There comes a time in a chef’s career when authenticity becomes imperative. Mainstreamers weigh inspiration against commercialism, fun factor versus meeting of expectations and the promise of a steady salary contrasting the teetering seesaw of entrepreneurship, but the elite rise above it all, eventually reaching a point where they just don’t give a damn. It seems chef Silvana Salcido Esparza’s train pulled into that station.
When she entered the culinary scene back in 2002, Esparza quickly became a favorite among locals and tourists, primarily for her bold flavors and inventive take on regional Mexican cuisine. She has opened a total of eight restaurants in the Valley since then, including Barrio Café Airport and Barrio Avion at Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, Barrio Queen, Barrio Urbano, Tinta Mexicana and the original Barrio Café in Phoenix. She sold off Barrio Queen in Scottsdale’s Old Town, and a second Barrio Queen, to which she is entirely not connected, recently opened in Gilbert. Most of these spots share many commonalities, including her savory cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork marinated in achiote and sour orange); hearty chiles en nogada (roasted poblanos stuffed with chicken, fruits and nuts); and creamy tableside guacamole. Esparza also ensured each location bears vivid, joyous street-style murals, true to her reputation for being a local artist advocate.
Barrio Café Gran Reserva, which she opened in June, is very much on-brand, though tweaked just enough to appeal to more of the experimental, experience-seeking crowd than those desiring cervezas on Taco Tuesday. Tucked away in the former Bragg’s Pie Factory space, the triangular 30-seat restaurant anchors a quiet street corner. With barely any space to stand inside, if the tables are full—and likely they will be most nights—walk-in patrons should expect to wait outdoors with the crochet-swathed lamp posts signaling the Arts District. Scoring a seat makes the wait worthwhile—though the prayer candle on our table did not yield instant results because no purse hooks emerged—especially if it is one of two stools at the back bar facing the open kitchen. Expect to spend a great deal of time here, especially if the meal involves a tasting menu. A brief description comes with every plate, explaining the ingredients featured, techniques employed and sometimes even an interesting tidbit of trivia. Obviously the staff was trained to captivate guests with descriptors. We found it quite charming.
Almost immediately, sliced bread arrived to the table with a spicy olive tapenade and Reserva’s margarita list, offering selections tinged with mole negro paste (Tehuana), Sonoran chiltepin pepper (Sonora) and fresh basil (Fenix). We teetotalled with the aqua fresca of the moment, a slightly tart, blood-red blend featuring hibiscus, berries and agave. Starting our meal and setting the bar was the posole verde, a Mexican staple. Warm in both temperature and spice, it shot straight to the soul with substantial pork chunks, chewy hominy and rich broth tempered by a cool snap from watermelon radish and cabbage shavings. Next came the jaiba y camaron, six rolled corn tortillas stuffed with shrimp and two types of goat cheese, then blanketed with crab in a tomatillo cream reduction. Not nearly as rich as one would expect, the sweet/creamy combination had our taste buds doing jarabe. Finally our five-course tasting menu appeared, accompanied by an amuse-bouche, palate cleanser and dessert. It would be cruel to wax poetic about the menu de degustación since options change seasonally, but suffice it to say, visions of pork belly chicharron, quesillo oaxaqueño wrapped in hoja santa leaf, halibut with prickly pear sauce that flaked with the faintest touch of a tine, and sous vide lamb with huitlacoche and black truffle shavings are still dancing in our heads.
Finally the tequila-spiked chocolate mousse and tres leches emerged with a press pot of heavenly Chiapas Izapa coffee and, though we had already been seated for more than an hour, we finally took the opportunity to absorb the wall art, with its tributes to ranchera singers Chavela Vargas and Lucha Villa, shadows of dedicated farm workers, and hummingbirds and butterflies in flight. After lengthy discussion, we surmised the painted scene was a symbolic journey, from root to full flourish, with nods to dedication, sacrifice and achievement. But, as is the case with all fine art, it does not matter what we saw; what is more important is that another artist bravely shared a talent with the world. And it was delicious.
Photography Courtesy Of: