Silvana Salcido Esparza

Written by Craig Outhier Category: People Issue: September 2011

Is a “white flight” in the works? Doubtful. One imagines that Scottsdalians will extend Esparza a warm welcome when her two new restaurants – the fast-casual Barrio Queen and Euro-Mex fine dining Silvana – open in adjacent spaces in Old Town’s SouthBridge this fall. Since earning her culinary wings as a chef at ASU in the mid-’90s – where she’d prepare VIP meals for B.B. King one day and hotdogs for 10,000 tailgaters the next – the Merced, California, native has built one of the Valley’s most appealing culinary brands.

So dust off your low-riders, Scottsdale – Esparza is bringing the barrio to you.

Esparza traces her entrepreneurial awakening to a bakery her family owned in California cow country. Once a week, a teenage Esparza cooked up a monster batch of carnitas, which she sold out of a display case she bought with her own money.

“I recouped the grand I paid for the case in two weekends,” she remembers. “And then I bought a car and a really nice wardrobe. And carnitas paid for it all.”

“I’m not a foodie,” Esparza says. Instead of high-end places, Esparza likes to dine on hole-in-the-wall grub. Her three favorites:

Los Reyes de Tortas: The Phoenix-based torta maestros always strike her fancy. “I love the steak and jalapeño and cheese one. That’s the best Mexican comfort food there is.”

Buffalo wings anywhere: “As long as they’re deep fried and not baked.”

Mini Mercado Oaxaca: Esparza worships this mole-slinging dive behind a bowling alley near Dunlap and Central avenues.

Esparza traveled around Mexico for two years, steeping herself in regional traditions that would inform her Barrio menu. Her favorite place? The eastern state of Veracruz, with its “tones of Cuba” and Caribbean-influenced cuisine. It’s “pure Spanish and African fused to indigenous Mexico,” she says, remembering candied sour oranges and jalapeño escabeches. “If there’s any one Mexican culinary style that’s underrepresented in Arizona, I think it’s Veracruz.”

Esparza – who last spring missed becoming Arizona’s first James Beard winner since Nobuo Fukuda in 2007 after advancing to the semifinals of the competition some call “the Oscars of the food world” – credits the flurry of new Barrio projects to “turning 50” and having more time on her hands. A brief glimpse at the new eateries:

Barrio Queen (Oct.): Traditional changarro (mom-and-pop eatery with Mexican street food such as fried-pasta fideos).

Silvana (Nov./Dec.): Euro-Mex similar to Barrio, but with an all-new menu.

Barrio Tequileria (TBD): Euro-Mex pub was slated to open in Gilbert alongside Postino, but a dispute between Esparza and the landlord over the name nixed it for now.

Barrio Airport (spring 2012): Esparza successfully lobbied to open a scaled-down Barrio location in Sky Harbor’s Terminal 4.