If you've driven down Grand Avenue during the last few months, then chances are good you've noticed a change or two. In January, Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva took over the space most recently occupied by Bragg's Factory Diner, and a clean white building now rests at the intersection of McKinley Street and Route 60. Thanks to the fresh coat of paint and some shiny new lettering, Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva has seemed close to opening since at least mid-February, but the restaurant's still yet to make its public debut.
"I'm in no fucking hurry," says chef Silvana Salcido Esparza. She likes to work on restaurants from the "outside in" — it helps build the anticipation, she explains.
Of course, the anticipation for Esparza's latest restaurant was all but unavoidable. It's been more than a decade since she opened Barrio Cafe, one of metro Phoenix's most celebrated restaurants, and about a year since she added the more casual Barrio Urbano to the mix. In the interim, Esparza's opened several other restaurants including a Barrio Cafe location at the airport and Barrio Queen in Scottsdale, though the chef's no longer associated with the latter restaurant or any of its locations.
And as the name indicates, Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva will be something entirely new.
"It's a style [of cooking] that's been in my head for 14 years," Esparza says. "It's going to be different from what you know."
With a total of eight tables, or about two dozen seats, the restaurant's designed to be cozy, intimate, and manageable for Esparza and a small kitchen staff to work out of tight quarters. There's no deep fryer in the kitchen, not to mention to no walk-in freezer, so you can expect ingredients to be fresh and in limited supply. Esparza's still hashing out the details of the menu, but has already collected more than 20 different types of peppers for the Gran Reserva larder. She's combining them into brick red pastes that balance nutty sesame with a slow-burning heat and almost-black chile negro paste made from dried pasillas.
Esparza says she expects the menu to include some of the classics diners have come to know and love at the original Barrio Cafe. In fact, about two-thirds of the menu will be taken from that restaurant. The other third will feature obscure Mexican ingredients, including items from Baja California. There will be a tasting menu — Esparza says she's thinking five to seven courses — and the chef's playing around with ideas including sous-vide chorizo (she's making her own at the restaurant), dishes using puff-pastry dough, and raw seafood including oysters and caviar. But there's one thing that will definitely not be on the menu.
"Sorry, no tacos because everyone else killed it for me," she says.
Aside from the menu, Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva will also offer a wine list sourced entirely from Mexico. Some two dozen wines will be available by the bottle and the chef's even sourced a proprietary wine for the restaurant. The bar will be "an agave cocktail bar," meaning you can expect more than just tequila in the mixed drinks. Esparza's also lined up mezcal, bacanora, and more.
Bursting with natural light and boasting some pretty impressive views of the downtown skyline, Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva has no shortage of physical appeal. There will be no patio dining, but the chef says she hopes to get musicians to play outside the front door. Some of the restaurant's best views, however, aren't found in the dining room, but rather in the restaurant's two bathrooms, which feature floor-to-ceiling murals by local artists: Lalo Cota (exterior room), Angel Diaz (unisex bathroom), and Pablo Luna (ladies' room).
The chefs says she's not sure when she'll be ready to open the place to the public. But for now, she's enjoying the space and using it to experiment and cook. As with Barrio Cafe, both Esparza and partner Wendy Gruber did much of the restaurant's renovations themselves — Gruber also lost a pinky finger refinishing and repairing the restaurant's gorgeous walnut-topped bar, which Esparza has since dubbed "Pinky's Bar."
If one thing is for sure, it's that Esparza's excited to flex her creative muscles at this blank slate of a restaurant.
"I can do anything I want," she says. "Including serving worms — which I intended to do."
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