Cafe Reviews

Asi es la Vida: An Ongoing Culinary Love Story in Phoenix

Así es la Vida is as much an ongoing love story as it is a charming spot for a gratifying culinary journey through the regions of Mexico.

And like any good romantic yarn, Así es la Vida's starts with a twist of fate.

Once upon a time, in the mid-1970s on the island of Cozumel, American tourist Judy Anderson met Moises Treves, a cook at a taco stand. Despite a language barrier, the two became fast friends and, one tropical afternoon, Treves told Anderson his dream was to have his own restaurant — one he would call "Such Is Life," a saying he learned from her. On the day she left to return to the United States, Anderson gave Treves an envelope she asked him not to open until she was gone. When he did, he found five $100 bills and a letter that read, "Dear Moises. Go make 'Such Is Life' happen. Love Judy."

See Also: Behind the Scenes at Asi es la Vida (Slideshow)

Within a month, Moises did just that, opening Such Is Life on Cozumel. But he wouldn't get to thank Anderson for her generosity until 20 years later — when Unsolved Mysteries aired their story in May 1997.

When Anderson, who saw the show, called Treves, she was thrilled to find her friend had come into his own. Making his way from Cozumel to the Valley by way of Florida, the former taco stand operator had honed his cooking skills and put his passion for the food of his country into a fine-dining Mexican establishment in Central Phoenix in 1993 and, later, a franchised location in Scottsdale.

Aimed at a clientele of well-heeled Anglos, Such Is Life more or less was responsible for teaching the Valley much of what it now knows about Mexican delicacies like mole, Veracruz-style pescado, and cochinita pibil (Silvana Salcido Esparza's Barrio Café wouldn't happen for almost another 10 years). And it wasn't long before Treves' decidedly sophisticated restaurant made national news, lauded by the New York Times as one of Phoenix's most interesting dining destinations.

But heartache was on the horizon.

Due to legal problems with the changing of owners at the Scottsdale location and a run-in with the health department at the Phoenix restaurant, both iterations of Such Is Life shuttered in 1999. Treves, it's been said, took a few consulting gigs in town and even sold used cars for a while before eventually moving back to Mexico, leaving his love to sit abandoned for years.

Enter Irving Rodriguez.

Until he was a junior at Arizona State University, Irving Rodriguez had no idea that the responsibility of carrying on Treves' dream would fall to him. Four years earlier, that task would be taken up by his uncles, Arturo, Raul, and Jorge Rodriguez, whose love of the restaurant and its cuisine prompted them to buy Such Is Life from Treves in 2003 and, because the moniker was not included in the sale, simply rename it Así es la Vida, the phrase's Spanish translation. Irving's father bought it one year later, turning over the ownership to his son as "a challenge" in 2007.

It was. Rodriguez says he barely made it to graduation.

The biggest challenge, the business major says, is changing Así es la Vida from a fine-dining experience to a more casual, but still upscale, spot for his mostly Anglo customers in what is now — 20 years later — a more competitive dining landscape.

For starters, Rodriguez made a few changes to the building. Some good, like brightening up the restaurant's two small dining areas and adding several locally commissioned paintings of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo to its softly lit interior of fresh flowers, tables topped with white linen, and lazily spinning ceiling fans. Some questionable, as in the flashing "open" signs and pale purple paint job on the restaurant's exterior.

But the most hopeful aspect of keeping Treves' culinary passion alive might be that Rodriguez — who operates Así es la Vida with his sister and co-owner, Cindy, and brother, Alex — learned to cook when he was at his mother's knee in his hometown of Valle de Bravo, about two hours southwest of Mexico City. And it's his deftness in the kitchen that's made Asi es la Vida's food nearly as satisfying now as it was two decades ago.

For the most part, Rodriguez has kept Treves' original menu intact, occasionally offsetting the thoughtful listing of well-crafted gourmet Mexican dishes with a creation of his own. Many of the offerings are outstanding, a few are simply so-so, and some of the more familiar dishes — given that they can now be found elsewhere in the Valley — may have you questioning their asking price. Still, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more intimate and welcoming atmosphere (once you get past the purple) to enjoy a glass of sangria and an enjoyable meal you needn't hurry over — especially if in the company of someone special.

There are no chips here; instead, in what Rodriguez says is more in the tradition of Mexico, a trio of excellent salsas — a smoky and spicy chipotle, a biting and lemony tomatillo, and a bracingly fresh pico de gallo — are brought to the table to enhance the forthcoming dishes.

They can be added to excellent starters such as an Acapulco-style shrimp cocktail with a zesty, citrus-y sauce you'll wish there were more of and giant, puffy shrimps fitted with avocado slices barely clinging to the edge of the glass, or the enfrijolada, the Oaxacan dish featuring a chicken enchilada wrapped in a homemade corn tortilla and covered in a silky and well-herbed dark-as-night black bean sauce.

You can splash the salsas into very good soups as well — perhaps the richly red and spicy Sopa de Tortilla made with chicken broth, crunchy tortilla strips, avocado, and a chunk of salty Oaxacan cheese or the more elegant specialty creation of Northern Mexico called Caldo de Rajas. Packed with mushrooms, poblano peppers, onions, potatoes, and delicate swirls of fresh cream, this earthy, spicy, and garlicky broth, made from chicken stock, is more or less a gourmet cup of comfort by way of a Mexican kitchen.

The larger plates come with side dishes as well conceived as the main attractions, like just-enough bites of perfectly prepared pinto beans sprinkled with Mexican cheese, a simple salad dressed in a housemade lemon vinaigrette and sprinkled with queso fresco, or, my favorite, sautéed corn and bits of poblano pepper with refreshing crema fresca.

You've probably had richer Mexican stews in the Valley, but the ones here are an acceptable lot nonetheless and can be spooned into tortillas for extra flavor. There is a sweet, bitter, and smoky mole poblano and the Pueblan dish chicken tinga, featuring shredded chicken in a mildly spicy and tomatoey chipotle sauce. The best, cochinita pibil, originating from Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, boasts chunks of slow-roasted pork covered in a smooth, vibrant sauce of achiote paste and orange juice accented with slivers of sweet red onions.

Given Así es la Vida's history, you may want to forgo the familiar and order up one of the more unique specialty dishes that helped put Treves' restaurant on the map. Skip the rather ho-hum lamb dish called Borrego Azteca for Carne Tampiqueña, an outstanding plate of thinly sliced and perfectly seasoned Angus sirloin paired with a roasted and soft poblano pepper packed with Chihuahua cheese. Or try the Pescado a la Veracruzana, a tilapia fillet covered in an earthy, spicy mix of tomatoes, capers, onions, and olives in a white wine sauce. It's a refreshing seafood dish with a Spanish slant. But best of all might be the Camaron al Mojo de Ajo, five enormous butterflied shrimp opened up to reveal tender, garlic-flavored white flesh you'd be forgiven for picking up and eating right out of the tails.

For dessert: a small slice of very good flan with a streak of chocolate.

In a somewhat odd turn of events, Rodriguez says, Treves has been back to Así es la Vida recently, bringing in a scrapbook of memories, letters, and photos of his dream, now decades old, to share with others. He's asked Rodriguez if he'd like the old name back, and if he might be interested in a partner.

It would appear this culinary love story isn't over yet. Such is life.

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Laura Hahnefeld
Contact: Laura Hahnefeld