Valley’s Queen of Mexican Food: Chef Esparza Opens Barrio Café Gran Reserva

By Editor June 14, 2016 10:13

By: Brian Garrido

In 2002, Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza opened Barrio Café in a rough-and-tumble Latino neighborhood near a dollar store and some colorful murals celebrating Mexican culture. It wasn’t yet a full year after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Our country wasn’t interested in new or bold, it was about healing and safety. Yet, the Valley food scene embraced the out lesbian Latin chef and her bold Mexican cuisine. It was refined and served in an upscale space instead of the proverbial street trucks or orange-hued rooms.

The art of Valley based Latin artists hung on the wall while Esparza served tableside guacamole, speckled with pomegranates seeds and house-made chips. There is no doubting her fare is south of the border, but its made using traditional European-style cooking techniques (since Esparza is professionally trained). Arizona Republic’s Restaurant Critic Howard Seftel named Barrio Café, the best Mexican restaurant in Phoenix for eight years. In 2010, Seftel wrote: “…food is worth waiting for…” and “…intensely flavorful.”

Fourteen years later – still on 16th Street and with business partner Wendy Gruber – Barrio Café continues to feed patrons delicious and innovative creations, making it one of the country’s best establishments for Mexican fare. While the rest of the country seeks out top tacos in “insert any American city”, Esparza has moved away from the “authentic gringo” south of the border experience, showcasing our southern ally as cosmopolitan cuisine. She’s proven it as a recipe for success with her growing Valley restaurant empire including Barrio Urbano, Barrio Café, Barrio Café Avion, and now – Barrio Café Gran Reserva. And the latter is set to be a master chef stage for Esparza’s flavor and techniques.

Before the opening of Gran Reserva, I sat with the James Beard-winning chef and discussed her food. Proudly, she gave me a tour of the pequito space which has a full bar and will have no more than ten tables, seating approximately 20 to 24 patrons. She beamed while showing the commissioned floor-to-ceiling murals painted by Phoenix-based artists in the banos (Pablo Luna, Angel Diaz) and dining room (Lalo Cota) – detailing the symbolism in each.

Seated, Esparza talked about her fourteen year dream for this restaurant and how she decided to forgo tacos at her new establishment, citing: “They are done. They are everywhere. I want to do something different. We are going to create a new type of menu that only I want to cook. Gran Reserva is where I’m going to cook the food I want to cook.”

To prove her point, she lifts her voice towards the kitchen and says something about cheese. She pats her hand, saying, “Fold it this way. Flip it over and serve it with that paste.” There’s a clattering of steel and swiping metal. In a matter of moments, I was served up melty artisanal cheese (“It’s from Chihuahua, made by Mennonites.”) folded into an edible envelope made from hoja sante, a very large leafy herb used in Central American cooking. It’s the only time I had seen the plant anywhere in Phoenix, much less the United States and I was cautious in my first bite. It’s has a light anise flavoring which deepens the mild queso. Since, it was griddled, there was a pleasant crunchy texture; and on the side, it was served with small dollops of house made Cascabel pepper paste and a sesame seed seven chile sauce for the fiery inclined. A tiny dip of the “quesadilla” in the dairy relieved the heat, leaving behind an intense smoky flavor.

Hoya Santa Leaf Stuffed with Artisanal Mennonite Cheese

Hoya Santa Leaf Stuffed with Artisanal Mennonite Cheese

“I will have the conchita pibil and other favorites, occasionally but not always,” she says. “I want this to be different. I want this to reflect the food that I love.”

Barrio Café Gran Reserva

1301 N. Grand Avenue, Phoenix


Reservations Required

By Editor June 14, 2016 10:13

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