"This is cooool!"
I almost blurted that out loud the first time I visited Tradiciones, a new Mexican restaurant at the Phoenix Ranch Market. From the parking lot, it doesn't look like much, but soon I found myself in a Mexican courtyard with benches, a fountain, and a stage where a band was setting up. There were vendors selling pottery and paintings, and in one corner, a man ladled aguas frescas out of oversize jars. Outdoor grills made the whole place smell like a summer picnic.
Suddenly, I felt like I wasn't in Phoenix anymore.
Then I had to laugh at myself. Who was I kidding? Tradiciones is more "real Phoenix" than just about any other restaurant I've been to lately. Last month, a newspaper story about 2005 census data said that non-Anglos are now the majority in Phoenix. That's an easy observation, though. Just cruise along 16th Street in central Phoenix, between Jefferson Street and Thomas Road, where Mexican culture is thriving.
Tradiciones took the highlights of the best little Latino joints atmosphere, authentic eats, nice employees and put them under one big roof. Ever since Phoenix Ranch Market opened last year in the remodeled shell of an old Kmart (and seemed to be an instant success, swarming with shoppers), I've been curious about this new restaurant, watching the gradual construction on my way to and from work. Now that it's open, I think the food will raise the bar for many of the smaller local places. It's not gourmet, but it's upscale for the barrio.
The place is pretty much what I expected from the first sit-down restaurant from the Provenzano family, whose California-based company, Pro's Ranch Markets, has already figured out how to take grocery shopping beyond the realm of the mundane.
If you've already checked out one of their stores around town, that should explain a lot. But if you haven't yet been to "Mexican food world," as one of my friends calls it, go just for kicks. À la carte food counters are tucked under palm frond palapas, hot tortillas fly down a conveyor belt at the in-house tortilleria, and diners dig in to platefuls of rice and beans in the noisy seating area. Visual distractions are everywhere glistening seafood, mountains of produce, workers passing out freebie samples and bouncy Latino rhythms add to the buzz. Somewhere in the midst of it, there are actual supermarket aisles, too.
I stumbled into a similar fiesta at Tradiciones on a random Sunday afternoon. A singing mariachi trio got people riled up as they strummed on their guitars and harp. Waitresses raced around the room in lacy white tops and bright red, full skirts. There were rustic wooden tables, booths decorated with carvings, a long bar off to the side, and wrought-iron chandeliers and punched metal lamps hanging from the high ceiling. A painted mural on a wall above the kitchen played into the Mexican village theme.
Talk about a happening scene I don't think there was an empty table in the house. It was mostly Mexican families, plenty of little kids holding balloons or scribbling with crayons, and a few tables of white folk. Everyone was dressed to relax, laughing over margaritas or horchata. Seeing the crowd only pushed my expectations higher for the food, but I had decent first impressions of that, too.
The handmade sopecitos corn cakes topped with chicken, salsa, onion and cheese were the best thing on the appetizer sampler platter, which also came with chorizo-filled corn empanadas, beef-filled mini-chimichangas, and chicken taquitos. Empanadas filled with melted cheese were also tasty moist, almost sweet. And while Tradiciones didn't try anything fancy with its nachos, my friends and I inhaled them. We were stunned when one of the chefs brought them out for us, gratis, while we were waiting for another dining companion. The generous pile of chips, with spicy shredded chicken, nacho cheese, pico de gallo, jalapeño, sour cream, and lime-and-cilantro-tinged guacamole, could have been a meal.
Most of the entrees I tried were solid takes on Sonoran standbys, like enchiladas and burritos. A few surprised me, though. Pollo en mole was flat-out gutsy. Here, the chicken was slathered in a spicy, deliciously bitter chocolate sauce worlds apart from the harmless sweet stuff I usually come across. The sauted huachinango fillet (red snapper) also had bite, thanks to chunks of tomatoes, peppers, onions and olives, spiked with garlic, cilantro, capers, jalapeños and peppercorns. Camarónes rancheros sautéed shrimp in a garlicky red chile sauce were unforgettably fiery. And perhaps the biggest shocker was the melted cheese, or lack thereof. While so many restaurants bury everything in queso, Tradiciones held back.
The kitchen did stumble a few times. Lomo Azteca's rich chipotle cilantro-cream sauce wasn't enough to make up for dry grilled pork. The carne asada was also overdone on one of my visits. (Later, I tried it on a torta and it was more tender.) Rocky Point fish tacos struck me as bland, although after a few bites I figured out that someone forgot to add the creamy lime cilantro tartar sauce. My waitress fixed the problem yep, sauce was exactly what it needed and even brought out some grilled sweet corn, coated in mayo and Parmesan.
Desserts were simple and predictable a decent flan, cinnamon-sugary sopaipillas and fried ice cream, and pastel tres leches that reminded me of birthday cake. What I liked most about them was the prices, around three or four bucks apiece.
Overall, Tradiciones didn't disappoint. Even small details shined, like pretty presentation, good chips and salsa, and fresh tortillas delivered hot out of a basket from a waitress making her rounds.
I look forward to all of it on my next visit, along with another plate of those caliente shrimp. An unshakable craving, I've found, is a sure way to start a new tradition.
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