Cafe Reviews

At the Taco Guild in Phoenix You'll Find Setting Over Substance

In its simplest form, a guild is an association built upon a specialized area of expertise, often chartered by a monarchy, involving a rigid structure of journeymen, apprentices, and crafstmen. Such guilds proliferated in medieval times and, in many ways, laid the foundation for what we now know as trade unions. The very notion of a guild is a distinctly European idea and, in many ways, is the precursor to some of the great academic institutions of England, France, and Italy. So, before I continue with this cursory attempt at a history lesson, it's important to note one important detail: Guilds never made their way to Mexico.

Not that I take Taco Guild's name particularly seriously. I don't. The name is more marketing fluff than historical fact and is somewhat comical among those of us who view a taco as a cultural and culinary expression of beautiful simplicity, not academic rigor. Let's face it: Some of the best tacos come from a cart or a truck in dimly lit parking lots where the mere mention of Joe Arpaio's name can clear the whole block. Regrettably, it seems many of the offerings at Taco Guild were created by apprentices, not master guildsmen.

Maybe all the craftsmanship went into the setting, which is utterly spectacular. You dine in a converted church with lofty vaulted ceilings, heavy wrought-iron light fixtures, and faux frescos high above the centrally located bar, which serves as something of a shrine to tequila. It's beautiful, dramatic, and elevates Taco Guild to something that feels special, and the restaurant has the kind of lighting that makes everyone look good even before you've indulged in the tequila offerings. The restaurant comes from the folks behind the Z'Tejas chain. They spared no expense, and when it comes to atmosphere, the result is something different from the recent smattering of high-end taco joints like Joyride Taco House, Barrio Queen, and Taco Haus. Just make sure you don't get seated in the claustrophobic back room, which is cramped and notably devoid of character.

But ultimately, a restaurant is about the food, not the setting. Tacos are street food, not high art, and the best tacos often have some funk: lengua, cabeza, and other parts of the animal that make gringos squirm but shouldn't. There is funk to be found in Taco Guild's fare, but — regrettably — it's frequently in the form of culinary creative license, not offal bits. There are 10 featured tacos, neatly organized into "Old World" and "New World" categories, and the results are mixed.

Does blue cheese belong in a taco? I'll let you decide, but it worked well in the chipotle cherry steak taco, with crispy fried poblano chiles and a cool chili aioli. Giving the middle finger to my less-is-more bias when it comes to tacos, this beef taco managed to effectively balance a dizzyingly array of textures and flavor profiles. Blue cheese also makes its way into the Molida Lamb, one of the menu's simplest and most satisfying offerings, consisting of little more than well-seasoned ground lamb, blue cheese, and a light smear of Creole-seasoned aioli. If it sounds unconventional, it's because it is. But, to my surprise, it works.

Less avant-garde is the Guild Chicken, braised in annatto seeds, which add a subtle crimson blush but do little in terms of flavor enhancement. And that's just as well because the chicken was moist and dense with flavor, with textural balance coming from elote and avocado. The Urban Bean coffee-braised beef had the same effect; I detected no coffee flavor, but that really didn't matter given the pleasant contrast of mango salsa and sweet caramelized onion.

It's almost hard to utter the words "Peking Duck" and "taco" in the same sentence, but someone had the cojones to try to make it work. It doesn't, it but could have had there been a rich hoisin sauce, green onions, and cucumber. Instead, there's Brie, and the result is unsavory, at best. The al pastor suffered the same fate. The pork was dry and overpowered by chunks of pineapple instead of a subtle sweetness that comes from the pineapple that's supposed to gradually work its way into the meat from atop a trompo, the traditional spit from which al pastor is cut. The pork adovada was less of a flop; it packed some heat but could have done without with mango jicama relish.

Ordering three tacos gets you a free side dish. I found two tacos to be plenty — they're big — but if you do order a side, steer clear of the green chile achiote rice, which, despite the multi-syllabic moniker, is hard to differentiate from the myriad "Spanish rice" variations around town. In the plus category, the borracho red beans were hearty and satisfying, neither soupy nor gummy. You can add "street corn" for $1.50; served off the cob, it was well prepared and sweet but yearned for some salt and acidic balance.

Apropos of its gentrified clientele, the grilled romaine salad is a surprising showstopper. A successful riff on a traditional Caesar salad, this dish's whole romaine leafs are brushed with olive oil and flash-grilled to form a delicate wilted char and lightly dressed with a smooth cilantro dressing. I generally avoid salads as entrées, but topped with chicken or steak, this is a reasonably healthful choice for the taco-averse.

The crowd at Taco Guild is largely white and upscale, the result of neighborhood gentrification and close proximity to downtown's offices. It's a convivial setting, for sure, and an inviting place to grab a drink while snacking on chips that are served warm and accompanied by four salsas, none of which was afraid of heat. In fact, even the most basic of the salsas yielded a slow burn. The habanero is overkill, misplacing heat for flavor, as it often does. But the jalapeño salsa has both kick and flavor, its soothing muted green hue disguising the impending sharp jab on your taste buds. I poured it on everything.

Guacamole, offered in four variations, is advertised as freshly made but routinely arrives too quickly and too cold and in dire need of salt and lime but thankfully absent of tomatoes, which have no place in quacamole. The gussied-up versions, like japapeño bacon and caramelized pineapple mint, might work better if the underlying base were properly seasoned. But avoid at all costs the Schreiner's chorizo meatballs. Sure, they're spicy, but they're also a sticky, complicated mismatch of flavors described by one of my guests as "ghastly." Friends don't let friends eat that.

I like the idea of getting drunk in a church, and Taco Guild's selection of tequila runs from the familiar labels to high-end offerings, heavily centered on Casa Azul tequilas. An ornate black bottle of Casa Azul Ultra Anejo is the centerpiece of the bar, and rightfully so. The 1893 Frozen Margarita is a wise choice this season. After a 20-minute wait on a hot June evening, it went down easily, and had I not been driving, there surely would have been another. At happy hour, you can get a draft beer and a shot of Cabrito Reposado tequila, a respectable selection with a strong vanilla notes and a subtle oily burn on the back of your throat.

Although Taco Guild's menu yields both hits and misses, no one seems to notice. I rarely saw empty tables, even at unusual times, and the staff is impeccably trained with one glaring exception: the hostesses. The architecture itself, though pretty, is limiting in that it doesn't create much of an area for patrons to wait. So when a lackadaisical and seemingly uninterested young hostess tells you in a barely audible tone that there's a 15-minute wait, you're left awkwardly hovering uncomfortably close to other patrons' tables. Given the popularity of Taco Guild, this needs to be rectified right away.

And I hope it will. Though the corporate backing helps with marketing and operational expertise, the food needs simplification and a personal touch. But I'm afraid that Taco Guild, in order to succeed, needs to be many things to many people. And, by doing that it produces food that is overwrought and seemingly complex for the sake of complexity.

When it comes to tacos, less is more.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Eric Schaefer