The ker-plunk and whoosh is most pronounced right around the intersection of Tempe's Fifth Street and Mill Avenue, or, as I like to call it, the corner of Hooters and Gordon Biersch. No doubt you've heard it before: the sound of your soul being flushed into the rancid sewer of commercialism that, for the most part, is Mill Avenue. I say "for the most part" because I don't want to discourage those few blades of grass peeking through the concrete and plastic. Still, whenever I have to pass through the Mill swill, I feel like I'm obliged to take my second bath of the day.
Interestingly, the state of dining in that immediate area is best summed up by Downtowntempe.com, a Web site for the booster organization Downtown Tempe Community Inc., which enthuses: "From P.F. Chang's to Jack in the Box, there's something for everyone in downtown [Tempe]." P.F. Charlie Chan and Hack in the Box?! Well, polish my fanny and call it an apple. I'm surprised they don't talk up the joys of a Starbucks gift card while they're at it.
What about Monti's La Casa Vieja or Rula Bula? True, Monti's is kind of cool, if you're fond of antiques. And Rula Bula tries, though I've never been a big fan of the place. But in general, dining gets better the farther you are from Mill. Indeed, just a few blocks west of Mill, on a stretch of University populated mostly by pizza joints, is a newly established outpost of indie dining that should be a magnet for foodies in Tempe and without. It's Mucho Gusto Taqueria and Mexican Bistro, now just 14 weeks old.
Talk about trading up: Mucho Gusto inhabits a quaint little building that most recently housed a fairly run-of-the-mill (no pun intended) burrito joint called Guedo's. The co-owners of MG are two of the crew that struck culinary gold with their critically acclaimed Atlas Bistro in Scottsdale, chef Carlos Manriquez and Chad Withycombe. Mucho Gusto is a departure from Atlas, that small BYOB spot with gourmet cuisine and prices to match. Though the Tempe establishment is by no means frugal with flavors, its moderate price range, anywhere from $10 to $16 for an entree, is in keeping with the depth of pockets in a college town.
Mucho Gusto not only has a full bar with my favorite beer Stella Artois on tap, but it makes some outstanding margaritas, often with ingredients that Manriquez has prepared by hand, like the syrups he creates for Mucho Gusto's hibiscus and tamarind margaritas. As far as the food goes, Manriquez describes the restaurant's still-evolving menu as "Mexican soul food with a Tempe flair." But it's fair to compare the cuisine to that of eateries such as Barrio Cafe and Padre's, in that it's truly inventive Mexican fare on an entirely different level from the Valley's overabundance of enchilada shacks.
Admittedly, Manriquez and Withycombe have had to make concessions by adding a "big-ass burro" to their bill of fare, and caving on their initial resistance to having chips and salsa. This about-face has been a boon in the case of the salsa, crafted in-house by Manriquez with several chiles, including guajillo and chipotle, as well as garlic and Roma tomatoes. Unfortunately, the tri-colored tortilla chips are straight from the bag, but if you cover them completely with Manriquez's smoky, spicy salsa, the lackluster quality of the chips can be overlooked.
Those chips were one of the few stumbling blocks in my otherwise engrossing adventures in gluttony at Mucho Gusto. Though often used as an enthusiastic greeting in Latin America, "mucho gusto" literally means "much pleasure," and they ain't kiddin' around, pallie! Manriquez is a real sorcerer of sauces, capable of crafting a mole negro that'll make you wince with sensual gratification. Here, I'm speaking of the mole that accompanied MG's Oaxacan tamale. Wrapped in banana leaves, the mesquite-grilled chicken tamale was accompanied by a small bowl of that chocolaty porridge. By God's socks, I'd have been nearly as content if my server had just brought me a bigger bowl of that stuff and let me lap it up like a soup.
I could say the same of the incredibly rich and creamy, garlic-amaretto mélange, and the spicy sweet Barra Vieja sauce that each covered their respective entrees of shrimp. You get a good portion of eight shrimp per plate, with the first topping being white and buttery, and the second being a dark, reddish brown, made from an unlikely combo of chiles, Coca-Cola and chocolate. According to Manriquez, he acquired the recipe while backpacking through Mexico at a little establishment in the town of Barra Vieja where he traded a day's labor for the recipe. I'd certainly say he got the better of that barter.
Manriquez's genius for sauces extends to what may be my pick for appetizer of the year: steamed clams in a pool of savory, brown adobo broth. If I had a $2 bill for every order of disappointing clams I'd had in the Valley, I'd have more scratch than Donald Trump. But Mucho Gusto's clams were so fresh, they were almost weeping in agony as I pulled them from their shells. And that adobo sauce was a meal in itself, with chunks of chorizo and two slices of bread with which to soak it all up.
The Colorado pork stew was a peppery blast of New Mexico chiles in my mouth, accompanied by a crispy hunk of fry bread, while the gaucho steak in an Argentine chimichurri marinade of olive oil, soy sauce and herbs was soft, mild and comforting. Entrees were often accompanied by "New Mexican mashed potatoes," a bright orange side made with New Mexico chiles, garlic and cheese, all of which tingles in your kisser as you eat it.
For desserts, you can choose either a chocolate brownie with cinnamon ice cream, or a walnut custard topped with tiny toasted marshmallows. Both are fine, but I wish Manriquez would offer a Mucho Gusto-style flan, as it's rare that I come across one I really enjoy.
If I've neglected the atmosphere this time around, it's only because of my excitement over the grub. Manriquez and Withycombe have converted what was a functional fast-food operation into a pleasant, genteel bistro with a cantina-style bar, and Mexican masks and Botero reproductions on the walls. It's a far cry from the corporate toxicity of Mill. And for this alone, the proprietors probably deserve the bleedin' key to the city.
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