First Dish: GuacStar Kitchen & Cantina

Madison RutherfordMarch 18, 2021
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Photo by Madison Rutherford

“Plant-based food with a rock star attitude” is the mantra at this new modern Mexican restaurant in Tempe where you’ll find trendy, vegan fare and a lively-yet-lowkey vibe.

At GuacStar Kitchen & Cantina, waiters are hired based on whether their disposition vibes with the concept instead of their serving credentials. Is the restaurant populating its space with unqualified servers? Not in the slightest. According to co-owner Jimmy Carlin, it’s easier to teach someone serving skills than to provide them with a personality. The result: genuine, attentive servers that will strike up an organic conversation with you, guide you through the menu and deliver your food in a timely manner.

So, why plant-based? Carlin decided to give veganism a week-long trial-run. Nearly three years later, he’s never felt better and wanted to share that with Valley diners. His foremost priority is making the food at GuacStar fun and approachable, especially for those who may not be intimately familiar with meat-free meals. This means incorporating classic dishes with a vegan twist, including cashew “cheese,” rice and beans cooked with coconut oil and “fish” and “pork” made from mushrooms. That “fun and approachable” sentiment goes for the restaurant’s rockin’ vibe, as well.

GuacStar’s ambience is refreshing for a person like me, who believes the atmosphere and service at a restaurant are just as important as the food being served. GuacStar’s got it all in spades.

Photo by Madison Rutherford

The Scene
Dining at GuacStar is a dynamic experience. The 4,650-square-foot space is anchored by a modern island bar and freckled with cozy dining booths. A 50-foot graffiti-style mural adds a pop of color, while the adjacent wall is lined with TVs flickering with music videos. As you might assume, the music is loud and rock ‘n’ roll-centric, which didn’t bother me but might be jarring for someone just looking to enjoy their grilled guac pocket in peace. It’s akin to a place you might find on nearby Mill Avenue – noisy, bright and high-energy – but since it is nestled in the Cornerstone shopping plaza flanked by an art supply store and a nail salon, it’s also a more laidback experience.

The Highlights
Cocktails are relatively inexpensive and remarkably thoughtful at GuacStar. You can’t go wrong with the La Casa margarita ($6), which the menu touts as “cheap, skinny and delicious.” It’s sweetened with agave nectar and features tequila infused with avocado pits and cilantro. If you want to spice things up, try the Tropical Heat ($9) with piquant chile de árbol and subtly sweet pineapple puree. And if you’re looking for something truly unique, the Spanish Fly ($15) is mixed with full-spectrum CBD oil.

Starting with chips and dip is a must. Pro tip: skip the standard tortilla chips and salsa and upgrade your sauce game with The Trio ($11), a threesome of addicting dips – smoky roasted tomato salsa, chunky tomatillo cruda and tangy pico de gallo – served with house-made corn chips. Or opt for the Seasonal Fruit Guacamole ($9), made with fresh Haas avos, maple-glazed sun-dried tomatoes, roasted corn, charred jalapeños and the fruit of the moment (my November visit featured fresh pineapple, rich with texture and just the right amount of tang).

Photo by Madison Rutherford

The Sinaloa Ceviche ($11) comes in a colorful cocktail glass and is a vivid medley unto itself – hearts of palm, young coconut, avocado, lotus root, cucumber, red onion and cilantro. The coconut was just a bit too young, yielding a firm exterior that was discordant with the rest of the tender ingredients. Despite this, the dish was bright, citrusy and fun to eat.

The true star of the show, however, is the Baja Pescado tacos ($14), three street-style delights featuring beer-battered royal trumpet mushrooms (they taste exactly like crispy cod), cabbage, habanero crema made in-house from cashews and sliced jalapeños atop hand-pressed corn tortillas.

If you’re not a seafood fan or prefer crunchy tacos, try the Tacos Dorados ($11), a plant-based alternative to Jack in the Box’s crispy, greasy offering. Filled with roasted seasonal veggies, salsa verde, salsa macha, cabbage and cotija “cheese,” the tacos come two to an order and I’m not here to tell you what to do, but you might just want to order more.

For dessert, I recommend the gluten-free Chocolate Pot de Crème ($8) piled high with seasonal fruit and chipotle candied pecans or the Tres Leches Cake topped with horchata cream and mint. All pleasure, no guilt.

920 E. University Dr., Tempe, 480-219-9272,

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