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By Eric Schaefer
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If Macayo's Mexican Kitchen is the Valley's popular party girl, than Milagro Grill is her sophisticated older sister.
Inside her small, laid-back pad in Arcadia, she's swapped out Macayo's festive, bright surfaces for more refined textures of polished wood, brick, and metal under low lights; traded the booming dance tunes for soft, sweetly strummed mariachi guitars, and, in lieu of dishes with catchy names like Fiesta Wings and Cisco Wraps, opted more for simply stated, yet discerning plates of pollo, carne, and camarón done up as tacos, flatbreads, and skewers.
It's a new take on Macayo's from a new generation of Johnsons, the family who's been running the Arizona-based chain of Mexican eats since Grandpa Woody Johnson and wife Victoria founded the family business in 1945. Opened in October 2012, Milagro Grill (milagro means "miracle" in Spanish) hails from the third generation of Johnsons. And this generation has deemed that its new restaurant should be based in the same area it grew up in. It has gutted and remodeled a former strip-mall hot dog joint to house its dining area, bar, and outdoor patio dotted with cushioned couches and chairs, and it has hired chef James Fox, most recently of Scottsdale's Big Earl's BBQ, to create its Mexican-American fusion cuisine.
4280 E. Indian School Road, 101
Phoenix, AZ 85018
Region: East Phoenix
But new traditions take time to develop. And though Milagro Grill seems to have found a more mature home with an enthusiastic Arcadia neighborhood crowd, its dishes can be hit-and-miss when it comes to delivering on their promised flavors. That's a fact that makes the prices — about three to four dollars more than you would expect to pay — harder to swallow.
A healthy listing of wines, cocktails, margaritas, and beers — including a Milagro Private Label draft — is a good place to secure an adult beverage while scanning an equally ample list of eats. Described as "Mexican-American fusion with European influences and a South American flair," Fox's dishes sport a refined international slant no doubt influenced by his past gigs at noteworthy Scottsdale chef Matt Carter's French and Mexican restaurants, Zinc Bistro and the Mission, respectively.
Many of the starters are quite good. Three street-size tostadas featuring tender bites of short rib along with pickled onions, puréed potatoes, and pasilla chiles elicit a sweet, earthy flavor. Guacamole lovers will want to pony up the additional cash to upgrade from traditional to único (unique), where additions of slightly sweet Dungeness crab and spicy chiles toreados easily make this dish (served with a stellar smoky salsa for a second chip-dip option) one of the freshest and boldest on the menu. More unconventional yet entirely worth the risk is Fox's PB & J de Puerco. Served as a sandwich, two halves of thick, downy bread are layered with luscious slices of pork belly, tomato jam, peanuts, arugula, and chiltepin peppers for a salty, spicy, and smoky flavor highlighted with sweet notes.
The chili verde isn't listed as a starter or sharable side, but perhaps it should be. Its addition of macaroni makes it more a pasta dish than a stew (which isn't a bad idea), but its overly tangy taste means that a few bites — many without the braised pork — go a long way.
Great to share as a light meal paired with a soup or salad are Milagro's tacos. The half-dozen or so street-size varieties are served in groups of three on homemade tortillas. You've probably had better al pastor around town, and the flavor of the salmon tacos, perhaps due to ingredients such as Granny Smith apple and fennel, is unpleasantly candy-ish. But the short rib is satisfying, as is the colorful, veggie-friendly calabacitas made with zucchini, yellow squash, mushroom, tomato, and red onion. Most successful might be Fox's achiote-marinated chicken. The amber pieces of meat, mildly spicy and kissed with citrus, pair nicely with white bean, red pepper, cabbage, and pickled red onion.
Skip the carne skewer, overcooked and, sadly, with barely a trace of the promised flavors of chimichurri sauce and apple cider. Better to share one of Fox's flatbreads, thin and crispy ovals divided into six pieces with five varieties of toppings. The camarón is the clear standout. Its top-notch pieces of shrimp are firm, full of flavor, and beautifully paired with grape slices, fresh cheese, and honey for sweet and earthy notes — not to mention just enough chile de árbol to give each bite a lively snap.
The spot with the most room for improvement at Milagro Grill: the entrees. At $20 or more, most are skillfully prepared, but few reach exceptional status. My bistec, or Gold Canyon rib eye, was juicy and cooked to order but lacked any trace of its stated chimichurri flavoring and was served alongside three snooze-worthy potato croquettes that should have been left on the banquet table.
Want an additional side dish with your entrée? Whether it's beans, tortillas, or potatoes, be ready to add an additional three to six bucks to your already $20-plus meal. Suddenly, a combo of sizzling fajitas for $15.99 at Macayo's doesn't seem like such a bad idea.
Like its savory dishes, Milagro's sweet endings can be dicey. Better to opt for an after-dinner drink than the concha frito, airy and bland sticks of concha (Mexican sweet bread) bread-pudding French toast aided little by cinnamon-salted caramel and thin, fried slices of banana. And if poor Granny knew that her namesake dessert, the pastel de abuela, a deliciously moist chocolate cake with spicy and sweet candied Fresno chiles, was being paired with a pistachio ice cream so startlingly strong that its flavor borders on artificial, she might have a thing or two to say about it.
Service follows suit with the fare: Sometimes it's stellar, with knowledgeable staff deftly pointing you in the direction of the restaurant's best dishes. Sometimes it isn't, and the impression left by poorly trained team members is that they are helplessly or grudgingly going through the motions.
A decidedly more upscale Macayo's may be just what the third generation of Johnsons had in mind with Milagro Grill — and its Arcadia location seems right on the money in a neighborhood lacking this cuisine. But at this point, this sophisticated older sister seems more suited for a cocktail and a snack than an evening of get-to-know-you food. Perhaps the Johnsons' true "miracle" will be in getting their customers to think otherwise.