Silvana Salcido Esparza will reopen Barrio Café Gran Reserva on Tuesday. The restaurant, initially opened last year, had closed for a retooling. As of press time, there were still a few tables and bar seats available for Tuesday. The menu at the avant-garde Mexican chef’s 30-seat restaurant has changed radically.
Half the menu will be vegan. More ingredients will come from Mexico. Those ingredients will skew arcane, cutting more boldly into territory uncharted in metro Phoenix, according to Esparza.
“For this, I’m going even deeper into the procurement of my ingredients,” she says, adding, “and I’ll personally be doing a lot of the cooking.”
A 50 percent vegan menu seems bold. When one thinks about Phoenix’s Mexican food scene, some of the staple ingredients that come to mind are cheese, sour cream, beef, and pork. Does axing these foods from half the menu present an obstacle to Esparza?
Not a chance, she says.
Esparza explains that “Mexican food kept its original identity even after European ingredients and techniques were introduced.” She cites the ancient calendars of pre-Colombian Mesoamerican people, of Aztecs and Mayans; they only ate meat on designated days.
As she searches far back in time to center her philosophy, she reaches deep into the country to the south for ingredients and inspiration.
On the vegan side of the menu, Esparza will be smoking yams for six hours and dressing them in syrup made from piloncillo, fresh brown sugar. She’ll be mixing salsa from xoconostle, a sour kind of prickly pear. She’ll be puréeing xoconostle and plating the purée with nopales from the same plant, or with fish.
The “omnivore” side of the menu will include dishes like duck carnitas in quince salsa. Esparza will devein a hoja santa leaf and use it to wrap cheese, put the package on the griddle, and serve the whole thing with chile oil concocted from 14 kinds of peppers. (On the vegan side, she'll cook hoja santa in a similar way, but with seven kinds of seeds substituted for cheese. Many dishes will have one omnivore iteration and another vegan.)
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The tasting menu will cost $42 for five or six courses.
“I am cooking for the people, not for the rich,” Esparza says. “I think all of us should be able to afford a tasting menu.” For those not game for a tasting menu, even one so selflessly priced, all tasting menu dishes will also be available a la carte.
Moles and sauces will dominate the Seussian menu. So will scratch-made stocks, nixtamalized corn, and other similarly laborious preparations.
“I’m going to have fun,” Esparza says of Barrio Café Gran Reserva 2.0 and her revised approach. "We're doing beautiful food."