Cafe Reviews

Café Tranquilo at the Clarendon Hotel: Vibrant Fare Worthy of Repeat Visits

When Gallo Blanco at the Clarendon Hotel closed in January, much whining commenced, mostly from fans of truly fine Mexican food. In Gallo’s place, Café Tranquilo features a vibrant menu from Chef Dan Maldonado, known for stirring the pot at his now-closed Tacos Atoyac and, more recently, at Mucho Macho Taquerilla.

Maldonado’s presentations are lovely and his ingredients are unfailingly fresh, and many if not all of his offerings are good enough to eventually drown out the complaints about Gallo’s departure.

His menu offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner fare to hotel guests and anyone else hankering for a jalapeño-fueled meal. A longish menu is augmented by daily specials, most notably the mac and cheese. The one we ordered was fiery with chorizo and slightly runny — more like a queso dip than a comfort-food side and, therefore, great with the complimentary bowl of thick, crisp chips brought to our table. These came with a pair of salsas, a pleasant chunky tomatillo and a kick-ass chile de arbol, hot, dark, and smoky. We used them to scoop into an order of guacamole, nicely spicy with flavors of ancho chile and lime, rich with big chunks of avocado and sweet bits of mango folded in. Our waiter served the guac with the announcement, “This is the best guacamole in town!” It wasn’t, by our estimation, but it was still very good.

Another dip that’s actually listed as one on the menu was even tastier: The Elote Dip is a direct lift from the Gallo Blanco menu, where it was called Elote Callejero. In this version, a splendid blend of fresh-roasted corn and cheese is dressed with rich mayonnaise and cotija cheese; a snappy bite of ancho pepper offsets the charred corn and citrusy flavors.

Salads run large and can be shared; we liked the Tranquilo chop salad, a blend of kale and green cabbage jumbled with jicama, egg, tomato, and cotija cheese and tossed with a stunning roasted jalapeño cream dressing. An order of posole was authentically prepared and offered deep flavors of pork and hominy. This is a green posole, chile-based and deeply aromatic; I could smell it coming toward our table. Packed with hominy and tender hunks of meat, it’s served with the proper toppings: sides of cabbage, oregano, radish, lime, and cilantro to doctor the soup yourself.  

The best thing about the campechana ahogada torta was its fluffy bun. Otherwise, the combination of too many textures and flavors (chorizo, avocado, tomato, Oaxaca cheese, and both mayonnaise and red sauce) defeated the grilled rib eye that was the sandwich’s centerpiece. A side of completely flavorless Mexican slaw also was disappointing. The slightly sweet crust on the fried fish torta was rendered soggy by too much crema sauce and more of that taste-free slaw, though the fish itself was flaky and moist.

The pork enmoladas, on the other hand, were sublime. Similar to pork enchiladas, these enmoladas wrap braised pork in soft tortillas smothered in a rich, lightly sweet and neatly spicy red mole sauce. A side of rice was rich with cilantro, and an accompanying vegetable medley — onion, zucchini, green pepper, and Romanesco broccoli — was crisp and subtly spiced.

Seven different taco options are offered, each made with fresh, warm corn tortillas. The grilled vegetable version, stuffed with squash, corn, onions, and cabbage and spiced with pico de gallo, is perhaps the best. The pork barbacoa variety featured subtle flavors of cilantro and snappy pickled red onion, but the meat was surprisingly dry. Seafood versions were both near-misses: The seared shrimp taco was, despite a glob of chipotle aioli and a mound of crisp slaw, quite bland. The fried beer-battered fish, drizzled with crema sauce, was crisply coated but flavorless.

We tried a pair of desserts, each quite nice: Tres leches cake is prepared traditionally, with hunks of fresh white cake soaked in a sweet three-milk blend. I could have done without the caramel sauce on the chocoflan, which combines chocolate cake and traditional flan in a pairing that’s already sweet enough.

Maldonado’s breakfast fare is also better than average: We began with Bloody Marys, both virgin and high-octane, because we’d heard that Tranquilo’s bar made them well. They do, garnishing them with jicama, celery, and olives. The rib eye with eggs was cooked to order, the steak medium-rare, the eggs over-easy. The nicely gristled cut of meat was buried under a neat bed of sautéed onions and accompanied by crispy cubed potatoes tossed with pepper and more onion. The eggs, cheddar cheese, and papas in the breakfast burro were overpowered by super-spicy chorizo; on a second visit, we’ll try the burro with plain old sausage or ham.

Service here is lacking. During most visits, we were attended to not by a single server but by a team of people — an increasingly popular trend among waitstaffs. During a dinnertime visit, a stranger showed up as we finished our entrées, anxious to leave our bill although we’d not yet ordered dessert. On another outing, a server dropped the fish taco we’d ordered and, after replacing it, left the spoiled one at our feet throughout lunch.

There are culinary and service bolts to be tightened here, but as boutique hotel eateries go, Café Tranquilo is far enough ahead to warrant repeat visits

Café Tranquilo
401 West Clarendon Avenue
7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily

Elote dip $6.25
Ceviche $11
Pork enmoladas $18
Rib eye and eggs $17

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela