Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Four years ago — when the economy was booming, the housing market was white-hot, and the dining public was insatiable for things like upscale steakhouses and stylish sushi joints — there was a major new player in the CenPho restaurant scene, a big, bustling Mexican spot called Tradiciones.
At the time, it seemed everyone in town was buzzing about this place, and there was often a wait for a table — which says a lot, given the size of the dining room.
Michele Laudig cafe
1602 East Roosevelt Street
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday
Chicken fajitas: $8.95
Carne asada: $8.95
Combination plate: $7.95
Located next to the sprawling Pro's Ranch Market (both the grocery store and restaurant are owned by the Provenzano family), it was impressive on many levels, from the food (blessedly free of melted cheese) to the service (especially waitresses in colorful garb making the rounds with fresh-off-the-griddle tortillas). In fact, I predicted it would raise the bar for Mexican cuisine in the area.
"Tradiciones took the highlights of the best little Latino joints — atmosphere, authentic eats, nice employees — and put them under one big roof," I wrote in 2006. Since then, I've recommended the restaurant to countless readers and friends.
But things have changed at Tradiciones and, sadly, not for the better. I've noticed it over the course of the past several months, first as a case of chronic mediocrity and, more recently, as a series of utter disappointments. The atmosphere lacks that special oomph, and the food is simply pathetic. Some of it is inedible.
Just as the economy has sputtered, the housing market has hit rock bottom (maybe), and the dining public has seriously tightened its purse strings (note the proliferation of unadventurous, budget-friendly comfort food), Tradiciones has lost its mojo.
It used to have it in spades. Once upon a time, on my way in the front door here, I'd walk past the courtyard filled with folk art vendors, live musicians, and a bustling open kitchen where I could get an eyeful (and a deep, delicious inhale) of sizzling carne asada and hot, handmade tortillas. Tradiciones was a Phoenix gem, a showcase for Mexican food and culture that you just don't find in other cities.
Since we're on that subject, something else has happened besides the recession that's too important to ignore: Our state has endured considerable fallout from its controversial immigration policy.
Who knows how many Hispanic immigrants, both legal and undocumented, have packed up and left town, fearful of the crackdown in the wake of SB 1070? There are reports that entire neighborhoods are gathering tumbleweeds and businesses are closing because their customer base has vanished.
Before SB 1070 even took effect (but nevertheless a sign of the times), Pro's Ranch Market fired around 300 of its 1,500 Valley employees in April, after a federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement audit found them to be working here illegally.
Is that high-profile raid the reason for Tradiciones' downhill slide? Is the economy to simply blame? Can fresh tortillas be made only by undocumented Mexican immigrants, who are now in short supply?
I'm not buying any excuse, because if SB 1070 were the only culprit — and not the restaurant's own management — then I might've seen a similar decline in quality at other favorite Mexican joints (which I haven't), and for that matter, at pretty much any other type of restaurant in town, given the prevalence of Latinos in the industry.
Just what am I talking about? My gripes go well beyond the noticeably subdued vibe that contrasted with my fond memories of this place.
I knew it from my first sip of horchata, the day's only agua fresca (used to be, they'd have several flavors to choose from): Something was off. It tasted almost metallic, as if it were made with bad water, and no amount of sugar could mask it. I longed for a Diet Coke.
The complimentary tomato salsa was decent, but it came with a basket of cold tortilla chips. Again, I was struck with nostalgia for the good old days, when servers would actually bring warm chips to replenish the basket. Not anymore.
Despite our hunger, some friends and I barely touched our sampler appetizer platter, an assortment of dried-out, oily taquitos, lukewarm beef mini-chimichangas, mini-enchiladas smothered with grainy, bitter mole sauce, and sopes heaped with lettuce, tomato, and cotija, which were just bland.
Even worse was queso fundido with chorizo, served with flour tortillas that were obviously not freshly griddled or handmade. Buried beneath a pile of bright-red chorizo (why was it almost neon?) was a dense gob of melted cheese, so overcooked that it had started to harden around the edges. It was a greasy disaster that nobody wanted to touch, but I had the professional duty of taking a couple of gloomy bites. Ugh.
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"Sizzling" chicken fajitas did not land on the table in any state of hot exuberance. Clearly, someone had already cooked the hell out of them, because the meat was dry. Just as awful was their unbearable saltiness. Meanwhile, an entrée-size chicken enchilada with mole also suffered from dessicated poultry that couldn't be revived with any amount of sauce or salsa. On the side was a scoop of lackluster refried beans and a pile of passable rice.
Crispy beef tacos weren't offensive, merely unexceptional. Considering how many great taco shops there are along 16th Street, these weren't worth my time. Carne asada was also kind of sad, a huge piece of bland beef resting on a soggy pile of chilaquiles. I wished it had at least been juicy.
And at the end of the meal, I passed on desserts. Really, I had no appetite, and it wasn't because I was full.
At this point, I'm ready for a break with tradition.