It takes a brave soul to open a restaurant in downtown Phoenix these days, especially when it involves adaptive reuse — that is, taking an old building and transforming it into something fresh rather than knocking it down to build something new.
This has long been a pet subject of mine, as I love vintage architecture and have talked to many restaurateurs whose businesses are labors of love that nearly broke them after months of renovation headaches and city red tape. Their stories are all unique, but the common thread is passion.
Moreover, anyone who'd open a restaurant right before summer — and do it amid an economic climate in which nearby restaurants are either struggling or disappearing — may be not just brave, but also a little crazy.
825 North First Street
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday
Red chile beef: $7
Green chile pork: $7
Verde salad: $7
Yet what kind of dining scene would we have without these obsessed, determined indie restaurant owners? Phoenix's urban fabric would be threadbare without these guys.
So that's why I'm rooting for Verde, a little Mexican joint that Joseph Aguayo (Tiburon, Central Grille) and Matt Avilla (Roaring Fork, Houston's) opened at the end of April, after months of construction delays.
Last time I had set foot in this early-1930s building, it was an all-ages music venue where 20-somethings were bobbing their heads to a hardcore band. I heard that it used to be a strip club years ago, too. And now, performance has returned in the form of tortilla-making.
That's right — from outside, you can actually watch ladies hand-forming the flour discs and cooking them on the griddle. The main kitchen is inside, but the tortilla room is prominently in front, with a large picture window facing First Street. It's certainly fun to watch the gals at work, but honestly, I can't hang out there for very long before I simply want to eat those tortillas.
They're really the star of the show here, with a toothsome, slightly elastic thickness and touches of blistering from the hot metal. Verde should consider selling these by the bag, if only for the downtown commuter crowd to pick up on the way home from work. Tortillas this good go well with anything — or nothing. I like eating them plain, too.
There's plenty of reason to dine in, as much as takeout is a breeze here. The dining room is spare but cheerful, with bright green hanging lamps, wood-topped tables, and exposed brick walls. The wall around the doorway is plastered with old newspaper restaurant reviews, and there's a counter window to place your order.
Definitely try one of the aguas frescas to drink. So far, I've had the watermelon (so sweet and summery) and the strawberry (a delicious contrast to hot and spicy food).
With the exception of a few weekend-only breakfast items, like a bacon, egg, and cheese burrito or chorizo and egg torta, the compact menu revolves around entrées served with rice and beans — perfect, since both just cry out for a hunk of warm tortilla to wrap them up.
The rice was fragrant with cilantro and a few flecks of tomato, while the beans were almost smoky-sweet, like a Mexican take on barbecued beans. Crumbles of cotija on top were a salty bonus. Homemade salsas served on the side were also mouthwatering. There was a light, fresh-tasting tomato purée with a surprising bit of heat, and punchy tomatillo. Verde's guacamole is also worth a try, a chunky, tangy blend of avocado, cilantro, onion, and tomato.
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Green chile pork was outstanding, with big, moist chunks of meat and just enough spicy sauce to set my mouth on fire. If you're a pork lover, this is a must-try. Red chile beef had the rich flavor of deeply roasted chiles, and I wish they'd serve this in taco form. On the day I tried the regular beef tacos, the plain shredded beef inside was as tender as pot roast, but just not as exciting as the red chile beef. Vegetable tacos were even less thrilling, with jicama, carrot, cucumber, radish, and tomato tossing in a bland sort of salt-and-pepper vinaigrette.
The house salad bowl was a generous mix of romaine, tomatoes, and cheese but wouldn't be enough to fill me up on its own. If you order that, consider some chilaquiles to accompany it. With shreds of chicken, green chiles, sauce-soaked tortillas, and gobs of cheese, that was more my style.
And I shouldn't forget the oregano-lime chicken, which didn't taste much like oregano or lime, but had golden, deliciously seasoned crispy skin and delectable meat hidden underneath.
I loved the dish for its simplicity, which is pretty much the same way I feel about the restaurant itself. If you're in the vicinity of downtown, this is a great pick for a quick lunch or a cheap, casual dinner — something we could use more of down in this 'hood.