Photography by Isabella Castillo
CenPho’s newest Mexican gem invites diners to get their goat… along with many other delightful permutations of Jalisco-style cuisine.
Local Mexican restaurants have dished out birria, the spicy goat stew of Jalisco, for decades, but they’ve invariably been humble places tucked away in neighborhoods where gringos seldom venture. Enter Felipe Guzman and his wife, Cristina Meillon, who are banking on finding a wider audience for traditional Jalisco-style dishes at La Marquesa, a bright white, art-filled space on McDowell Road, just steps from fan favorite Tacos Chiwas. Hopefully, some of the latter’s runoff business and overall juju will bleed over, because La Marquesa is utterly unique and terrific.
Meals don’t begin with Tex-Mex chips and salsa but rather quemaditas (crispy baked corn tortilla discs) and a pottery dish brimming with bubbling hot refried beans and goopy Chihuahuan cheese. It’s delicious, and the first clue we’re not in Kansas anymore. Next up in the snack department: guacamole sweetened with juicy cubes of watermelon, a reminder that the Guzman team (who also own nearby La Santísima Gourmet Taco Shop) is known for its over-the-top salsa bar and many inventive, sometimes fruity salsas. This particular combo is too sweet and watery for my taste, which probably explains why I prefer esquites, a cold salad made with grilled Mexican corn so firm and savory that it’s reminiscent of hominy. Amped up with lime, mayo, Cotija and chile powder, it’s one of the best of its kind in the Valley.
“Just give it a chance.” Those are words to live by as you explore unfamiliar items on a menu devoid of enchiladas, tamales and burritos. As it turns out, tuétanos (bone marrow) is a taco filler staple in Mexico, and it’s sensational here: three garlicky bones, littered with corn kernels, red pepper and tequila sauce. Spoon the salty, beefy, gelatinous fat and all its accoutrements onto your corn tortilla, fold, eat and repeat. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself moaning a little.
Chilindrinas regias, a Monterrey specialty, is hard to pronounce but easy to love – another gooey dish built on a tostada-like quemadita topped with ultra-tender roasted pork cheek, cheese and salsa.
But the dish you can’t miss, the dish La Marquesa is destined to be famous for, is the birria. Marinated in adobo paste and wrapped in agave leaves, it’s roasted in a clay oven unique to Jalisco, and the results are spectacular – rich, juicy, melt-in-your-mouth meat with a slightly gamy funk. Deep umber cooking juices, served alongside, can be poured over the goat or into corn tortillas, served piping hot in a padded tortilla warmer. A hefty adobo-marinated pork shank (chamorro), wrapped in maguey leaves and roasted in that same oven, is just as incredible: tender, spicy and faintly sour. I would be hard-pressed to choose between the two.
Also on La Marquesa’s spare but sturdy menu: melt-in-your mouth cabeza (head meat) tacos, a variety of birria tacos from different meat cuts, a very promising-looking nopales (cactus) salad, and effortlessly drinkable $3 happy hour margaritas. If that doesn’t coax you out of your culinary cave of so-so Sonoran standards, nothing will.
Contact: 1915 E. McDowell Rd., Phoenix, 602-252-7777
Hours: Tu-Th 9 a.m.-9 p.m., F-Sa 9 a.m.-10 p.m., Su 9 a.m.-8 p.m.
Highlights: Birria (1/2 lb., $15; 1 lb., $27); chamorro de puerco ($24); tuétanos ($15); chilindrinas regias ($12); birria tacos ($3)