Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza has always been a risk-taker. The perennial James Beard Award nominee opened the original Barrio Café in 2002, situating the cozy eatery in a dicey transitional area of Central Phoenix. After making a smashing success of that venture, she took her talents to Scottsdale with Barrio Queen, gambling that her streetwise sensibilities would play well in one of the Valley’s toniest ZIP codes. Two more Barrio outposts in non-traditional venues – Sky Harbor’s revamped Terminal 4 and Sam Fox’s The Yard – followed.
Barrio Café Gran Reserva is perhaps her riskiest venture to date. Looking to launch a hip venue for craft cocktails and chef-driven Mexican eats, Esparza scooped up the troubled Bragg’s Factory Diner spot on Grand Avenue earlier this year, taking a chance on an emerging area that has confounded many restaurateurs. Fortunately, Gran Reserva – so named for a fine tequila that’s been aged for at least three years – largely lives up to its grandiose moniker. More than just a Barrio retread, the restaurant distinguishes itself with unique, herbaceous cocktails and an innovative tasting menu that expands on Esparza’s tried-and-true Barrio classics.
Certainly, Gran Reserva is a bit more posh than a typical Grand Avenue eatery. Tables are covered in white linens, the bar seats only two, and the walls are splashed with murals that range from a sensual guitar-playing señorita to gothic skeletons and banditos. Think French street bistro meets Día de los Muertos.
The seasonally changing dinner menu is as pequeño as the digs, with just a single page of starters, entrées and desserts. The real treat here is the chef’s menu de degustación, a six-course tasting featuring tapas-size plates. It’s pretty pricey at $42 per person, but worth it to experience Esparza’s innovation and surgical precision. Her modern take on the chicharrón – essentially the Mexican version of a gringo pork belly – involves a refreshing crisped herb atop cubed cheese; elsewhere, she employs xoconostle, a hard-to-source version of prickly pear fruit, to add sharpness and balance to the decadent white wine reduction she serves over buttery halibut with a crisp, pan-seared crust. Maybe the best of the lot: raw diver scallop crudo so delicate and petite you’ll swear you’re in a four-star modern Italian restaurant. Fresh and delightfully sanguine, the mollusk’s delicate taste is preserved despite the potent contrast of avocado, spicy red onion and sweet orange chunks. It’s a talented chef who can marry such strong flavors and not overwhelm the seafood.
Barrio Café Gran Reserva
Address: 1301 W. Grand Ave., Phoenix
Hours: Tu-F 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m., Sa 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.,
Su 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Highlights: Cochinita pibil ($22); chiles en nogada ($24);
Barrio guacamole ($11.75); Leonor salad ($12);
enchiladas suizas ($19); tocino brunch plate ($13);
bistec con huitlacoche y huevo ($19);
menu de degustación ($42 per person); tres leches cake ($8)
Regulars will recognize a few tried-and-true Barrio classics. Esparza’s cochinita pibil is a simple yet highly edifying dish of shredded pork with achiote paste and sour orange. Esparza slow-roasts pork shoulder for hours inside a banana leaf, leaving the meat fork-tender and the flavor potent enough to stand up against sturdy house-made corn tortillas. Chiles en nogada is another Barrio classic. The “Mexican flag” stuffed pepper dish – done in tricolor green, white and red – gets its sweet, homey flavor from an aromatic blend of dried fruits and fresh pomegranate seeds, over a walnut cream sauce. Mexico has myriad North African influences in its cultural DNA, and you’ll find them manifested deliciously here. Gran Reserva features one more Barrio holdover: Esparza’s game-changing, pomegranate-seed-studded guacamole.
For a truly artistic dish, look to the Leonor salad, named for Esparza’s mother. The term “salad” is used loosely in this Gran Reserva original. Esparza’s take involves minimizing the greenery, resulting in a modern masterpiece of lightly pickled root veggies beautifully plated with buttery, imported Mexican queso and citrus segments. Esparza added pine nuts for crunch and contrast, remembering a childhood spent snacking on them with her mamá while watching telenovelas.
Not every starter is as eye-opening. Ensalada del Barrio is just your typical spinach salad, though I appreciate the complexity of Esparza’s chile-honey vinaigrette. The shrimp quesadilla suffers from overabundance of goat cheese and oily menonita – a semi-soft cheese sourced from Chihuahua – that overpowers the crustaceans. Granted, Barrio’s nixtamal-ized tortillas are thoughtfully prepared by soaking and cooking the corn in citrus juices, but hulled and flattened corn can only do so much.
The tortillas fare better as a base for runny egg yolk and satiny queso in the weekend brunch menu’s enchiladas suizas, bolstered by a roasted tomatillo cream sauce that’s savory and flavorful without the acidity of most fruit-based sauces. Overall, this Barrio’s brunch selections satisfy. The Tocino plate with jalapeño-cured bacon and avocado toast is savory and simple, and tender marinated rib-eye delivers an earthy hit in bistec con huitlacoche y huevo. “It’s made with a delicious corn smut,” began our server. Probably not the best way to advertise the bluish fungus to gringos, but rest assured, the huitlacoche garnish’s smoky, chanterelle-like flavor pairs perfectly with the meaty, well-spiced steak.
There’s a clear victor in Barrio’s dessert sweepstakes. No offense to Esparza’s kin, but the flan de mi Mami is too eggy, with a bitter coffee aftertaste and spongy outer texture. Pass on this Barrio staple and head straight for silky, rich mousse spiked with Ancho Reyes tequila and Oaxacan chocolate, or tres leches cake that tastes like horchata in cake form. The latter is the best version I’ve tasted in the U.S., with fluffy Chantilly cream and fresh berries.
Esparza’s venture into yet another transitional neighborhood seems to have paid off. Dining here is like spending an evening in Esparza’s private kitchen – and you can’t suppress a little chill of excitement for being granted the privilege.
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