When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out -- and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).
Restaurant: Paz Cantina Location: 1011 N. 3rd St. Open: One week Eats: Mexican Price: $10+ a person
When Joseph Aguayo opened Verde in 2010, he brought excellent, freshly made tortillas and affordable Mexican fare to the downtown dining scene. The restaurant, which was located in the 1930s building that's now home to Matt's Big Breakfast, unfortunately didn't last long, closing after just seven months. Perhaps Verde was ahead of its time. Or perhaps Aguayo and co-owner Matt Avilla simply spent too much money remodeling the building.
Either way, he's back -- and this time, he's got help.
At the new Paz Cantina, Aguayo has teamed up with Brian Webb (Hey, Joe!) and Michael Reyes (Pure Sushi, the Compound Grill, Otro Cafe) to deliver fresh tortillas and affordable Mexican fare to downtown once again.
As fate would have it, Aguayo and company have landed in a downtown space left empty by a restaurant that was as well-received and even more short-lived than Verde. The Local, which opened in April, closed its doors in early October but already is home to the new spot.
As you can imagine, major renovations were neither necessary nor possible in such a short amount of time. The main changes include painting walls, replacing artwork, and changing the layout of the dining room. For those who frequented the spot when it was The Local, the juxtaposition of new and old may be a feel strange, but overall the redesign is appropriate and tasteful.
With the current menu, the chefs are keeping things simple, debuting a selection of just five tacos and three starters.
Each table gets a complimentary basket of chips with two salsas; refills are available for $3. Neither the red nor green salsa had much to offer in the way of heat, though the green version had a bright citrus flavor.
The Queso de Paz ($5) was similarly spice-less, despite being a blend of pepperjack cheese and pico de gallo. If you're simply looking to satisfy a craving for cheese, this will do the trick, but we'd also recommend combining the green salsa with the dip for a flavor boost.
An order of guacamole ($7) won't be a bad choice either. The blend of avocado, jalapeño, onions, cilantro, and lime had a slightly herbal quality but tasted fresh and bright.
As for the entrées, each taco will cost you between $3 and $3.75, with the cheapest option being a nopales taco and the most expensive being the Taco del Mar. All are served on fresh, doughy housemade corn tortillas. (Aguayo says he plans to offer flour tortillas as well once things settle down.)
In an pleasantly unexpected move, the seafood taco at Paz features pieces of tender fried calamari paired with cabbage, crema, and "pico de Paz." We thought the thick tortilla and abundance of cabbage sightly overshadowed the flavor of the excellent fried squid, which was a shame; perhaps the problem will be solved with a flour base.
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The carne asada taco also was a hit. It featured pieces of flavorful grilled steak with onions, cilantro, and serrano radish slaw. The flavors of the steak and slaw were great, but the dish would also have loved a spicy red salsa to provide heat and combat dryness.
On the drinks side, the bar serves a small menu of cocktails, including a Cadillac frozen margarita, red and white sangria, and an agave bramble. There's also a beer list that includes Mexican beers by the bottle and exclusively local (as in Arizona-brewed) beers available on tap.
The chefs plan to expand the food offerings next week and would like to add breakfast, brunch, and happy hour deals down the line. It's clear when looking at the menu and tasting the restrained flavors of the food that the kitchen is holding back for now. The price point and familiar cuisine seem to be a good fit for the neighborhood -- we can't wait to see what happens when they get comfortable enough to turn up the heat.