I don’t profess to be an expert on Mexican cooking. In fact, I know very little on the subject. Growing up in Canada there were never any decent ingredients readily available to cook an authentic Mexican dinner, and most of our Mexican restaurants are sub-par. But, I do know what I like and don’t like. In Arizona the state is ripe with Mexican restaurants, Mexico is ever present in the streets and in the soil, many of which are also mediocre and many which are very good. Most, however, are what I like to call rustic or at best, shabby chic. Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva recently opened in Phoenix in June of 2016, an upscale nouveau Mexican restaurant by James Beard award nominee (a few times over), Silvana Salcido Esparza. She has two existing restaurants, that are more scaled-down, one being The Barrio Cafe, the other is Barrio Urbano. Here she has taken some of her most classic, iconic and loved dishes and has executed some new upscale offerings.
You’ve got to love Mexican food or at least live close to downtown Phoenix, as it is a schlep to get there. Located in the middle of nowhere a good 45-minute drive from Scottsdale at 1301 W. Avenue, in a shoebox of a place, seating up to 27 people, in the former historic home of Bragg’s Factory pie diner. Here she presents more refined tasting menus and a la carte dishes featuring carefully sourced ingredients, and bold flavours, some dishes using more than twenty varieties of chilies, alongside Mexican wines, craft cocktails made with mostly tequila and mezcal as well as a variety of beers. The menu has been thoughtfully created with interesting flavour combinations.
Floor-to-ceiling windows make the place bright and there is a lot of colourful, vibrant artwork especially in the back near and inside the bathrooms. Part of the kitchen is exposed in the back. The space is actually quite charming. There is white table cloths and flowers on each table, not something you see every day in a Mexican restaurant. They even decorated the sidewalks and trees with hanging decorations and piñatas.
Although Phoenix Magazine gave it the number two spot for “Top 15 Restaurants in the Valley I am going to be honest and say that although they are trying to bring contemporary Mexican cuisine to the Valley, I wasn’t blown away. I found many of the dishes were lacking and were not that impressive and were inconsistent, other dishes were on the mark. This is also one of the best deals in town. For $49 you can get a 6-course tasting menu. And it is not your typical tacos or quesadillas, but a more high-end Mexican cuisine that is artfully presented. Our amuse of oysters were not very good but were fishy and made me a little squeamish. But the home-made corn tortilla with beef tongue in a salsa verde was interesting. My two favourite courses were the pork mole with the most delicious complex sweet mole sauce containing pineapple, sweet potato, apples, and plantains, and I enjoyed the pan-seared cobia with roasted white corn purée, jalapeño, and pineapple escabeche. The guacamole prepared table-side was a disappointment. I prefer mine chunky yet creamy. Here the avocado was cut in cubes with all the fixings, including pomegranate, but the avocado seemed under ripe and was hard to spread on bread or crackers. For dessert we had a gansito, inspired by Mexican candy, it was a sponge cake topped with strawberry mousse, inside a chocolate ball of dark chocolate and gold leaf, on a bed of macerated berries. The presentation was beautiful, but the quality of the chocolate was just adequate and the strawberry mousse was fair.
The chef doesn’t actually cook here but has entrusted her nephew to run the kitchen. The kitchen really tries to push the boundaries of what Mexican food can be, and that is a good thing. I didn’t find everything pitch perfect but Barrio Gran Reserva was voted in Open Table’s top 100 Restaurants in 2016. So go figure, I must be really jaded. Dinner was good, but not worth another look for me.