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Tucson restaurant a staple for politicians

In this photo taken March 18, 2011, Rigberto Lopez inserts an umbrella into a patio table at his new restaurant in Tucson, Ariz. Rigo's, a political hotspot in South Tucson, is opening a new location on the northwest side. (AP Photo/Arizona Daily Star, Ron Medvescek)  MANDATORY CREDIT

In this photo taken March 18, 2011, Rigberto Lopez inserts an umbrella into a patio table at his new restaurant in Tucson, Ariz. Rigo's, a political hotspot in South Tucson, is opening a new location on the northwest side. (AP Photo/Arizona Daily Star, Ron Medvescek)

If you want to watch politics in play, you could book a ticket to the next party conventions.

You could join a campaign.

Or you could head to South Tucson, sink into a green vinyl booth at Rigo’s Mexican Restaurant on South Fourth and watch the political intrigue unfold.

Who’s meeting whom. Who’s paying the tab. Check out the body language. Strain for snippets of conversation as you saunter to the buffet for more salsa.

The wall is adorned with a who’s-who of politicos whose palates have been served there — U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, Pima County Supervisor Richard Elías, former state Sen. Victor Soltero, former City Councilman Steve Leal.

But front and center on the menu is a nod to the former Pima County supervisor and political power broker who has become so synonymous with the place that there’s a longstanding joke it’s his corporate office.

In fact, when Dan Eckstrom retired, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry had a fake movie poster made superimposing Eckstrom’s head on Marlon Brando’s body, with some anonymous suppliant kissing the don’s ring. He dubbed it the final episode of “The Godfather: Showdown at Rigo’s.”

A few in a select group have plates on the menu. Eckstrom’s is a salad that comes with beef, chicken or tuna. County Supervisor Ramón Valadez has one, which is essentially a carne asada chimichanga in enchilada sauce. Former Gov. Janet Napolitano’s has two green corn tamales and a cheese enchilada.

Despite the occasional incursion by a Republican — former state Reps. Toni Hellon and Steve Huffman have made appearances, as have the brothers Bee (ex-state lawmakers Keith and Tim) and Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup – the place is largely a Democratic haunt.

Which is why it’s all the more interesting that Rigoberto Lopez, aka “Rigo,” has a new branch opening on the northwest side of town, all the way up at 5851 N. Oracle Road. It’s in a supervisorial district that has sent Republican Ann Day into office since 2000.

The new place has no booths or vinyl tablecloths. There are wood tones and the colors of a warm sunset — yellow, peach and orange — with beachy-vibe umbrellas out front.

It’s like an unconquered mountaintop where no one yet sunk a flag. Even the new menu is stripped of any references to special plates, as if waiting for the right claim.

Not the first to try

It’s been hit-and-miss for other big names in downtown and south-side originals as they expand elsewhere in the metro area.

El Minuto had a Foothills-area branch that closed about a year ago. Micha’s del Norte didn’t make it. The new Rigo’s is there because Maria Bonita, the previous restaurant on the premises, closed.

But El Charro Cafe has been a longstanding east-side staple. And Guero Canelo is in the process of bringing its Sonoran hot dogs to East 22nd Street near Craycroft.

Lopez, 42, said he’s confident this one will work, in part because he’s so often asked by customers if he’d consider opening a new spot in other areas of town that have fewer choices in Mexican fare.

The new Rigo’s, which will feature mariachis every Friday, adds 20 more employees to the 35 who already work for him.

He stresses that he’s a businessperson, not a politician. And as a businessperson, he had a wall built to allow for semi-private functions in the back. Even, he notes, political fundraisers if need be.

Why Rigo’s?

Ask the regulars on South Fourth Avenue and there were two keys to the evolution of Rigo’s.

First, Eckstrom wanted to try it.

And second, Jan Lesher, a Democratic political consultant who served as Napolitano’s chief of staff, both in the governor’s office and at the Department of Homeland Security, suggested a weekly lunch meeting. The original foursome: Eckstrom, Valadez, Lesher and attorney Larry Hecker.

It was always Wednesdays — and still is, since they were all there this past week. Anyone who needed any of them knew that’s where they’d find them.

The circle has expanded over time. Neal Cash, president of Community Partnership of Southern Arizona, has become a regular. South Tucson City Manager Enrique Serna comes with some frequency. Others who make the rounds: City Councilman Richard Fimbres, County Supervisor Sharon Bronson, former Tucson City Manager Mike Hein.

Still, for all that, Lesher doesn’t have a plate.

True, Hecker doesn’t have a plate, either. But he did have a special at one time, grilled chicken smothered in pico de gallo. Lesher jokes that she’s clearly had a sub-par lobbying effort.

County Supervisor Elías said the place has become an institution in part because of the Eckstrom connection, but also because the food is good and a good deal. It’s got a family vibe, he said, which is why he celebrated his father’s 82nd birthday there a month ago.

“I hope he finds great success up there on the northwest side,” he said.

Psstt. Marana Town Council? Sen. Al Melvin? Tables await.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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