Restaurant Review: Chantico

Nikki BuchananMay 5, 2021
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The latest restaurant from Ocotillo maestro Walter Sterling fills a Z’Tejas-size void for bougie Mexican fare with an epic patio.

On an automatic pilot kind of day, you might want to take your sloppy, flip-flop-shod self to your favorite Mexican dive for the same predictable, inexpensive meal you’ve had dozens of times before. No shame in that.

But if you’re in the mood for something a bit more provocative – maybe a scene-y, Modern Mexican restaurant with a broad, regionally inflected menu that doesn’t feel cookie-cutter – well, amigo, lose the flip-flops and head to industrial-chic Chantico, the latest venture from classically trained chef and Valley restaurateur Walter Sterling (Ocotillo, Starlite BBQ, Sidecar Cocktail Lounge). You’ll find a sleek, indoor-outdoor dining playground and a few specimens of truly knockout Mexican food – particularly if you stick to the small plates and funky regional dishes that populate the back half of its vast menu.

Pork al pastor and sweet potato tacos at Chantico; Photo by Kyle Ledeboer
Pork al pastor and sweet potato tacos at Chantico; Photo by Kyle Ledeboer

Named for the Aztec goddess of the hearth, Chantico sets itself apart in various small but telling ways, starting with its utter lack of visible signage facing Camelback Road in Uptown Phoenix. (It kind of looks like a high-end furniture showroom from the outside.) But anyone who wandered inside during Sterling’s stealth opening late last year found much to amuse themselves, including a comfortable open-air bar and patio atrium, a legit cocktail program, a broad whiskey and tequila selection and a curated list of little-known agave spirits such as bacanora, sotol and raicilla. Sterling even imports heirloom corn to make his own corn tortillas, demonstrating intention without pretention, you might say.

Roasted clams; Photo by Kyle Ledeboer
Roasted clams; Photo by Kyle Ledeboer

Named for the Aztec goddess of the hearth, Chantico sets itself apart in various small but telling ways, starting with its utter lack of visible signage facing Camelback Road in Uptown Phoenix. (It kind of looks like a high-end furniture showroom from the outside.) But anyone who wandered inside during Sterling’s stealth opening late last year found much to amuse themselves, including a comfortable open-air bar and patio atrium, a legit cocktail program, a broad whiskey and tequila selection and a curated list of little-known agave spirits such as bacanora, sotol and raicilla. Sterling even imports heirloom corn to make his own corn tortillas, demonstrating intention without pretention, you might say.

Happy hour, when a lengthy collection of dinner menu items is reduced by a buck or two, makes for a rewarding, affordable launching point. To wet my proverbial whistle, I start with a mezcal-based Chanticorita cocktail, perfect with complimentary chips and two salsas – one a bright tomatillo, the other a zingier red chile. The first happy hour snack to hit the bar is a trio of fat chicken flautas, hot and crunchy, stuffed with moist shredded chicken, nested on bright green chile sauce and garnished with chunky guacamole and sour cream. Predictable, I suppose, but mighty tasty.

More eyebrow-raising is the crispy duck leg, smothered in velvety, sesame seed-strewn mole negro, an exceptional version that deftly balances herbal notes with chocolatey bitterness, chile spice and a hint of nutty sweetness. A vanilla-roasted orange wedge makes for a nice, sweet spritz.

mesquite grilled achiote chicken; Photo by Kyle Ledeboer
mesquite grilled achiote chicken; Photo by Kyle Ledeboer

Sweet potato and coconut soup is similarly complex without being cloying. In fact, its crushed peanuts, cilantro and chile heat remind me of Thai food – an observation, not a complaint. It’s excellent. Ditto for my favorite dish on the menu: birria quesa hard shell tacos. The kitchen does a magnificent riff on classic birria (a savory stew traditionally made with chile-marinated goat meat) while swapping out the goat for readily available beef (a common practice even in Mexico), tucking the meat into folded corn tortillas, dunking the tacos back in the stew, then frying them until their chile-tinted shells are crunchy, and both meat and cheese ooze from their edges. A cup of birria consommé is provided for taco-dipping, à la the French dip or torta ahogada (Jalisco’s famous dipped sandwich).

Organic beets; Photo by Kyle Ledeboer
Organic beets; Photo by Kyle Ledeboer
sweet potato coconut soup; Photo by Kyle Ledeboer
sweet potato coconut soup; Photo by Kyle Ledeboer

Also gloriously crunchy, if less satisfying: a big old chimichanga, stuffed with al pastor, the popular Mexican pork dish descended from Lebanese shawarma. Although the pastor is subtly sweet and tangy, its exotic Middle Eastern flavor profile gets lost alongside the chimi’s creamy black beans, pineapple and onions – not to mention the deep-fried tortilla itself.

I was first introduced to clams with chorizo at Ercolino Crugnale’s defunct Restaurant Oceana in Scottsdale many years ago, and it’s the version I still love best, strewn with luscious bits of discernible chorizo. At Chantico, the chorizo is incorporated into a smooth, spicy – and seriously salty – sauce, good for mopping with the slightly charred flour tortilla but unequal to Crugnale’s brothier rendition. Spicy halibut ceviche – served in a coconut shell with an aguachile (“chile-water”) of cucumber, pineapple, red onion and cilantro – lives up to its billing. The thick aguachile was too hot for me, but maybe just right for true-blue capsaicin addicts.

Entrées are another mixed bag. Sides of black beans, cilantro-laced white rice and fabulously gooey sweet potato gratin – the latter served in a cast-iron skillet alongside grilled baby back ribs – are solid, but all three main dishes I tried came up short on some level. I’ve had far more flavorful versions of mesquite-grilled chicken (often without achiote, and no worse for it) at humbler Mexican restaurants for less money. And while I like the sweet-tart quince glaze on the baby backs, the ribs themselves have no flavor or char to indicate they were actually grilled. Roasted lamb neck, served with veggie-stuffed blue corn masa and blue corn tortillas, practically melts in the mouth, but the meat is so fatty that nearly half of it is left on the plate, and the combo is too one-note for the $25 price tag. It also gave me a case of blue corn overkill.

Desserts won’t be my go-to, either. An overwrought dessert taco hearkens back to ’80s-style Southwestern Cuisine, while choco-flan for two (firm flan cake flamed with brandy) is fun but not swoon-worthy enough to finish.

Here’s the thing: Chantico can be fantastic, or it can be mediocre. You just have to figure out what works among so many possibilities. Me? I’ll head to the outdoor bar to chow down on those duck legs and cheesy birria tacos in my blingiest flip-flops.

Chantico Mexican Restaurant

Cuisine: Modern Mexican
Contact: 1051 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix, 602-699-3015, chanticophx.com
Hours: M-Th 2:30-9:30 p.m., F 2-10:30 p.m., Sa 10 a.m.-10:30 p.m., Su 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
Highlights: Crispy duck leg with mole negro ($16); sweet potato-coconut soup ($9.50); birria quesa taco ($4); chicken flautas with green chile sauce (happy hour, $8.50)

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