Located at Biltmore Fashion Park and sporting contemporary décor, Black Chile is more Western lodge than Mexican hacienda. Wood beams and rustic, wrought iron candlelight fixtures add a cozy feel to the spacious dining room, punctuated by a gleaming exhibition kitchen in the rear. Style-forward Gabion pillars – i.e. wire mesh filled with river rocks – flank a mix of cushioned red booths and table seating. The U-shaped bar, teeming with revelers on weekend nights, is outfitted with plenty of high-top tables and flat screen TVs, and opens up to the breezy, wraparound patio.
Black Chile boasts more than 120 tequilas and mezcals, and you can order a margarita using any one of them for two bucks plus the shot price, which ranges from $6.50 to $240. Alternatively, the beverage menu features trendy cocktails, including a sweetish strawberry jalapeño margarita ($10.50) and a fizzy cucumber- and jalapeño-tinged Jalapenito ($10). The best, most classic-tasting margaritas are made “coin style” with fresh lime juice, Cointreau orange liqueur and top-notch tequilas ($11-$15).
Complimentary chips are thin and crisp (greasy on one visit but perfect on two others), and the pureed fresh tomato salsa has a nice throat-warming hint of heat. At $5.50, the cotija grilled corn is a good value: two large ears of corn on a stick, grilled, slathered in creamy mayo, rolled in tangy cotija and sprinkled with smoky ancho chile powder. They should call the avocado egg roll ($10.50) a chimichanga, but whatever the name, it’s tasty (though I’d prefer a savory salsa to the sugary cilantro dipping sauce). Skip the gummy, cream-based tortilla soup ($4.50/cup; $6.75/bowl) and instead order the velvety, roasted poblano queso ($8.75) with a skimpy but flavorful garnish of spicy chorizo and an acidic poblano vinaigrette
You could make a light meal out of one of the six cheese crisps ($7.95-$10.25) as I did on one lunch visit, choosing the shrimp and corn version on the recommendation of my server. I adored the crisp edges, the tangy melted cheese, and even the scanty bits of shrimp and corn, but it should come with a side of salsa. I asked for the hottest sauce they had – a potent tomatillo salsa – and loved it, but not the $1 upcharge.
Black Chile’s tacos (chicken, fish, pork, vegetarian, ground beef and steak) are served open-faced on either corn (meh...) or flour (fantastic) tortillas. Made in-house, the griddled flour tortillas are incredibly thin and ridiculously delicious. Instead of a mild white fish, the fish tacos ($11.75) sport pan-seared, strong tasting, fresh red snapper. The fish is topped with a sweet, crunchy cabbage slaw – decent enough, but not a dish for non-fish lovers.
None of my meals to this point packed real, scorching heat, so I was mildly startled by the fiery kick in the crisp-edged chicken enchiladas smothered in a poblano sauce, thanks to the addition of jalapeño to the mild roasted poblano. It’s finished with cilantro, some lime juice tang and just enough cream to bring it together. And I appreciate that it wasn’t covered in gloppy cheese.
It’s no wonder the skillet of simmered pork shoulder is called Black Chile ($16.50). The rich, spicy gravy is a complex mix of raisin-y pasilla chile (also known as the “black chile”), garlic, onions, serrano chiles and a hint of clove. It proves an entirely worthy namesake. “Diablo” generally indicates a fiery dish, but the Shrimp Diablo ($18.25), while devilishly good, is hardly too hot to handle. The skillet dish brims with a generous portion of shrimp simmered in a cheesy chipotle sauce with plenty of onions and a touch of fire-red arbol chile. Both the Black Chile and the Shrimp Diablo beg for extra flour tortillas to scoop up the flavorful gravies.
Because Black Chile Mexican Grill is gunning for the big crowds, there’s meatloaf ($14.25), a juicy rendition made with sweet Italian sausage, Mexican chorizo and ground beef. And there’s an astonishingly terrific burger ($11) with chipotle mayo, avocado, pico de gallo and manchego cheese. Too bad the skinny fries come out pale and flabby.
All entrées, tacos and enchiladas (chicken, cheese or ground beef) come with a side of borracho beans and sticky rice. The soupy black beans are chock-full of tomatoes, onions and cumin (although no beer, as the name suggests) and the corn-studded white rice is indeed sticky, from a hearty dose of honey. You’ll either love it or hate it.
Desserts are ho-hum and won’t leave any lasting impressions. The generous portion of sugar-rolled churros ($5.95) could use more time in the fryer for a crisper, golden crunch, and the fried ice cream ($4.95, a block of generic vanilla, rolled in corn flakes and deep-fried) is gimmicky-sweet, piled high with whipped cream and drizzled with honey. The best of the bunch is a warm apple cinnamon crisp ($5.95) topped with a walnut crumb.
One thing that stands out across the menu is the absolute freshness of the ingredients, from the salsas to the flour tortillas to the garnishes. Later, I discovered why. Black Chile says the only ingredients coming out of a freezer are shrimp and ice cream (although I wonder about those French fries).
Dining at Black Chile Mexican Grill won’t make you feel like you’ve stepped over the border, but it might surprise you with some bold, fresh flavors and moderate chile kicks tucked here and there. Couple that with friendly service and an energetic vibe, and you’ve got a fiesta – American-style.
Black Chile Mexican Grill
Address: 2502 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 12 a.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. Happy Hour 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Friday; reverse Happy Hour 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 9 p.m. to 12 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
Highlights: Cotija grilled corn ($5.50); chicken enchiladas ($12.95); Black Chile pork entrée ($16.50); burger ($11); apple crisp ($5.95)
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