Chef News

Silvana Salcido Esparza on Building Barrio Café Gran Reserva with La Familia

Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza will tell you if there’s one thing she holds dear, it’s la familia. The way she explains it, la familia is more than just family — it’s the community, culture, and friends that form the unbreakable bedrock of her work and life. Her flagship restaurant, Barrio Café, was built that foundation, and as she develops her latest venture, Barrio Café Gran Reserva, located on the southern stretch of Grand Avenue, la familia once again takes center stage.

Esparza has been a major player in the Phoenix food community for well over a decade. Barrio Café opened its doors to the public in 2002, and after claiming her position as one of the top Mexican chefs in the Valley, Esparza moved to expand on her empire. She helped open Barrio Queen in Scottsdale in 2012, with which she parted ways in 2014. Later that year, Esparza opened Barrio Avion in the Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, quickly followed by Barrio Urbano at The Yard in Central Phoenix in January 2015. After much speculation about her next venture, Esparza announced her plans to open another restaurant in the defunct Bragg's Factory Diner building in late 2015.

After securing the Bragg's location, it took nearly six weeks for Esparza to obtain the necessary licenses before she could begin the extensive construction, cleaning, and design that has occupied her since. Relying on la familia is sometimes literal for Esparza, as she and her nephew did the majority of the clean-up before repairs began.

Esparza says her signature style will prevail at Gran Reserva. “I’m excited to bring the Barrio Café brand to Grand Avenue,” she says. “There’s the one and only Barrio Café, made with love. The tile’s crooked because I laid it myself.”

She’s already poured a lot of love into the new space as well. “I know every nook and cranny,” she says. Everything has been done by hand, on a budget, and by people Esparza knows and trusts. “My business partner Wendy almost cut her finger half off building the bar and her only regret is not being able to finish it herself,” she says.

Esparza hasn’t wasted any time settling into the historic building. Many artists in Esparza’s extended family have already contributed work to the interior of the restaurant. There’s a small army of muralists working within the space, including Pablo Luna, Angel Diaz, Lalo Cota, Thomas “Breeze” Marcus, and Tato Caraveo. Right now, she says that taking care of the artists is her most important and time-consuming task. Esparza feeds them, entertains them, and cleans up after them, but they are part of the Barrio Cafe family and a crucial element in the future success of Barrio Café Gran Reserva.

Esparza has a favorite phrase, “do the next right thing,” which is a sort of “when one door closes, another one opens” mantra for her. When her relationships with Barrio Queen in Scottsdale soured in 2014, she says she was heartbroken. The loss led her to Mexico where she spent a summer building a house and taking time to be with her godson. “When I came back, I wanted to do something for myself,” she says, and when the location on Grand became available, she jumped. “My father was a baker, my grandfather was a baker. It goes back to the 1200s,” she says. “I am ‘proudly the baker’s daughter,' and there is flour in this place.”

At Barrio Café Gran Reserva, Esparza wants to finish developing the food she started at Barrio Queen. “I’m a girl who likes to push the envelope. I like to set goals and see what I can do to push myself,” she says. “I’m dying to do seafood.” Esparza says there will be sauces, moles, and a fusion of foods including several all-star dishes from Barrio Café. She’s excited to serve octopus, sea urchin, diver scallops, and fresh snapper, as well as classic dishes such as cochinita pibil and her quesadilla borracho.

One item that won’t make an appearance on the menu is the ubiquitous taco. It’s no secret Esparza is tired of tacos, having predicted their burn-out many times before, although she confesses that she’s as guilty as anyone else for their proliferation, having put out a menu of over 50 types of tacos in the past. “There won’t be tacos at Barrio Café Gran Reserva,” she says, “but if I do it’s because it’s heirloom corn [tortillas], hand-ground, and pressed in-house.”

Esparza has always been in the game of changing perceptions of Mexican food and takes it upon herself to train and foster upcoming Mexican chefs who take a vested interest in their community and food. “In order for Mexicans to be in charge of their food, it’s my responsibility to set up a shop where I can train what I’ve learned.” It all comes back to family, and a sense of stewardship towards her culture and community that informs most of Esparza’s decisions in both business and life.

Moving to Grand Avenue is particularly poignant for Esparza, who says she loves the un-gentrified state of the neighborhood. While she compares the art-deco exterior of her building to “South Beach Miami before it got trendy,” she says “[Grand] won’t get trendy. Beatrice Moore won’t let it be. Maybe I’ll be the next Beatrice Moore. Maybe she’ll hand me the baton,” she says.

Beatrice Moore, who has spent her career building up and protecting the artistic community along Grand Avenue, sounds similarly optimistic about the arrival of Esparza and Barrio Café Gran Reserva. “Everybody’s very excited about it. It’s going to be a work of art" she says, "not just the food but the painting on the walls inside the restaurant. It’s really starting to feel otherworldly to me…because of the different styles of paintings on the walls.”

Moore sees Barrio Café Gran Reserva as a business that will bring added value to the existing community there. “I think that she’ll bring in new people…There are still some people who are afraid of Grand Avenue, a lot of people who like the funkiness of Grand but are still afraid of certain things about the neighborhood. She will help dispel some of that.” Moore says she appreciates that Esparza is not coming into the neighborhood to change it. “She’ll be able to teach other people lessons of how to be part of a community without wiping out community. She and I think a lot alike in that sense, and we’ll be able to make a that people understand the importance of what’s already here.” Perhaps the baton will get passed to Esparza after all.

"People look to me for direction,” Esparza says proudly. She feels responsibility as the matriarch of la familia, and feels she has to fulfill her maximum in order to expect half the effort from others. Every project Esparza takes on imbued with the force of her personality and her desire to build up the people and community around her. “People try to steal my shit, but you can’t,” Esparza says proudly. “It’s me and the people I bring with me.”

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Cal Faber
Contact: Cal Faber