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Fuego Tacos is one of the last restaurants standing at the Camelback Esplanade — at least for now.
The mixed-use development on the southeast corner of Camelback Road and 24th Street, across from Biltmore Fashion Park (home of Christopher's Restaurant and Crush Lounge, Seasons 52, and True Food), hasn't had it so easy — especially when it comes to its restaurants.
Low visibility from the street, parking garage hassles, and the economic downturn of the past few years (which left many of the center's shops and offices vacant) seem to all have a hand in the Esplanade's bad luck.
2501 E. Camelback Road
Phoenix, AZ 85016
Region: East Phoenix
"Having to park in the garage and remembering to get validation was always a deterrent," said Micah Olson, bar owner at the soon-to-open Crudo in Central Phoenix and formerly a bartender at Merc Bar, the tucked-away lounge inside the Camelback Esplanade. "No one wants to stop by for a cocktail and then pay nine dollars for parking."
Olson said the high number of vacant offices also has had an affect on businesses in the area. "We [Merc Bar] used to have a full room at 5:30. It's not that way anymore."
As if those factors weren't enough, when the center's AMC Theatre re-opened in September as the AMC Esplanade 14 Dine-In Theater, moviegoers pinched for time could forgo stopping at one of the nearby eateries before or after their show and have a meal during the movie, recliner-style, complete with a server. Along the way, restaurants such as Brugos Pizza Co. and Picazzo's Organic Italian Kitchen left nearly as soon as they arrived, and Au Petit Four, the French restaurant and bakery, relocated to Old Town Scottsdale in November.
Perhaps the hardest-hitting was this year's shuttering of two of the center's best-known establishments, McCormick & Schmick's and Morton's The Steakhouse. (Houston's, another steakhouse in the complex and part of the Hillstone Restaurant Group, moved out of the Esplanade in December 2010 and successfully reopened down the street as a Hillstone property.)
A casual spinoff to Fuego Bistro, the tiny Latin-inspired eatery in north Central Phoenix, Fuego Tacos opened in the Camelback Esplanade in January 2011 in the former Nixon's location. From owner Jeff Ward, Fuego Tacos bills itself as "the best tacos in the country!" and offers eight familiar styles, reasonably priced, and served up street-style or as burritos, along with two salads, a handful of appetizers, and signature cocktails.
Flavorwise, Fuego Tacos is a far cry from Ward's original concept. And its mostly mediocre fare and, at times, indifferent service give the appearance that, like many of its former neighbors, the restaurant simply has given up.
But that doesn't mean one can't find a few dishes that inspire hope for the rest.
When it comes to starters, the complimentary salsa is very good, pleasantly spicy and served alongside warm, crispy chips. The guacamole is solid, as well, best sampled solo rather than as part of hard-to-eat vegetarian tostadas piled high with sugar-cured cabbage and cheese. The standout appetizer comes in the form of three Cubano sliders. Deliciously messy and stuffed with tangy roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese, and Dijon mustard, the soft, pressed mini-rolls are this appetizer's best asset.
Despite the menu's claim, the pastry coverings of the empanadas are not flaky, but rather hard, and once broken into, their fillings of ground beef, cumin, cheese, and Anaheim chiles elicit little in the way of inspired flavor. They are, however, better than the chicken quesadilla, a dish (not to mention the protein inside it) that should be avoided at Fuego Tacos. The large and soggy quesadilla triangles, filled with somewhat slimy chicken meat, were more reminiscent of a low-end chain than a casual restaurant.
Signature entrees at Fuego Tacos come in the form of two corn tacos or flour burritos with arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) and Cuban black beans. Both options present challenges for key ingredients. Depending on the selection, taco toppings like sugar-cured cabbage, housemade pico de gallo, and a Oaxacan cheese blend are too heavy-handed and obscure the star of the show, and the burritos, overstuffed with rice, taste of little else.
Like the chicken, the breaded and deep-fried (too deep-fried) shrimp should be skipped. The only fish option, the tilapia, is better breaded and inside tacos than blackened and alongside a forgettable mixture of Romaine lettuce, black bean and corn salsa, tortilla strips, and an Oaxaca cheese blend — it deserves to be called a Caesar salad only by way of its barely-there dressing of roasted poblano Caesar.
As it is on the Cubano sliders, the pork is the standout selection in the taco category. As pernil asado, its moist, tangy flavor nicely accompanies a colorful mango chile salsa atop a double layer of fresh corn tortillas. And if you're siding with beef, skip the dry carne asada and order up the short rib barbacoa. Packed with tender short ribs braised in a liquid creation with the flavors of pineapple, chipotle, and a delightful undertone of Dr Pepper, these tacos easily are the most unique of the bunch.
The small brick, beige, and wood interior of Fuego Tacos is comfortable, and the high ceiling and mezzanine area ensure that it doesn't feel too cramped. Behind the bar, backlit boxes filled with alcohol bottles seem to change color with the restaurant's often too-loud and seemingly out-of-place techno beats. But compared to the cuisine, these are minor quibbles.
Yeah, would have loved to try it..even bought a Living Social coupon for it. BUT>> The coupon expired today. So , I called and asked to speak to the Manager to see if they would honor it...the teenage sounding hostess who answered the phone says, "Sorry the manager says, we don't honor expired coupons!".....really...it expires today and you can't honor this, we've never been there and it's already been paid for?...So this foodie and her party of 6 won't ever try it, and will tell friends not to go there as well. Because of the printer it was hard to tell if it expired today or the 28th..but, regardless with the economy the way it is and restaurants sitting empty...Fuego Tacos should have opened their arms to these 6 hungry paying customers.The coupon was only for $10.00...with all of us wanting to drink Margarita's and have appetizers and then some tacos. Tacos are $3.00 each we would of had 2 each, plus at least one if not two Margaritas per person at $5.00 each, plus some guacamole at $4.00. Let's do the math: 6 people eating 12 tacos = $36.00 + drinking 6 to 12 Margarita's =$30.00 to $60.00 and 2 orders of Guac = $8.00 . Total >> $104.00!!<< w/o tax and tip. Plus also..some of the people wanted to buy a full size lunch and not Tacos...so add in another $30.00. So basically, because of your uneducated management style and practices... FUEGO TACOS lost more than $150.00 plus tax and tip for lunch on a party of 6!..not too mention the whole...one person scorned will tell at least 20 people x 6 = 120 ( which is a low estimate considering the internet and facebook) people will now, know how cheap and stupid Fuego Tacos are...no matter how good your tacos might have been. Hope your M.O.D. (manager on duty) feels proud. OLE`...copying to Yelp!!
I completely agree with this review. We had a horrible experience at Fuego with a rude bartender and tacos that were just plain gross. Three of us dined there and agreed that we would never go back--I also got tacos 'to-go' that day for a coworker, and she took one bite and threw them away. None of us will return. I think Fuego and Vitamin T have a series competition going for worst tacos in town.
dude the bartenders there pour like they have a broken wrist!! I think for $10 the food is pretty good grub. Always fast and I get 20% off as a VIP. I don't think this review is very accurate.
Better food? Black Chile? CheeseCake? CPK? At least tell me to get in my car drive a mile or two east or west to better options. Sure, I can walk across the street and spend $20 - $30 per plate more at Cap Grille and Seasons 52 which are tasty options but the only restaurant you can possibly compare is Black Chile, which I completely disagree as a "better" choice. Candidly, I enjoy all of our restaurants in the Esplanade area and Fuego has a pretty good niche but you as a mediocre food critic at best, (which btw I truly wonder if your palate is better then your writing) I think with you're better off giving your readers an opportunity to judge for themself. Maybe I'm not giving you enough credit as a writer as your taste makes me want to try every restaurant that doesn't live up to your narcissism, which if indeed the case you are truly motivating your readers. After reading this review, I wasn't sure if I was reading an advertisement for Del Frisco's or reading someone who desires to be respected but can only wallk in the shadows of her predeccessor more than anything else. And finally, quasi critic, I understand that you have certain expectations in your role but not all of us give a rats ass that a glass has to be put on the windowsill or need to be fulfilled with a disingenious greeting from a person whose trying to just pay the bills when we walk through the door. I think most people prefer the real personalities and the characteristics of the restaurant as they are and that's something you consistently miss articulating in your reviews.
There is a reason Fuego Tacos is the last man standing at The Esplanade, and that reason is the food. I would encourage anyone reading this review to check out Fuego Tacos for themselves. I'm sure you will have a very different experience than what Ms Hahnefeld has described.
Wait...are you serious?! As negative as you are about both Phoenix in general, and the Esplanade specifically, Fuego is one of the best restaurants in Phoenix overall. I actually like the Taco location better than the actual restaurant. You're such a negative writer, it's hard to take your reviews seriously at all..