A neighborhood should never be defined solely by grids and lines on a map or by a physical area where people live. Nor should a neighborhood be defined by areas made homogeneous by restrictive covenants. Neither should it be defined by brick-and-mortar landmarks. What truly makes a neighborhood is its diverse and unique characters. Some are quirky and eccentric, some are brash and loud, others are indistinct and don’t stand out, but all are essential in weaving that beautiful neighborhood tapestry, that compendium of personalities that make up a community.
The 16th Street “Barrio” neighborhood in Phoenix, Arizona is rich in both characters and character. The latter is evident in the color wheel of unabashedly audacious and brash murals festooning the walls along the street. It’s art with an attitude, art that inspires double-takes. Who needs a gallery when you can drive up and down 16th Street and see better-than-museum-quality art depicting the culture and personality of the barrio: the iconic imagery of Dia De Los Muertos figures, low riders, masked luchadores, Mayan deities and so much more.
One of the most vivid threads in the rich and diverse tapestry that is the Phoenix’s 16th Street “barrio” neighborhood is Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza of the aptly named Barrio Cafe. Arizona Highways TV believes, in fact, that “if streets were assigned mayors, Silvana would be it” for 16th Street.” Not only is she widely considered the driving force and inspiration behind the revitalization of “Calle Diesz Y Seis,” she is its biggest star and main attraction–a James Beard “Best Chef: Southwest” Award-nominee several times and a charismatic whirling dervish who bantered easily with Food Network Star Guy Fieri on on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
Fittingly the tatted up “mayor of 16th Street” lovingly surveils her neighborhood from her low-to-the-ground 1950 Chevy Deluxe sporting the vanity plate “GTATTOS.” It’s one of several vintage low riders depicted on murals in the alley behind the cafe. Her own smiling countenance is depicted in a “Bienvenidos a Phoenix” mural in that alley. Unfortunately during our inaugural visit, we weren’t able to meet the famous chef and heartbeat of the community. At the time, the Chef Esparza was doting over her nephew’s newborn. We had to settle for asking a lot of questions of a loyal waitstaff which obviously loves their boss. Nary a disparaging word was spoken–an understatement.
Our server confided that during the October, 2020 visit to Phoenix by President elect Joe Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris, the former Vice President mentioned in his speech that Chef Esparza was battling a terminal disease. Not that sarcoidosis, an incurable inflammatory disease, can slow down the irrepressible chef. Nor did the pandemic. When COVID-19 first hit, she selflessly closed her restaurants down to feed the homeless. In between government mandated closures and resets, she chose to give up her health insurance to keep Barrio Cafe open.
Barrio Cafe is hardly “just another Mexican restaurant.” It’s Chef Esparza’s brainchild and the wellspring of her heart. It’s her personal declaration to the world that Mexican food can be inspired and beautiful…especially the way she prepares it. Barrio Cafe is the culmination of lifelong dreams that began when she learned to cook with her grandmother and worked alongside her parents in the family bakeries. In 1996, she moved to Phoenix to attend the Scottsdale Culinary Institute where she applied for and was granted an International Association of Culinary Professionals Scholarship to travel and study food. Her chosen destination was Mexico, the land of her progenitors.
In order to stretch her funds, she chose to backpack through the Land of Montezuma instead of apprenticing in upscale restaurants across Mexico. During her foray into urban and jungle communities, she experienced and learned to prepare foods she had never had before. It was a life-altering experience, the impetus behind her desire not to serve the Mexican food stereotyped in Phoenix by chips and salsa, yellow cheese and (yes, Becky) chimichangas. She wanted to introduce guests to the foods she enjoyed so much as she backpacked across Mexico.
In 2002, she and her business partner Wendy Gruber launched the Barrio Cafe, heralding an era of growth and vitality for an entire neighborhood. Initially the response of the Phoenix dining community was less than enthusiastic. Conditioned to have chips and salsa, beans and rice, yellow cheese and chimichangas at other restaurants across the Phoenix metropolitan area, some guests even stormed out when the aforementioned old standards weren’t available at the Barrio Cafe. In time, the dining public…particularly the foodie community was won over by the restaurant’s more sophisticated “modern” Mexican cuisine.
In time, Chef Esparza spearheaded the launch of three other restaurants: Barrio Cafe at the Phoenix Sky Harbor, Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva and Barrio Urbano at the Yard. Essentially to save her original restaurant, she shuttered the Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva in April, 2020, another casualty of the pandemic. This particular casualty had earned a “Best of Phoenix” award in 2016 for “Best New Mexican Restaurant. It also won “Best Upscale Mexican Restaurant” in 2017, 2018 and 2019. It was a casualty for which Chef Esparza had been nominated for “Best Chef: Southwest” by the James Beard Foundation.
When she learned about our planned trip to Phoenix, my dear friend Becky Mercuri immediately advised me not to miss the Barrio Cafe. A former Phoenix resident herself, Becky has long been a fan of Chef Esparza and her food. My sister Anita, the only other serious foodie in my family has also long raved about the Barrio Cafe. Despite their high praise, we weren’t quite sure what to expect and outwardly wondered if the culinary fare’s rather steep price point was warranted. It didn’t take long to determine Chef Esparza’s food is a bargain at any price!
The Barrio Cafe is somewhat smaller than we had expected with two dining rooms bisected by a wall along with a small bar and prep area. Only a couple of tables grace the dog-friendly patio (bless you, Chef) so if you’re planning to visit with your four-legged fur baby, you’re well advised to get there early. While you’re perusing the menu (sans chips and salsa, thank you), enjoy the horchata, the refreshing rice beverage served in an old-fashioned Coke bottle. The flavor of this luscious, creamy horchata has a flavor akin to a delightful blending of chocolate milk and rice pudding.
You certainly won’t miss chips and salsa with eight premium botanas (appetizers) just beckoning, any one of which is guaranteed to be wonderful. We only got as far on the botanas menu as the esquites (grilled corn kernels, chipotle crema and aged Cotija topped with micro-greens). We’ve had elote-based starters at many Mexican restaurants, but they all pale in comparison to Barrio Cafe’s esquites, a term which translates to Mexican street corn salad. Who can resist scraped off-the-cob corn niblets slathered with creamy aged queso, chile flecked sauce and tangy notes of lime all served in a casserole dish? We sure can’t.
The “fuerte” (which translates from Spanish to strong, sharp or hard, but which signifies “entree” on a menu) section of the menu lists only seven items, but that scant number doesn’t do justice to the artistry and deliciousness of those seven. It almost pained me not to have ordered something heretofore new to me, but it’s impossible to resist the siren’s call of chiles en nogada (poblano pepper, chicken, nuts, dried fruits, apples, pears, almond cream reduction, pomegranate seeds), a dish invented by nuns in Puebla, Mexico in 1821. Adorned in colors of the Mexican flag–a green chile poblano bathed in a white almond cream sauce garnished with pomegranate seeds–it’s been described as “elegant and a part of our national soul” by Chef Josefina Santacruz who helms two highly regarded restaurants in Mexico City. It may well be my very favorite Mexican dish.
Any other time, I might have envied my Kim’s entree, the cochinita pibil (Barrio Cafe’s award-winning smoked 12-hour achiote-sour cream marinated pork served with corn tortillas, pickled red onions, Yucatan pico de gallo, Sangre del Diablo chile oil with sides of piloncillo carrots, quality beans, Barrio papas and spicy ketchup). Utilizing ancient Mayan traditions with European influences, Barrio Cafe’s version is the very best we’ve ever had. The citrus and achiote marinated shredded pork is wrapped in banana leaves and steamed until melt-in-your-mouth tender, imparting with it a lively aftertaste of ingredients that may elicit tears of joy (or at least a lurid swoon).
Chef Esparza’s peregrination throughout Mexico included time in Oaxaca where she learned the art of crafting tlayudas, Oaxacan style corn tacos. Tlayudas will never be mistaken for those “micro tacos” you have to order by the half-dozen to get enough. For one thing, the thick corn tortilla spends time on a griddle where it acquires a pinto pony char. Then the tortilla is splayed out flat not molded into an envelope into which sundry ingredients are stuffed. We ordered the tlayuda de huitlacoche, commonly known both as “Mexico’s truffle” and “corn smut.” Huitlacoche truly does have a flavor that may be impossible to describe. It’s unlike any other flavor, a unique musty earthiness somehow reminiscent, but wholly different than the flavors of truffles or mushrooms. A thick layer of huitlacoche sits atop the tortilla. Toppings include corn niblets, pico de gallo, grilled white onions and micro-greens. Call it one of the best tacos I’ve ever had.
Post-prandial pleasures can be found on the menu section titled “Algo DULCE como tu” (something sweet like you). There are only two of items on that menu, not that any more choices are needed when those options are flan and churros (cinnamon-sugar, cajeta de cobra, candied pecans). The churros are about the size of a macuahuitl, a Mayan wooden club with embedded obsidian blades. The ice cream is just smaller than a haystack. Seriously, the only thing more prolific than the size of those churros is the combination of flavors. We wanted to lick the plate so as not to miss out on any of the cajeta de cabra (goat milk caramel) which is far more rich, silky and deeply rustic tasting than conventional caramel. The vanilla bean ice cream is a perfect foil for the delicate and decadent churros. This is a dessert worthy of the Barrio Cafe.
In my estimation, the Barrio Cafe is equal to Mary & Tito’s in Albuquerque, my very favorite and highest rated restaurant in New Mexico. As at Mary & Tito’s, a magical endorphin rush from flavors leaping upon our taste buds made them so unbelievably, deliriously happy that I swore nothing quite as good has ever crossed my lips. Thank you, Chef Esparza.
2814 North 16th Street, #1205
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LATEST VISIT: 23 December 2020
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Chiles En Nogada, Cochinita Pibil, Tlayuda de Huitlacoche, Esquites