Do you like Tacos Chiwas? Me, too. And if you do, you will like Roland’s Cafe Market Bar, a new restaurant by the Tacos Chiwas husband-and-wife-team that opens today.
Roland’s is Tacos Chiwas with an exponent. It is Nadia Holguin and Armando Hernandez’s food freed from its tiny kitchen, given a huge beautiful stage, and honed under the influence of mentor Chris Bianco, who co-owns the eatery.
Roland's is a new kind of Phoenix restaurant.
As of this morning, Roland’s is in soft opening mode. For now, it will be serving breakfast and lunch, the meals running from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m., and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Soon, the restaurant will open for dinner.
Holguin, Hernandez, and Bianco have built their new restaurant in the Roland’s Market Building, marked by the red-block “ROLANDS” sign, at 15th and Van Buren streets in Garfield. The structure was built in 1917 (the year the U.S. entered World War I). The building became a grocery store in 1941 (the year we entered World War Two).
For much of the time since, Roland’s was an immigrant-run grocery. A plaintive sense of the past overflows from its worn sign and faded bricks. Today, inside, the building feels more like the future.
To understand why, we need to follow another loop into the past.
Many of Hernandez’s family members have worked at Pizzeria Bianco. Two of his uncles still do. Another one used to, but has since gone on to open a pizzeria in Chihuahua, the Mexican state of Hernandez’s family.
Hernandez himself started working at Pane Bianco around the time the eatery was under expansion, when the sit-down area was being added. Hernandez started to absorb Bianco’s culinary philosophy. He came to realize, he says, “that simple is best.”
“The ideology came directly from things I learned at Pane,” Hernandez says of his approach to food at Tacos Chiwas and Roland’s. “Small menu. And make sure everything you’re doing is amazing.”
This painstaking, obsessive approach to maximizing how food tastes involves considering each component, and taking care of each component in the most complete way. If you have a few ingredients, they have to taste good. When you’re taking the Hemingway approach, reducing your parts to their barest forms – pizza to dough, sauce, and cheese; tacos to tortillas, meat, and salsa – each of your few components needs to rock.
There's nothing to hide behind when you're this naked, no fancy clothes to put on.
The food at Roland’s isn’t a hybrid of Italian and Mexican. There are plates that fuse the two, such as a quesadilla topped with housemade mozzarella, but hybridization, fusion, or any form of conjoinment isn’t the best way to think about Roland’s. Roland’s, rather, cooks Chihuahua-style Mexican food run through a Bianco-like philosophy and Holguin’s skilled hands. It's the food Holguin and Hernandez like to cook at home.
“When you come here, you’re coming into my house,” Hernandez says. “You’re going to have the best thing I can produce.”
Coming into his Van Buren Street house, the sheer character of the space strikes you. The restaurant looks old and new at once. Patterned-tin ceilings loft high over all the well-considered textures below: tiles, wooden chairs, speckled stone tabletops, succulent jars on them, and a long airy room of discrete sections.
First, there’s a coffee bar. If you want, you could pop in and out without even going into the sit-down area of the restaurant. The coffee section features pastries like bear claws and cookies made from rye and orange water, a few breakfast items, and coffee brewed from ROC2 beans.
Next: a long wooden “chef’s table” opens to the left. Pop-up events and special dinners will be held at this table flanked with yellow-and-blue shelves of Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes and a side table with knickknacks. To the right, opposite, there’s a section of dining room. String lights burn overhead. Swaths of plate-glass windows fronting the street admit hard light. (A smaller dining space is in the back.)
At these tables, you can do some serious eating. Hernandez says he and Holguin always wanted to do breakfast at Tacos Chiwas, and that, although they were able to make some great breakfast food, they had always wanted to go bigger. At Roland’s, they do. You can eat breakfast burritos with Schreiner’s chorizo wrapped in tortillas that have been made from heritage grains milled at Pane Bianco. You can eat from one of six or so breakfast plates, dishes like eggs, potatoes, Niman Ranch pork chops, and a folded tortilla.
Lunch and dinner bring a host of options. There will be quesadillas, burritos, and a few tacos. There will be sandwiches made using bread freshly baked each morning in the eight-foot oven. (The oven burns pecan and oak.) That oven, too, will also produce fresh-baked focaccia.
The trio takes the same hard-way approach to food that we’ve come to expect from them. Recently, Armando drove down to Chihuahua to pick up 500 pounds of chiles. He did this just so that his chile Colorado would taste a shade more like the ones from home.
After the early sections, the restaurant passes into its wraparound bar and open kitchen. The bar pours a few rare Mexican wines. You can order beverages like a sour made with mezcal or negroni made with sotol, a popular Chihuahua spirit made from a plant called the Desert Spoon. The kitchen has a polish and sparkle antithetical to Chiwas’s modest charms. It has, Hernandez says, “all the bells and whistles you could want as a cook.”
Holguin, who will be the main overseer of the kitchen, will be dropping corn empanadas stuffed with chile pasado and barbacoa. She will be cooking her rendition of entomatadas, a tomato-sauced dish of rolled tortillas, using Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes.
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Get pumped to eat at this restaurant. The operation buzzes in a cool old building with modern designs that dovetail with the old brick. It features the most famous Phoenix chef of an established generation, and some of the city’s most promising up-and-coming talent.
The new guard will lead. Bianco will be more of a mentor. “What I attempt to do here every day,” he says, “is empower Nadia and Armando in how great they are."
Hernandez says, “You surround yourself with good people, and good things will happen.”
Roland’s Cafe Market Bar. 1505 East Van Buren Street; 602-441-4749.
Tuesday through Saturday 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
*Hours will change after the week of April 17 to 21.