Best Badass Chef 2009 | Silvana Salcido Esparza | La Vida | Phoenix
Allison Young

There is only one chef in the Valley who would have no qualms about referring to the majority of the men in the culinary world as "10-foot-high tokes."

With her cropped hair, unedited demeanor, eclectic art collection, and some of the best leg tattoos around, Silvana Salcido Esparza is clearly as badass as they come. Oh, and she's also one of the Valley's best-known and most respected chefs. Esparza owns and runs Barrio Café with her partner, Wendy Gruber, and serves up some of the best "Mexican-inspired" cuisine, as she calls it, that we've ever had.

It says, "Save water, drink tequila" in a footnote on her menu, but Esparza's secret, she says, is love. From the enchiladas del mar to the decadent slow-roasted pork with achiote rojo and sour orange with salsa Yucateca, Esparza puts her heart and soul into her food. "You cook with love," she says, and she makes sure of it every day (if she's angry or upset, she says, her food refuses to turn out right).

A baker's daughter from Merced, California, Esparza has her mother's recipes memorized on her heart, as she puts it, and she puts her father's bread on the table for every meal served at Barrio Café. She spent six years working in a bank in Miami, Florida counting the cash brought in daily by cartels, before she gave it up and went home when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. She spent a year learning about her Mexican roots through her mother's food and helping her fight the disease before taking her place at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute in the early '90s.

Then, in 2000, just as she turned 40, she quit her job, cashed in her 401(k) and sold or gave away everything she had but her '68 VW. She headed to Mexico to spend the next year of her life learning from — and cooking with — the people of Mexico. She slept on mats in huts in tiny villages and went from place to place by bus. She told the people she met that she had come to Mexico to get in touch with her soul, and to find her voice. She did.

Esparza has taken a true Phoenix barrio, at 16th Street and Thomas, where her restaurant is located, and turned it into one of the Valley's culinary draws — all without selling out, or compromising her roots, or becoming any less badass.

"We put it together with love," she says of the restaurant. And we love to eat there.

Best of Phoenix 2009 In Photos

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of