Most people have their favorite late-night food to comfort them or hurl them back in time: Jack in the Box tacos; Denny’s Moons Over My Hammy. For writer Cord Jefferson, nostalgia is a huge pollo asada burrito from Tucson’s 24-hour joint Nico’s. In a feature for Eater, Jefferson admits these might not be the world’s best burritos, but his lifelong attachment to them means he will, in his words, “stand up for when its goodness is challenged.” The virtues he extols for Nico’s extend beyond their delicious food, to the things that make us all love our late-night spots: ambiance, reliability, memorable, slightly ugly interiors. But for him, Nico’s also helped break the monotony of the affluent, elderly, largely white Tucson suburb where he grew up, and the restaurant embodies what he now considers the real Tucson.
It was around this time that I started going to Nico’s a lot. People at Nico’s were mostly young, and not so many of them were white (Tucson gets slightly blacker and a lot more Latino the farther south you go). More exciting than that, though, was the atmosphere, a raucous energy generated by the confluence of drunks and teenagers and insomniacs and drag queens and college students and stoners and people just getting off work and old men in Hawaiian shirts and straight-edge vegan hardcore kids and cops, and various combinations of those things. Nico’s presented a different Tucson than I’d ever known before. One that stayed up late. One that was diverse and lively. It wasn’t just a clubhouse for me and my high school friends like the Max, or wherever the smoldering “teens” of Riverdale hang out. It was a flophouse into which we were funneled along with hundreds of other night owls in a town that largely shut down after 9 p.m. We’d put in our order at the counter and then try to find a booth from which to wait for our food and people-watch. If there was nowhere to sit, we’d stand in the parking lot and eat.
Before long, we became chummy with the Nico’s staff. They gave us free food and didn’t hassle us when we filled up our plastic cups for water, which was gratis, with soda, which was not. A few times they even gave us beers, which weren’t on the menu and were presumably part of their own stash. Some friends of mine asked if their band could play an impromptu show at Nico’s, which obliged. The crowd ate nachos a few feet away from the drum kit while the lead singer perched atop a table and wailed on his saxophone. The night we graduated high school, a bunch of my friends ended up at Nico’s just before dawn. They sang karaoke on the intercom system and helped the employees mop the floors in preparation for breakfast patrons. (I would have been there, but earlier that evening I broke up with my girlfriend for the last time and walked home from a kegger crying melodramatically, like I was in an Aaron Spelling teen drama.)