By Bruce Itule | Photo by Tim Fuller
There are many reasons to visit Sonoita Mercantile in Southern Arizona, but don’t go there thinking you’ll figure out Toni Enriquez’s secret fried chicken recipe.
“There is no secret,” says Enriquez, who grew up in Patagonia and is the weekday cook at the mercantile. “It’s actually a frozen product. All I do is put it in the fryer.”
Even though she has no secret to tell, Enriquez fries about 60 pieces of chicken a day, and sells every piece.
The country store and deli offers other foods, too, but the chicken is nibble-on-the-bones-after-eating good, always moist and juicy, not too spicy and slightly breaded.
There are only three tables inside the mercantile for deli diners, but plenty of others grab something to go for a front- or back-seat snack on their trips east toward wine country or Bisbee, or southwest to Patagonia or Nogales.
By the way, not all of her food comes from a freezer bag. “We make the pizza from scratch,” she says. “Some days I also make [from scratch] biscuits and gravy, pulled-pork sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, and Mexican food, but people come in all the time looking for the chicken.”
Locals like the mercantile a lot, and some of them stop and talk awhile. Around lunchtime, there’s a constant stream of regulars sitting at the wooden tables, which are covered in clear plastic tablecloths.
Most people are in the store for only a few minutes, usually to pay for their gasoline — there are pumps out front — or grab a snack or a cold soft drink. Enriquez knows many of the customers and greets them by name.
“Hi, Granny. Whatcha doing?” she asks one woman.
Granny isn’t talkative today, and she walks out after paying for her gas.
“She’s a lady we’ve known all our lives,” Enriquez says.
On the outside, the wood-sided Sonoita Mercantile looks like an Old West building. Inside, it’s like a countrified 7-Eleven. Local wines and other souvenir items are sold there, as are packaged foods, ice cream, sodas and beer.
One table at the mercantile displays a variety of items in jars, such as pickled eggs, hot dill pickles and jerky.
There’s also a jar of saladitos, which are dried, salted prunes.
“Try one,” Enriquez says. “You’ll either love it or hate it. Some people put them in the middle of a lemon or orange, or in a beer.”
No need to figure out the secret of saladitos.