Cafe Reviews

Cafe Review: A Freewheeling Young Chef Fills an Old Space in Downtown Phoenix

Scallops are Jacobo's signature dish at Anhelo.
Scallops are Jacobo's signature dish at Anhelo. Jackie Mercandetti Photo
In February, when Ivan Jacobo completed his facelift of the former Rose & Crown space in Heritage Square and opened Hidden Kitchen — now called Anhelo — he was just 27. That means he was in elementary school when his neighbor across the way, Chris Bianco, won his James Beard Award in 2003. And he couldn’t drive a car yet when his neighbor to the west, Nobuo Fukuda, won his in 2007.

Jacobo’s new downtown block has gravity. But he hardly seems to notice. He goes his own way, something evident from the start.

Open the front door, and your gaze lifts above a host counter and into a small, partly open kitchen. It’s too cramped for even a walk-in fridge. Jacobo’s freezer, too, only has real estate for Frites Street fries and ice cream. And there isn’t space for draft taps, though Anhelo spreads through the creaky wooden bones of an old bar. Prior to opening, Jacobo did much of the refurbishing himself, painting walls, laying flooring, and wiring lights in the attic. The Silva House’s general layout is preserved (as law requires).

click to enlarge Anhelo Restaurant in downtown Phoenix's Heritage Square. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Anhelo Restaurant in downtown Phoenix's Heritage Square.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Before Anhelo, following a string of restaurant gigs in San Francisco and metro Phoenix, Jacobo ran a local pop-up with a cult following. It was called 319 Hidden Kitchen and featured a menu unknown to diners until they arrived. Dishes were interesting: sourdough with salted butter carved into roses (served below roses hanging from the ceiling), ingots of torch-cooked steak offset over horseradish cream. Seated altogether, diners tended to talk, laugh, buzz. And not just from the wine.

Anhelo retains that dinner-party feel. Service is casual and human, tables spill from the porch to the dooryard, and the menu rotates based on what Jacobo feels like cooking. His food is best — and most accordant with the neighborhood’s culinary ingenuity — when it has the most whimsy.

Cauliflower is roasted, buttered, and impaled with a steak knife. The use of anchovy is blunt, but if you like the salty fish, you’ll find yourself dragging florets through the plate’s pool of butter touched by Marcona almonds and mint. A plate of short rib fries feels callow, but fries are hot and meaty, and wine-braised beef is tender and torn into oyster-size chunks.

Jacobo’s take on Caesar salad ventures deeper into the slightly Seussian, twisting expectations and ratios. Inspired by Caesar’s bites of cheesy croutons, Jacobo distributes crunch to every surface of the salad. A blizzard of panko breadcrumbs and grated Pecorino nearly eclipses all green. In a way, the cheese morphs the salad into something beyond. I don’t know that it improves the original, but the result is a fun remix.

click to enlarge The watermelon salad with jalapeño, onion, and lime. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
The watermelon salad with jalapeño, onion, and lime.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
The most successful starter may be a watermelon number: pink cubes and wedges of dark green, speckled tomatoes. After the waitress sets down the plate, she’ll pour in blush puree: a blend of watermelon, jalapeño, onion, and lime. This “tea” coats the fruit cairn, making it almost like ceviche, the cool watermelon faintly tangy with lime and edged with chile. Dots of olive oil sail the pink meniscus, giving the melon the lipid sunshine it needs to express itself. This is an imaginative dish that hints at Jacobo’s potential.

Wrapped up in that potential is his attention to the environment. Rather than junking old wine, he uses it for braising. He trades carefully managed kitchen compost to Grace Farms in Chandler, and gets microgreens in return. In a warming world, this is the kind of mindset a young chef needs to have. Anything less is too little.

Like Anhelo’s starters, mains have peaks and a few valleys.

Jacobo features a rotating pasta special. One night, it was long-strand noodles with short, frilly ribbons of guanciale. A sauce made from pasta water, cheese, chives, and rendered guanciale fat didn’t venture too far beyond the flavors of Alfredo. The pasta was fine but nothing cosmic — about the level of what you could make at home with some fluency on a hand-crank machine.

click to enlarge A bulletproof branzino. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
A bulletproof branzino.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Other entrees aimed higher, landed truer. Scallops are Jacobo’s signature dish. They come wobbly, browned, and embedded in a rich puree of sweet potatoes and cream. They’re cooked admirably. Sweet potato hash with bacon varies sweet bites of shellfish. Flavors lean on the yammy, sugary side, but are reeled in some by Maillard brownness and bacon, even if capers and their mustardy tang aren’t totally seamless with all that dulcet sweet potato.

A branzino entree is more fully bulletproof. Three medium-sized fillets lean over a bed of tender peas and cannellini beans. The beans are soaked in an adobo that has a sturdy backbone of chile heat, the soft legumes foiling the crispness of the branzino skin. Perfectly cooked mussels jiggle on the sides, slick with bright adobo.

Don’t miss dessert, arguably the best course here (worth checking out even after omakase or pizza nearby).

Granitas and pavlovas with pickled strawberries rotate in and out by season and whim. They revolve around a menu stalwart: a honey-striped quenelle of salted caramel ice cream, pulled in many beautiful directions by caramelized banana, coffee, and chocolate, but most of all by the wildly potent flavor of graham crackers. This staple from the pop-up stays a big winner.

click to enlarge Don't miss the honey espuma dessert here. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Don't miss the honey espuma dessert here.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Some echo of the dinner party vibes of the pop-up has reached Anhelo. Throughout the meal, the socially constructed rules of being in a restaurant — order this way, do that with your fork at this time — mostly seem to fall away. It’s nice. People generally take eating out way too seriously.

Though Jacobo has serious neighbors and occupies a serious space, he retains an endearingly casual, playful thread. You can tell this young chef has fun. He is slowly settling in, starting to winnow closer toward his culinary identity, and plating food that can be pretty tasty. If he can hone his menu and tighten a few dishes while retaining what makes him different, his free approach may make him a fixture of the downtown dining scene for years to come.


628 East Adams Street
Summer hours: Tuesday and Thursday from 5 to 9 p.m., Friday 5 to 10 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m.

Watermelon salad $10
Scallops $29
Branzino $28
Espuma $8
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy