By Becky Bracken

Like good schools and filled potholes, the quality of an Arizona neighborhood can be measured by its proximity to a delicious local Mexican food restaurant. Burgers are good and hole-in-the-wall bars are fine for some folks, but when Gilbert residents in the know want to wrap their hands – and mouths – around some of the best tacos, burritos and chips in town, they head straight for Nando’s Mexican Café.

Nando’s Gilbert was opened in 2003 by Fernando “Nando” Rios and Tim Shaughnessy. And from the beginning, the restaurant has been a family affair.

“We built the restaurant from the ground-up and called in all favors in doing so,” Shaughnessy said. “My dad, Mike Shaughnessy, was a welder by trade who fabricated a beautiful tree of life that separates the bar and dining room. My brother, Marshall, did all the paint and finishes in restaurant. Upon opening, we dove directly into the community and went door-to-door to local businesses, schools and churches to see if we could meet any of their catering needs, or if we could do any fundraising for them at the restaurant.”

The duo brought in a partner, Sean Whalen, and opened the Mesa location in 2009. In 2012, Nando’s added a Chandler location, with another in Queen Creek is set to open in 2018, according to Shaughnessy.

Nandos serves up reliably outstanding Sonoran Mexican classics like crispy tacos, gooey, cheesy enchiladas and sizzling fajitas. Connoisseurs of neighborhood Mexican fare understand that as soon as they sit down at a table, everything they need to know about the rest of the menu is sitting in the chip and salsa bowls right in front of them. If the chips aren’t light, salty, warm perfection and the salsa doesn’t sing, there isn’t much use in having high hopes for the rest of the affair. Nando’s doesn’t disappoint.

The chips and salsa at Nando’s aren’t some mere family Mexican food formality. Warm, crispy chips are piled high in big baskets and come paired with both salsa and hot sauce. The hot sauce isn’t especially hot, but flavorful. The chips, dipped and bathed in perfectly blended sauces are so good it’s tough to focus on what to order for the main entrée. But don’t fill up. That’s a classic Mexican food rookie mistake. Along with the heaping piles of chips comes a pitcher of ice water for the table, which is a nice touch, especially with spicy hot sauce and salsa.

The Nando’s menu offers classic combos of tacos, burritos, tostadas and enchiladas, which were all served piping hot right out of the kitchen, along with the obligatory warning from the server that the plates are very hot. Naturally, the only reasonable next move it to touch the plate and burn the tips of your fingers to confirm that the plates are indeed very hot. Check.

In addition to the heavier Mexican food menu standards, Nando’s also offers a surprising number of lighter options like jalapeno chicken soup and Baja shrimp salad. Nando’s specialties include Alfredo’s green chile pork, Sonoran enchiladas, seafood relleno and a variety of tacos. There’s also a hearty selection of burgers and sandwiches, for the person at the table who insists on ordering a burger at a Mexican food restaurant. Dinner entrees are all priced around $10-$20 and lunch specials under $10.

And for desert, you can’t possibly pass up fried ice cream. You just can’t.

In addition to their fast, friendly service, delicious grub and family atmosphere, Nando’s is dedicated to the community.

“Our recipe for success was to dive directly into the community and get involved with any type of fundraisers and sponsorships we could,” Shaughnessy said. “To this day, we still offer our A paper promotion – if a child brings in an ‘A’ paper or ‘A’ report card, they eat for free. Often times, Nando will come out the kitchen and congratulate the child on his/her achievement.”

Yep, the neighborhood is definitely better for having a delicious local Mexican food restaurant right around the corner. And so many of the reasons why have nothing to do with food. Delicious food and good neighbors – that’s exactly what makes Nando’s great.

“Basically, when Nando and I first set out, the goal was to build a better mouse trap or, in this case, a better Sonoran-style Mexican restaurant, by offering superior food and service in a comfortable environment,” Shaughnessy added. “We’re a family joint and want our place to be ‘the place your family goes to celebrate their special occasions.’ We all had that place growing up.”