Meet the historic, family-owned Mexican restaurants in the Phoenix Burrito Bowl finals

Arizona is known for its Mexican food. But not every burrito is created equal.

Over the last several weeks, metro Phoenix burrito lovers have diligently voted for their favorites each week in The Arizona Republic's 2023 Burrito Bowl. The final round of voting is now open, and the competition has come down to two family-owned, longtime Phoenix restaurants: The Original Carolina's Mexican Food and Rito's Mexican Food.

The Original Carolina's was opened in 1968 by Carolina Valenzuela and her husband, Manuel. The restaurant has become a beloved hotspot for burritos in Phoenix, known by fans for their slogan "the best tortillas in town."

Carolina's is up against another longtime Valley favorite, Rito's Mexican Food. The original Garfield location opened in 1977 inside Rosemary and Rito Salinas' house. Despite a lack of clear signage or a parking lot, it's never been uncommon to see cars lined up and down the street, waiting to get a taste of their burritos, according to general manager Daniel Hansen, the grandson of the original owners.

Hansen and Josephine Hernandez of Carolina's shared with The Republic what being finalists mean to them after all these years.

Dining to-do list: 100 essential restaurants in metro Phoenix

The Original Carolina's Mexican Food

Josephine Hernandez, left, a co-owner at The Original Carolina's Mexican Food, and Supervisor Felix Corona, pose for a portrait at the restaurant's 1202 E Mohave Street location in Phoenix on March 28, 2023.
Josephine Hernandez, left, a co-owner at The Original Carolina's Mexican Food, and Supervisor Felix Corona, pose for a portrait at the restaurant's 1202 E Mohave Street location in Phoenix on March 28, 2023.

The Original Carolina's has remained a family-owned and operated business for over five decades. Josephine Hernandez is now the co-owner alongside her two sisters, Angela and Jennifer. Being a finalist in The Republic's Burrito Bowl is a huge honor, Hernandez said.

"It makes me proud and happy that we're still here. I want to cry at the same time, because it's just it's been a lot of challenges," Hernandez said.

Despite the challenges brought on by the pandemic and other factors, Carolina's is still going strong thanks to support from the restaurant's community of die-hard fans.

Cinthia Villela, a cook at The Original Carolina's Mexican Food, makes burritos at the restaurant's 1202 E Mohave Street location in Phoenix on March 28, 2023.
Cinthia Villela, a cook at The Original Carolina's Mexican Food, makes burritos at the restaurant's 1202 E Mohave Street location in Phoenix on March 28, 2023.

Carolina's burritos stand out from the rest because of Carolina's famous homemade flour tortillas, which can be enjoyed wrapped around chorizo-stuffed breakfast burritos or amped up three ways with red chile, green chile and beans.

25 must-try Arizona burritos: Best burros in Phoenix, Tucson, Flagstaff, Yuma and beyond

Rito's Mexican Food

Charlotte Hansen, 60, owner of Rito's Mexican Food, poses for a portrait outside the Crown location on Seventh Street on Wednesday, March 29, 2023, in Phoenix. Hansen took over the business from her parents and founders Rito and Rosemary Salinas in 2012. Their green chili burrito, one of their signature items, is a recipe from her mother.
Charlotte Hansen, 60, owner of Rito's Mexican Food, poses for a portrait outside the Crown location on Seventh Street on Wednesday, March 29, 2023, in Phoenix. Hansen took over the business from her parents and founders Rito and Rosemary Salinas in 2012. Their green chili burrito, one of their signature items, is a recipe from her mother.

Daniel's mother, Charlotte Hansen, became the owner of Rito's in 2012, but she grew up working in the original location alongside her mother ever since the restaurant and market opened when she was in eighth grade.

The mother and son duo said they are both thrilled to have been voted one of Phoenix's favorite burritos.

"I'm so thankful for the support and love. It just makes me feel good that my mom and my dad found something that made people happy," Charlotte said.

Rito's burritos started with founder Rosemary's signature green chile recipe, which has been passed down in the family ever since. Charlotte said her mother made a green chile that was similar to what she would cook at home, meant to be appealing to customers of all backgrounds.

The green chili burrito at Rito's Mexican Food Crown location on Wednesday, March 29, 2023, in Phoenix.
The green chili burrito at Rito's Mexican Food Crown location on Wednesday, March 29, 2023, in Phoenix.

"Not very many people know about Rito's Mexican Food. It's very nice, the following that we have. There's not enough ink on your guys' printers to type out how thankful we are of all of it," Daniel said.

Visit the best Phoenix burrito 2023 contenders and vote for your favorite

Vote for your favorite burrito at burritobowl.azcentral.com. Voting ends Sunday, April 2 and the winner of the 2023 Phoenix Burrito Bowl will be announced Monday, April 3.

The Original Carolina's Mexican Food: 1202 E. Mohave St., Phoenix. 602-252-1503, carolinasmex.com.

Rito's Mexican Food: 907 N. 14th St., Phoenix. 602-262-9842. Other locations at ritosmexicanfood.com.

For dessert: According to TikTok, this chef makes the 'best cheesecake in Arizona'

Reach the reporter at endia.fontanez@gannett.com. Follow @EndiaFontanez on Twitter.

Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Meet the Phoenix Mexican restaurants named 2023 Burrito Bowl finalists