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Vitamin T: A Sign of Life in Downtown

Chef Aaron May gets Mexican street food down to a T � four of them, in fact.
Chef Aaron May gets Mexican street food down to a T � four of them, in fact.
Jackie Mercandetti

My first bite of the pibil taco made me a believer.

Not just in the traditional Mexican dish, made with tender, slow-cooked pork shoulder that sings with a bright flavor of orange marinade, sweet pickled onions, and chile de arbol sauce and topped with a crunchy mix of cabbage, radishes, carrots, green onions, cilantro, and lime juice in a warm flour tortilla. And not just in Vitamin T, my taco's birthplace and chef Aaron May's new restaurant concept, in which he makes good on Mexican street food.

My first bite of pibil taco made me a believer in downtown Phoenix — sort of.

Have you been downtown lately? Not the Camelback and Central corridors, or Roosevelt Row on a First Friday, but downtown. Call me a dreamer — an idealist even — but I want downtown Phoenix to be what downtowns in big cities are supposed to be: a hustling and bustling mass of people, ideas, culture, and retail.

When I moved here six years ago, I wanted to live in downtown Phoenix, but when I checked it out, it seemed to me like a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Since then, slowly — slowly — downtown Phoenix has shown signs of life. Cityscape is — particularly with the recent addition of Stand Up Live and soon-to-open Oakville Grocery Co. — giving people a few new reasons to go downtown, and light rail is giving them an easy way to get there.

One of those signs of life is Vitamin T, a simple and tasty joint opened by one of the more notable chefs in town.

In the shadow of the gleaming, monolithic CityScape complex, a small sign with one word on it, "tacos," points the way to the simple pleasures of Mexican street food, on the southwest corner of First and Washington streets.

Follow the arrow on the sign and you'll find not only tacos, but three other Ts as well — tortas, tamales, and tequila — all which make up the restaurant called Vitamin T, a name May has said comes from Mexico City, where locals refer to their daily ration of Ts as vitamina T.

It's a small, casual spot for grabbing food to go or a place to hang before or after an event. The sounds of classic rock and a sidewalk patio lead to a tiny layout inside, crowded with tables and chairs, and with a rather unfortunate first impression from the doorway — the Pepsi machine, the bathroom door, and the dishwashing area. The order-up counter is perforated metal and lit from behind in yellow light. Too bad there isn't the opportunity to sit on a stool and watch the magic happen.

I wish the interior of Vitamin T followed its edgy website design and clever green and orange disco logo. Instead, it's more a décor mash-up. Tiled columns and smooth walls swathed in bright colors of pink, yellow, and blue, said to be a tip of the hat to Luis Barragán, one of Mexico's most influential architects of the 20th century, meet funky lights, wood-barrel tables bearing the logo of Don Julio tequila (served by the shot), and a standee of Dos Equis' most interesting man in the world ("Stay thirsty, my friends") next to LCD screens displaying the restaurant's tight menu.

That's right, tight. While Vitamin T's menu may be small, its food packs a punch — fresh ingredients prepared with distinctive flavors. The cooking is to the point, with no bullshit moves like, say, a Mexican-inspired meatloaf or adding a splash of soy sauce or wasabi to the mix.

Along with the Ts, the menu sports a couple of salad options, a Sonoran dog, and caramelos (quesadillas stuffed with meat or roasted veggies). And with Vitamin T's reasonably priced food (the chef salad at $8.50 is the highest-priced item), you can afford to experiment and discover a favorite or two.

Mine was the tacos — nearly all of them — available in a flour or corn tortilla and topped with that fresh, crunchy slaw mix. The aforementioned pibil, a traditional pork dish from the Yucatán, was the best. Barbacoa, featuring the deliciously distinctive flavors of coffee and spicy chile de árbol in the beef brisket rub alongside smooth avocado cream, queso fresco, and salsa verde, was a close runner-up.

The queso fundido proved a simple and simply satisfying creation of Chihuahua cheese and chorizo sausage. And the veggie was a surprisingly tantalizing selection, featuring an earthy mix of roasted potatoes and mushrooms, black beans, toasted pumpkin seeds, and Oaxaca cheese with a layer of intensity courtesy of the chili de árbol and salsa verde toppings. The chicken sorely lacked the deep flavors of the standouts.

If you're looking for mounds of cheese on your tacos, Vitamin T ain't your place. I was happy to see the cheese wasn't piled high, as it is at so many Mexican eateries — just enough to lend its flavor then step back to let the other ingredients go to work.

Think the tacos sound good? Shimmy up to the salsa bar to make them better, hotter, or both. Choose from a flavor array of salsas, including serrano, chipotle, and tomatillo, in addition to pickled veggies, radishes, sour cream, even grilled green onions.

If a taco isn't your favorite vehicle for Mexican street food, follow the main ingredients to the tortas and tamales. Like the tacos, they both include the slaw mix. I found my barbacoa taco just as tasty inside the crusty, white sandwich roll of the torta, especially with the addition of a black bean spread and fresh roasted poblanos. Ditto on the slow-roasted pork, this time as an ahogado, or "drowned," sandwich dipped in Vitamin T's signature broth (fork, please!) and accompanied by pickled red onions, avocado slices, and chile de árbol sauce.

Get ready for a bit of the unconventional when it comes to the tamales. Unlike the traditional Mexican fare of seasoned meat wrapped in masa and steamed in cornhusks, Vitamin T's tamales are served open-face on a banana leaf. No worries. Close your eyes if need be and go again with the tasty pibil or barbacoa served with chile de árbol and queso fresco — or switch the two flavor powerhouses over to caramelos (meat-stuffed quesadillas) served with Chihuahua cheese, grilled onions, jalapeños, and queso fresco. The distinctive flavors remain the same — it's just the delivery that's different.

Jicama and spicy carrot pickles did what they could to enliven the menu's salads. The Sonoran dog, bacon-wrapped and topped with slaw along with mustard, mayo, jalapeño sauce, grilled and raw onions, and black bean spread on a cushy bolillo roll, is the odd man out on this menu, an unnecessary departure from the Ts.

I want downtown Phoenix to thrive. Aaron May must, too, or else he wouldn't have stuck Vitamin T smack dab in the middle of it. And if his simple menu of Mexican street food isn't the sole key to downtown's success, it sure can be a tasty part of it.

Chef Aaron May gets Mexican street food down to a T — four of them, in fact.
Jackie Mercandetti

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