At Plaza Grill in north Phoenix, the first-rate Mexican food totally speaks for itself.
That's a wonderful thing, considering that almost everything else about this restaurant is so low-key. Not only would you have a hard time discerning what kind of cuisine this place serves, you might not even notice it's there to begin with. (Actually, the screaming yellow pawnshop across the street is easier to spot than the restaurant itself.) But trust me, it's worth looking for.
And once you taste chef-owner Luis Mata's fantastic southern Mexican cooking, none of that will matter. The menu is distinctive, featuring dishes from Mexico City, Veracruz, and the Yucatán Peninsula. That means vibrant flavors, lighter preparations, and a more judicious use of cheese. No refried beans, either. It's also well executed, and sometimes even a little surprising.
Plaza Grill, 14620 North Cave Creek Road
Mole poblano: $13.95
Pescado a la Veracruzana: $19.95
Hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.
Although Plaza Grill is a neighborhood eatery at heart — friendly, tiny, and moderately priced — it's got a whiff of upscale polish, from the crisp white tablecloths to the perfect hand-shaken margaritas to the appealing presentations of the food.
That's probably because Mata was the longtime GM and operating partner of Such Is Life, with chef Moises Treves (who helps out at Plaza Grill from time to time), and has worked at high-end spots such as T. Cook's and Christopher's Fermier. (He's been around the hospitality industry since his childhood in the beach town of Guaymas, Mexico, where his father worked at a local resort.) Although Mata is busy in the kitchen, he'll often personally serve piping hot plates of food or chat with customers as dinner service winds down.
The first time I visited Plaza Grill, I could tell it was going to be out of the ordinary as soon as I tasted the salsa. Sure, chips and salsa are the token gringo crowd-pleaser, but even so, these were as good as they get — habit-forming chipotle salsa, fiery, tangy habanero salsa, and thin, warm, crispy chips with just the right amount of salt.
My friends and I devoured even more of those chips once we got some homemade guacamole. This was an almost deconstructed sort of guacamole, chunks of avocado lightly tossed with lettuce, lime juice, and a bit of olive oil, with grated cotija sprinkled on top for a salty, Parmesan-like kick. The result was nothing like the typical thick green dip, and more like a salad. Looking at it that way, I might be able to justify ordering a plate of it for myself next time.
Queso fundido was a plate of bubbly, cheesy goo topped with globs of mildly spicy chorizo, tasty but nothing unusual. Meanwhile, poblano con camarón was impressive at first sight — and first bite. The glossy, deep green roasted pepper was dressed up with plump chunks of shrimp, roasted garlic, and melted Monterey Jack, sliced into small pieces atop thin tortilla crisps. Again, I had to stifle my greedy thoughts of single-handedly finishing off this delicacy.
On a later visit, I was happy to find a smaller, simpler version of the stuffed poblano on the carne tampiqueña platter, along with a cheese mini-enchilada and a pile of black beans sprinkled with cotija. This dish had a choice of carne asada or pork tenderloin; I went with the former, a thin, flavorful cut of grilled beef sitting in a pool of smoky pasilla sauce.
Cochinita pibil (slow-cooked pork in aromatic achiote sauce) is one of those dishes I just have to try no matter where I am, and Plaza Grill's version didn't disappoint. It was fork-tender and the sauce was lip-smackingly good. I loved the pickled red onions on top, too. Thankfully, it was a generous portion of meat, so I was happy to share a big hunk of it with my envious dining companion.
As for the other pork dish I tried, puerco enrollado con salsa de chipotle y queso Monterey (say that five times fast), it was an intriguing combination of flavors: pork loin stuffed with spinach and raisins, then rolled up in strips of bacon and topped with complex, not-too-spicy chipotle-tomato sauce. Sounds luscious, doesn't it? Well, in the end, I liked it, but it wasn't quite the naughty splurge I was expecting — the pork was very lean.
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Besides, the naughty splurge award should go to the mole poblano, a deep, dark, velvety sauce of chocolate, chiles, sesame, and roasted peanuts blanketing slices of boneless chicken breast. The meat was juicy, the sauce sublime — I know where I'll be getting my next mole fix, for sure.
Camarones al mojo de ajo is one of the house specialties, and it's no wonder. When our server brought out the platter of enormous butterflied Guaymas shrimp sautéed in a scrumptious garlic sauce, we paused for a second to ooh and ahh at the drama of it — and inhale the potent aroma. Along with a fluffy pile of pea-studded rice, it was teamed with tasty sautéed calabacitas (green squash). Pescado a la Veracruzana was equally alluring, a big helping of moist sea bass baked in white wine sauce with olives, capers, peppers, onions, and tomatoes.
I thought I'd exhausted the menu highlights by the time dessert rolled around — indeed, strawberries with cream didn't seem like a must-try. But sure enough, I discovered the spectacular cheesecake flan. The texture was pleasingly creamy, just barely hinting at the density of regular cheesecake, and the caramelized sauce had a rich flavor. On another visit, red wine-poached pears made for a light, sweet finish, but I'm telling you — I fantasized about the flan with every bite.
In a city where so many Mexican restaurants serve Sonoran cuisine almost by default, Plaza Grill's Mexico City-style dishes are a delightful — and delicious — change of pace.