Taco Chelo is a collaboration between Phoenix chef/restaurateur Aaron Chamberlin, chef Suny Santana and artist Gennaro Garcia, and the latter’s influence permeates every bit of the space, from a Frida Kahlo wall painting near the entrance to the marigold ceiling with exposed wooden beams and pendant lights with Moroccan vibes. Faded emerald shelving lines the wall behind the bar, looking more like a curio cabinet from your abuela’s house than a typical back bar. A hand-painted sign proclaiming TACOS hovers over a tiny counter where you order your food before finding a table in the snug restaurant or on its back patio. Sit below a neon sign with Taquero Mucho written in script (a play on the Spanish phrase “te quiero mucho,” or “I love you a lot,” and the word taquero, or taco maker) for a fun Instagram photo op.
There’s nothing complicated about the menu, which includes botanas (snacks) of chips, salsa and guacamole ($3.50); chicharrónes ($3.75); a quesadilla ($2.25 for cheese; add meat or veggies for $1-$1.50 extra); and frijoles a la charra, pinto beans stewed with bacon and topped with pico de gallo ($3). They’re all delicious and inexpensive, so you can order all of them without feeling bad about your tab. The guacamole is especially yummy, so consider ordering a double or triple of that one.
There are two salads ($6.95 each), and they’re yummy, but who orders salad at happy hour? Head straight to the tacos section for seasonal vegetable, fish, carnitas, carne asada and beef barbacoa street tacos, all served with grilled onions, cucumbers, lime and salsa on the side ($3-$3.50). Like all street tacos, they’re small, but one or two will hit the spot if you’ve already primed your panza with botanas. For my money, it’s carnitas all the way. The pork is perfectly salty and succulent, with bits of crisped edges adding textural contrast to the tender meat. My partner loved the new Costra taco, which boasts carne asada, caramelized cheese and caramelized onions on a flour tortilla. It’s a little like the love child of a taco and a quesadilla, and if you love flour tortillas more than corn like mi novio does, it’ll be your jam. Ditto the Flamingo, a new addition to the botanas section. It’s essentially a couple of skinny chimichangas with melty cheese and roasted Anaheim pepper inside crispy flour blankets ($7), topped with shaved lettuce, sour cream, avocado salsa, pico and cotija to brighten the fried dough.
We don’t have room for tres leches ($6), the sole postre on the menu, but we’ll be back. The food isn’t discounted during happy hour, but portions are already pretty generous for the price.
Only a few drinks are given happy hour pricing (see below), but they’re all in the $5-$12 range, so even at full price they’re cheaper than their compatriots at more spendy restaurants. It’s a tough call between the mezcal Paloma (Agave de Cortes mezcal, lime, ginger, Peychaud bitters and grapefruit soda, $8) and the sangria (red wine, brandy, fresh-squeezed juices, seasonal fruit, $7), but I go with the latter because it is discounted during happy hour ($5). It’s fruity and boozy but not overly so, so you could have a few and not be wrecked. My fella opts for a bottle of Dos Equis ($5) to pair with his fish and Costra tacos.
I spy Mexican wine on the vino list and make a mental note to return. I wrote a travel piece about Mexican wine a few years ago and was saddened to discover I couldn’t find any back in the U.S. due to an importing issue. Things have changed since then, and I’ve seen wines from Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe winegrowing region on the menu at Barrio Café and La Hacienda at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. The price points here are even better, so I can’t wait to return for a glass of Santo Tomás Cabernet ($10) and Monte Xanic Sauvignon Blanc ($11).
THE INSIDER SECRET
You can re-create Taco Chelo vibes at home with artwork from owner/artist Gennaro Garcia. Visit his website to order his Hecho a Mano plates, which you can hang on the wall or eat off, and his custom aprons. Fun fact: I wrote about Garcia’s plates years ago, and at the photoshoot at his house he made shrimp pasta for me and our art director, Mirelle Inglefield, to eat after the shoot. It’s not every day your interview subject cooks a delicious meal for you, chefs notwithstanding, and I’ve treasured that memory ever since.
Food is not discounted during happy hour, which runs from 3-6 p.m. daily. Drinks are, though! Happy hour drink specials:
- $2 off draft beers
- $5 margaritas and sangria
- $15 buckets of beer (five beers – your choice of Miller Light, Tecate Light, Corona, Dos Equis Ambar and Pacifico)