Battle of the Guacamole

For some, guacamole is a mere condiment akin to sour cream or salsa. We think of it more like Guinness -- excellent as an accompaniment to lunch or dinner, but thick and hearty enough to be a meal on its own.

Afraid you'll bust your diet resolution if you down a dish of guac? Once shunned for being as high in fat as a quarter pounder, scientists have recently figured out that the fat in avocado is mostly monounsaturated fat, which aids in lowering cholesterol. So as one waitress at a local Mexican joint put it, "Eat up! Guacamole's healthy."

We compared this healthful treat at two local Mexican restaurants to see whose rich, creamy dip would entice us to come back for more.

In One Corner: San Gabriel Mexican Cafe
7000 North 16th Street in Phoenix


San Gabriel is a cute little Mexican restaurant tucked into the corner of a strip mall in NoPo. In January 2009, it took over Bombay Spice's second location -- not because Bombay Spice was failing, but because owners JNK Concepts decided two Bombay Spice locations six miles apart was one too many. So they replaced the Indian restaurant with San Gabriel.

​Much of the original restaurant remains, including the open concept kitchen, sleek neon-lit wall of wine (now replaced by tequila) and curvaceous drop ceiling. There's even a Bombay Spice to-go menu rack on the counter when you enter. 

Like any gringo-centric Mexican restaurant, San Gabriel manages to sneak a few tacky mementos on the walls: sombreros, maps of Meh-hee-co and tequila advertisements. The bones of the place were good to begin with though, so it remains modern and bright.

San Gabriel offers a unique "Make Your Own" guacamole that we were excited about trying. Admittedly, our culinary spirits were a little crushed when we discovered that the system involved choosing items off of a paper guacamole checklist provided on every table, rather than receiving a pile of ingredients to mash together ourselves. Oh, well. So much for playing with our food.

We ordered up a traditional batch of guacamole with avocado (natch), cilantro, tomatoes and garlic. The guac arrived in a simple china bowl, paired with three sauces in varying heat levels that added color to the plate and upped the presentation factor. It was certainly a pretty dish. But would the taste stack up to the look?

"This is a very sweet guac," remarked our dining companion. "It's creamy, with just enough avocado chunks to give it some weight."

Our table was completely in agreement on this dish (a feat for any dining party). The guac was sweet with an undertone of grassiness, likely owing to a well-ripened batch of avocado. It was super creamy and rich, with diced red tomatoes for added texture. Fresh garlic and cilantro added a nice zing to the mix. All three of the accompanying salsas, from verde to habenero, were delectable -- though the savory guacamole didn't really need any of them.

As important as the guac itself is the accompanying chips. You can't have a good guac experience if your chips are too oily, thin or soggy. Ours were fresh enough that we actually saw them being made in the kitchen minutes before they arrived. The homemade chips were warm and crisp, cooked in canola oil and lightly salted. They're also the perfect thickness for dipping, with enough substance to hold the weight of the guac.

We polished off half of the guacamole appetizer plate, plus a few burritos and tacos, and took home the rest for later.

In the Other Corner: Mucho Gusto Taqueria and Mexican Bistro
603 W. University Dr. in Tempe

Mucho's guac is an island of chunky veggies in a sea of alcohol (even if you don't order a margarita).

​We've been going to Mucho Gusto since we were in school at Arizona State University a few years back. They have one of the best patios in town, shielded from the bustle of University Dr. traffic by a sloping adobe wall and serving as the entranceway to the restaurant. The exterior sports orangey-pink stucco you can't miss; especially in contrast to the stark white (and very square) other half of the building, which currently houses a used clothing exchange.

Inside is a small dining room with faux painted walls and lively Fernando Botero-style "fat lady" paintings. A rustic wooden bar dominates the right half of the space, its popularity likely owing to the restaurant's proximity to Arizona State. And maybe the excellent margaritas.

Mucho Gusto's ambience left a little to be desired on our last visit. Gnats from the open door buzzed around our food. Service was spotty. And our bowl of chips was 50% crumbs, a fact that would make eating our guac devilishly difficult later on in the meal. But enough of the foreshadowing.

A massive pile of guacamole arrived on a dingy white china plate (or perhaps it was just the dim lighting?). Around the isle of guac was a syrupy brown moat of Grand Marnier and diced chilies, Mucho Gusto's signature additions to this Mexican staple. Thick chunks of tomato and onion, plus a sprinkling of cojita, topped the dish.

We dug into the guac and were surprised by the overwhelmingly sweet flavor from the drizzled Grand Marnier-jalapeno reduction. Diced jalapenos, which we usually avoid straight, were delectable when mixed with the guac. The peppers soaked up the liquor's sweetness, mitigating their burn and giving a nice contrast to the earthy avocado. 

The guac itself was on the heavy side, with thick avocado chunks that were a little pasty on their own. Our personal preference is a creamier dip. Mucho Gusto's guac was a double-edged sword: it was so crammed with other ingredients that the grassy avocado flavor got lost, but the cojita, Grand Marnier and chile made it more pleasing to the palate. The huge tomato and onion chunks overwhelmed the poor avocado. And the chips...

As we already hinted, our bowl was laden with so many crumbs that about halfway through, we had to sprinkle them onto the guac and eat it with a spoon! Our chip bowl was never refilled, tsk, tsk. The chips were thin and brittle, making it hard to scoop the heavy guacamole up without breaking them. We love Mucho Gusto's taco platters and garlic amaretto shrimp, but maybe we'll skip the guac next time.

The Winner: San Gabriel Mexican Cafe  


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