Some 10,000 years ago, across an ocean and a sea, humans first domesticated cattle. The first cattle were brought to the New World by Columbus in 1493. In time, cowboys herded animals up and down the land. Ranchland traditions took root in places like Sonora, Mexico — known for, among other delicacies, simply grilled beef.
At the sit-down Sonoran restaurant Bacanora, on Grand Avenue in Phoenix, Nogales-born chef Rene Andrade shows off some otherworldly grilling skills that are firmly rooted in the traditions of this earthly one. The highlight is any plate whatsoever that contains his carne asada, easily one of the Valley’s best.
When you bite into his grilled steak, the whole magic and wild history of beef seems to brim just below the charred outer fibers of the meat. It’s loaded with juice, iron, a husky smoke, and such a deep richness that each bite is kind of like falling down a dark well. There is a love, respect, and a connection with the past, all imbued by Andrade, who pours heart and talent into the food of Bacanora, the food of his home and home region.
Andrade grew up on Nogales’s Mexican side. His extended family has a ranch in Baviácora, along a river below mountains that he says turn red when the wild chiltepines ripen in fall. He often goes back — to see family, to eat, and now to procure ingredients for Bacanora.
Before opening Bacanora in late winter in the former Barrio Café Gran Reserva space — now sporting a magenta wall and blaring Mexican club music and wafting with scents of grill smoke so appetizing they pretty much slap your head sideways — Andrade was cooking in fine-dining kitchens throughout metro Phoenix. He cooked French food and pan-Latin food, Asian-inflected New American food and modern Southwestern food.
Now, at last, he is cooking Sonoran food. And he’s cooking using nada but a burner for boiling water and a giant wood-fired Santa Maria grill. Its grates hiss, filled with admirably sourced ingredients that change a bit from night to night: fish, tortillas, corn, chicken, beef, pots of beans, even raw materials for salsa.
Enter Bacanora, and you’ll notice the room’s intimate smallness. Diners are in relatively close proximity. Glass outer walls reveal cars passing on Grand Avenue, people strolling, building facades, trees, and the setting sun getting gaudy with its late-day color filters.
The grill fire crackles and spits. The waitress brings your Oaxacan Old Fashioned — made with rustic vegetal bacanora, the mezcal of Sonora, rather than spicy rye. From the far grill corner of the wedge-shaped room, Andrade likes to shout greetings to diners newly arrived.
Even if the sound, sight, and smell of his grill have pierced your soul, a simple cucumber salad hits the spot to open. Cool chunks of the vegetable pile in a citrus-bright vinaigrette. Both they and radish wedges are blanketed with queso fresco and enough chiltepin flecks to lend a trace of the wild chile’s fruit and fire.
Andrade’s elotes are nicely grilled and worth ordering for the sake of variety. But neither they nor the salad can hold a candle to a third small-ish plate: Andrade’s caramelo.
Here, at last, on a crunchy flour tortilla at the center of a brown clay plate, beef appears. It is often Rovey Dairy meat, sourced from Glendale. It is darkly burnished and chopped into chunks, yet still a shade rosy and tender.
It’s pure mastery from Andrade, though, as he told me in March, he views it more as everyday home cooking.
It’s easy to get so excited about this caramelo that you inhale it as you do oxygen. This is one of the most memorable bites of Mexican food in town, Sonoran or otherwise. Every part is sublime right on down to the pinto beans, spilling to the tortilla’s coarse rim, plump as hell, the kind of beans that make you marvel at the flavor beans can contain.
Andrade’s burrito, branded with grill marks, also showcases his deeply flavorful beans and beef. It’s swaddled in a pliant flour tortilla with thickness, some crispness yet some chew, and even a little fragrant grainy swagger.
The tortilla comes from the Tacos Chiwas folks, Nadia Holguin and Armando Hernandez, who are partners in Bacanora.
There is a vibe in Bacanora that overtakes you as your meal progresses. It’s some synergy of upbeat music and that pink-and-neon wall and the large brown clay plates heaped with just-barely-elevated meals, the Grand Avenue crowd and the cutting grill smoke and the wistful percussion of the cocktail shaker. Throughout the meal, always, there is Andrade beaming by that giant grill and then the internal thought, perhaps, of HOW IN THE WORLD DOES ONE DUDE WORK ONE GRILL WITH ALL OF ITS QUIRKS AND VARIABLES TO FEED ALL THESE PEOPLE SUCH GREAT FOOD?
Andrade’s largest-format plate and menu cornerstone is chicken grilled over the same mesquite, almond, and pecan wood as everything else. Though this bird from Two Wash Ranch doesn’t hit the giddy heights of his masterful beef, it’s an impressive shareable plate. Pieces are stacked atop big cuts of potato. Drippings collect at the bottom. Two salsas sidekick, as well as a short stack of 10/10 tortillas. More of those absurdly tasty beans fill an earthen serving vessel, pintos about as soft and heady as the queso fresco on top.
“I want to represent the Sonoran Desert, but I also want to take you home,” Andrade told me back in March. “I want it to be like you’re coming to my house and cooking for you.”
In the end, that’s how Bacanora feels. It feels like you’re eating the food of an exciting, upbeat person who has learned a lot, has a story to tell, and has thrown off all previous expectations and formality and is now cooking straight from the heart and home. It feels like you’re in the friendly kitchen of one of the best young Mexican chefs in town, because you are.
1301 NW Grand Ave. Unit 1
Cucumber salad $7
Burrito Asada $12
Pollo Asado $27