to me. "But, just so you know, there's only one place to get tortillas around here — get them at Carolina's." 

The Original Carolina's Mexican Food

Details: The buttered tortilla ($2.25) at The Original Carolina's Mexican Food, 1202 E. Mohave St., Phoenix. 602-252-1503, carolinasmex.com.

This ceviche is so good: The restaurant has a way with Latin and Asian flavors.

Reach reporter Andi Berlin at amberlin@azcentral.com. Follow her on Facebook @andiberlin, Instagram @andiberlin or Twitter @andiberlin.