I could probably dig up a really good statistic to illustrate the fleeting nature of the restaurant industry, but why bother? We've all stumbled upon great dining discoveries that were inexplicably shuttered on a later visit, leaving us scratching our heads about what happened. Perhaps even more often, we've taken chances on places that weren't worth returning to. It's no surprise when those businesses close.
When I think of that kind of turnover, the place that sticks in my mind is one of the best-hidden spots in central Phoenix. Tucked away in the courtyard of Fountain Court, behind Apollo's Lounge on Seventh Street, there's a restaurant space that's had a full-on identity crisis over the past few years. Back in 2004, I joined my colleague Stephen Lemons for dinner at Uptown 713, which he soundly trashed in his column. All I can recall about our evening was atrocious service and some of the most miserable mashed potatoes I've ever eaten. (Seriously, they tasted like instant, and they were lukewarm.) I fully expected that business to fail, and it did. Then Café del Sol took over with a Cuban-comfort-food concept, and it was great. People liked it. But it closed. Go figure.
Thankfully, the spot's latest incarnation is even better. New owner Jeff Ward christened it Fuego Bistro on the first of the year, and new chef Daniel Garcia (former executive chef at Lombardi's) tweaked the dinner menu, keeping some of Café del Sol's popular dishes but broadening the flavors beyond Latin America. Hardcore Cuban it's not, but I liked it anyway.
713 East Palo Verde Drive
Ensalada del sol: $6
Southwestern crab cake: $11
Pollo ajedrea: $18
Pernil asado: $17
602-277-1151, web link.
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Lunch at Fuego Bistro was pretty solid. The panini cubano a grill-pressed hot sandwich with slices of ham, roast pork, cheese, and dill pickle was tasty, but still cold at the very center. Caldo gallego, a savory broth filled with chunks of chorizo, kale, and tender white beans, warmed me up on one of last month's chilly days. Ensalada del sol was a fine variation on a healthy mixed salad, with fresh organic greens, pepper-jack cheese, escabeche (lightly pickled cucumber and tomato), and a handful of candied walnuts drizzled with tomato basil vinaigrette. And the Puerto Rican-style empanadas were nice and flaky, filled with a moist, garlicky mix of ground beef and potatoes studded with onion and pepper.
I had one hang-up, though: the fries. They were the crinkle-cut, pre-made kind, which seemed like a total cop-out definitely not up to the standards of the other dishes at Fuego Bistro. These folks can do better.
How do I know that? By the mashed potatoes I had at dinner. They were a far cry from the awful stuff served at Uptown 713. This time around, they were creamy and chunky, spiked with chipotle, a dose of cheddar cheese, and slivers of potato skin. There's no way those came out of a box. They were so delicious that one of my dining companions couldn't resist eating off my plate, and I understand completely. When I visited, Fuego Bistro was featuring them as "potato of the day" among its side-dish choices, but I think they'd make a great permanent addition to the menu. Other options included black beans, arroz con gandules (a steaming heap of yellow rice with soft little pigeon peas), and sweet creamed corn with spicy bits of jalapeño.
Shrimp cocktail is an easy crowd-pleaser, but Fuego Bistro's tropical shrimp martini took the idea a step further. Our waiter presented a martini glass filled with chunks of avocado, tomato, onion, and mango; several jumbo shrimp were hooked on to the rim. Then he brought over a cocktail shaker and poured cilantro-tinged, charred tomato purée on top, simultaneously making cocktail sauce for the shrimp and salsa to be scooped up with warm tortilla chips. Brilliant multitasking.
Camarónes de coco coconut-battered fried shrimp with sweet chile sauce weren't anything special, but we still ate them up. I preferred the excellent Southwestern crab cake. In fact, it was two plump cakes, crisp on the outside and seductively creamy on the inside, topped with corn and black beans. They were served with cilantro cream sauce and a tangy tomato chutney.
One night, I tried one of the dinner specials, a tomato basil risotto that seemed more suited to an Italian restaurant. Still, it tasted good, thanks to tons of Parmesan and plenty of clams, shrimp, calamari, and pieces of tilapia. The pollo ajedrea also veered from the Latin vibe aside from the Spanish name, it was more "bistro" than "fuego." Slicked with sweet balsamic reduction, the moist chicken breast was bursting with a filling of apricots, shrimp, goat cheese, cremini mushrooms, and spinach.
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As much as I liked those, I'll still go for the traditional stuff next time I'm there. Pernil asado was a pork-lover's dream, a heaping portion of slow-roasted meat. It was delicately spiced with peppers and garlic that let the incredibly rich pork stand out on its own. In contrast, the ropa vieja was a potent blend of flavors, with soft shreds of beef mingling with garlic, gandules, and red pepper in a strong tomato sauce. Camarónes de Patron were also stunning, a pile of meaty, tequila-braised blackened prawns served in a sharp cilantro and tomatillo sauce that tasted as bright and green as it looked.
To finish things off, I had to try the flan. Fuego Bistro's version was thick and smooth and cheesecakey, substantial enough to share. Same goes with the tres leches cake, a giant slice that was drenched in cream, slathered in pineapple guava sauce, and garnished with fresh strawberries and toasted coconut shavings.
I should mention that Fuego Bistro is tiny, with only seven tables inside and a handful out in the courtyard. (Call ahead, especially on weekends.) There's nothing slick about it, nothing to distract you from your meal. Chatting about that on the way home from dinner one night, my sweetie noted, "They must have a lot of confidence in their food."
As well they should.