The much-hyped collaborative Mexican eatery from the chef-owners of Tacos Chiwas and Pizzeria Bianco delivers on its all-star premise.
I have to admit, when everyone was waxing rhapsodic a few years ago about Tacos Chiwas, the taco-dispensing shoebox eatery on McDowell Road owned by Armando Hernandez and Nadia Holguin, I didn’t exactly fall in line with the gushy group-think. Yes, the tacos are good, sometimes even great, but as a person who has downed dozens of good-to-great tacos from dozens of small, unsung restaurants in dozens of dicey parts of town, I didn’t really get all the hoopla, which smacked of well-heeled white folks discovering “real” Mexican food for the first time.
The young couple’s encore is another story.
In April, Hernandez and Holguin – with the help of their business partner and mentor Chris Bianco (Pizzeria Bianco, Tratto) – opened Roland’s Café Market Bar in a beautifully restored, century-old building that sits among a row of used car lots on Van Buren Street. This time, I’m the enthusiastic one while some of my food-fanatical friends seem more ambivalent.
It’s possible that I like Roland’s for the very reasons other people don’t. After all, it’s not a conventional Mexican restaurant, offering preliminary chips and salsa and heaping portions of Sonoran standards, but rather the chefs’ inventive and highly personal take on Mexican food, which showcases regional ingredients and dishes culled from various parts of Mexico, including Chihuahua, the couple’s home state. Meanwhile, Bianco’s influence is palpable, not only in the spare but stylish décor but in small grace notes such as crusty Pane Bianco bread, a light citrus salad offering up contrasting textures and flavors, and upscale daily specials such as mussels with chorizo. It’s modern Mexican with a spritz of Bianco, you might say.
Craft cocktails also excel at fusing traditions. Both the Desert Collins (a refreshing, fuchsia-tinted take on the Tom Collins made with flor de Jamaica, aka hibiscus juice) and the Oaxacan Sour (a frothy, smoky, mezcal-based spin on the whiskey sour) make great preludes to the restaurant’s quesadillas, which arrive at the table in the guise of open-faced crisps, wood-fired until the various cheeses bubble and the edges of the house-made tortillas turn crispy and brown. Lightyears from the gloppy-with-cheese models I also love, these are more refined, judiciously topped with mozzarella or tangy Chihuahuan asadero, or both. Optional toppings include wood-roasted veggies; mortadella with red onion and avocado; and robust Schreiner’s chorizo. Three salsas – salsa de árbol (the zippiest and my favorite), fresh salsa cruda (jalapeños, serranos, tomatoes) and a roasted version of the cruda called molcajete – bring various degrees of chile flavor and heat.
Tacos are by no means the focal point here. In fact, chicken, carnitas and steak – set atop pliant house-made corn tortillas, scattered with cilantro and onion and served with the requisite lime wedge – are strictly mainstream, decent enough but not the reason I’d pay another visit. However, those same meat options, tucked inside Bianco’s airy but substantial country loaves, make for admirably unorthodox sandwiches. Carnitas teamed with creamy refried beans, mayo, arugula, lemon vinaigrette and salsa de árbol suit me best for being rich, crunchy, creamy and zesty all at once, closely followed by chicken, a
textural interplay of pickled onion, cabbage slaw and salsa cruda. Oddly for a carne-lover like me, the Niman Ranch steak sandwich is the least exciting of the three.
A short list of platillos, or small plates, could best be described as Mexican comfort food, the stuff Mexicans actually eat at home. It’s my favorite part of the menu. Rolled entomatadas, essentially enchiladas enfolding creamy asadero cheese, are bathed in a velvety, house-made tomato sauce so subtle and soothing you could overlook how exceptionally good it is. Queso fresco and shredded cabbage provide salt and crunch.
Dainty, golden brown empanadas with crimped edges arrive piping hot, their lush interiors filled with green-chile-spiked cabeza meat, all so tender it nearly melts in the mouth. Garbanzo bean dip – thick, warm and earthy – shares the plate, an odd accompaniment I don’t need to understand to like.
For years, I’ve thought chicken tinga (a homey Pueblan dish of shredded chicken smoothed in chile-tomato sauce) was overrated, but Roland’s moist, faintly tingly version, cradled in crispy tostadas and topped with radish, cabbage, cilantro and crema, has made a convert of me. I wish I were half as excited about accompanying fideo soup, combining short vermicelli noodles with tomato broth, but it’s a bit bland from this gringa’s perspective.
On three visits, I sample one dessert twice – the ultra creamy tres leches cake, sprinkled with candied walnuts. It’s remarkably similar to the tres leches cake at Pizzeria Bianco, which is to say, perfect. If the other desserts are this good, I’m in trouble.
However, breakfast just might be my favorite meal at Roland’s, thanks to excellent local coffee sourced from Roastery of Cave Creek, creative muffins and tender, fruit-laden scones. But that’s not the half of it. Deep, spicy menudo rojo, brimming with gelatinous honeycombed tripe and served with toasted bread, is the best I’ve had in a long time. And the breakfast-y ham sandwich, an assemblage of ham, scrambled eggs, melted provolone and mayo on pillowy focaccia, is worlds better than a simple sandwich needs to be. Also fantastic are the enchiladas montadas, stacked (not rolled) enchiladas bathed in an earthy chile Colorado that leaves the mouth slightly aglow. Topped with an oozy fried egg, the dish is downright luxurious.
There’s nothing unusual about a pork chop with eggs, crispy potatoes and a warm tortilla, but who needs unusual when each ingredient – including the salty-sweet Niman Ranch chop – is executed perfectly? The only disappointment at breakfast is a bland machaca and egg burro that, if memory serves, can’t touch El Bravo’s singular version.
But hey, I can live with a few disappointments. The restaurant is young, and there are tweaks to be made. What pleases me enormously is Hernandez and Holguin’s prevailing philosophy, which seems to be: Use good ingredients, keep it simple and cook from the heart. Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like Bianco, too.
Roland’s Café Market Bar
Contact: 1505 E. Van Buren St., Phoenix, 602-441-4749, rolandsphx.com
Hours: Breakfast daily 8 a.m.-11 a.m.; lunch/dinner Su-M 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Tu-Th 11 a.m.-10 p.m., F-Sa 11 a.m.-midnight
Highlights: Menudo rojo ($11); ham sandwich ($10); enchiladas montadas ($12); entomatadas ($12); empanadas ($13); chicken tinga tostadas ($12); carnitas sandwich ($12)