Replacing a beloved restaurant is like swapping out a child’s threadbare teddy for a newer model or rebound dating after a bad breakup: It’s just never the same. So it was pretty ballsy when Clarendon Hotel owner Ben Bethel replaced Chef Doug Robson’s beloved Gallo Blanco with another modern Mexican concept – Café Tranquilo – just one week after Robson’s quick exit in January.
Physically, the changes are subtle. Gallo’s citrus wall colors and wood tables give way to a modern palette of crisp white with mirrored accents, but the sidewalk patio and chalkboard specials remain. It’s still quite cozy.
The more serious makeover involves Robson’s celebrated street food menu, replaced by brash, more diverse offerings from Chilean-born chef Dan Maldonado of Tacos Atoyac. Though not without a few misfires, the menu attains Gallo-level appeal, particularly with its delightful starters and salads, beautifully plated and fresh-tasting.
Maldonado’s guacamole, for example, is sinfully silky on the tongue, with a strong, grassy flavor contrasted by the sharp tang of pineapple ($7). Ripe avocado slices lend creaminess to crisp, starchy papas fritas smothered in pepper jack with piquant veggies ($9), while out-of-this-world elote dip ($6.25) is so rich it might as well be smothered in whipped cream. This is a critical dish. Gallo’s more orthodox elote was a Valley standard. Maldonado’s version is pure rock ‘n’ roll, with sloughed-off-the-cob grilled sweet corn tossed in a velvety mayo sauce spiked with ancho chile and lime.
Salads are equally shareable, though you may not want to fork over a bite of the Tranquilo chop ($6, small/$8, large) with its savory jalapeño dressing, or La Peruana, nutty quinoa studded with crisp cucumber, spicy radish and gala apple ($7, small/$10, large).
Café Tranquilo’s sandwiches are worth a try, but the puny street tacos can’t compare with Gallo Blanco’s award-winners. The simplicity of nearly naked corn tortillas highlights the tenderness and tangy undertone of Tranquilo’s carne asada ($3.75 per taco), but even mayo-heavy slaw and fiery radish can’t assuage the blandness of its achiote-spiced chicken and battered fish cousins.
Instead, head for the juicy linguiça (smoked sausage) of Tranquilo’s ChoriPan sandwich ($8), which crackles with every bite, or Maldonado’s take on the Sonoran hot dog ($8). The seasoned chef teaches this tired old dog new tricks by ensuring extra-crisp bacon on a snappy Schreiner’s frank.
Fall-off-the-bone braised pork is mouthwatering as-is or wrapped in soft corn tortillas and smothered in spicy-sweet coloradito red mole sauce for pork enmoladas ($18). Tranquilo’s mole isn’t the best I’ve had locally – it literally pales in comparison to the thick, near-black sauce at Así Es La Vida – yet boasts an intriguing, ineffable flavor that kept my fork in motion.
There’s no shame in beelining straight for Tranquilo’s worthy dessert trio ($5 each) of mocha-tinted tiramisù, firm tres leches and custard-cake “chocoflan.” All-day breakfast options include hearty huevos rancheros ($8) and chorizo-spiked eggs ($7.50).
Café Tranquilo is no Gallo Blanco. Then again, it’s not trying to be. As its name implies, Tranquilo is all about laid-back, shareable plates in a vacation-like atmosphere. So chill out, Gallo lovers.
Contact: 401 W. Clarendon Ave., Phoenix, 602-469-1730, goclarendon.com
Hours: 7 a.m.-2 a.m. daily
Highlights: Elote dip ($6.25); papas fritas con queso ($9); La Peruana salad ($7/$10); Tranquilo chopped salad ($6/$8); ChoriPan sandwich ($8); Tranquilo dog ($8); pork enmoladas ($18); chocoflan ($5), pineapple agua fresca ($3)
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