Cafe Reviews

Cafe Review: Tacos With a Circus Touch

THC taco, featuring fried Spam and Hot Cheetos.
THC taco, featuring fried Spam and Hot Cheetos. Jackie Mercandetti Photo
If you like tacos, and especially if you like creative tacos, you should wrap your lips around the FFS from Urban Phoenix Cafe. There are a lot of parts here, all combining to hit you as one decadent whole, like the serotonin-mining hook of a pop song. Jack cheese is griddled until lacy and crisp, then inset onto a flour tortilla. Shredded beef bulges into its softness, showing like a tiny pillowcase of Halloween candy. After one taste, your FFS taco might become a two-biter.

It’s soft, soft, soft. It’s rich and sultry. It’s fragrant and just barely shattering with toasted cheese. It’s thinly edged with smoked-ghost-chile oil. Altogether, it’s a damn near flawless taco when, ordering it, you might have expected little more than novelty.

“I’ve been waiting seven years to put that taco on a menu,” says Keri Frazier, who runs Urban Phoenix Cafe with Steven Contreras. Previously, Frazier lacked the kitchen latitude to swing selling the taco out of her popular food truck, Left Coast Burrito — where Contreras cooked for just over a year before the cafe opened in early November.

click to enlarge The FFS taco goes next-level with crisped cheese and ghost chile oil. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
The FFS taco goes next-level with crisped cheese and ghost chile oil.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Then, the FFS taco was born with the cafe. Frazier and Contreras were given the opportunity to take over the 3on Smith Café space by Beckett’s Table on Indian School Road. In one weekend, they flipped the homey room into Urban Phoenix Café.

The walls now swirl with loud art, a riot of colors brushed and sprayed, vivacious creations by the likes of Mr. Mimek, Zander Arizona, and Contreras himself. Music is often hip-hop, sometimes ska, and always whatever folks in the open kitchen want to hear. Banter between customers at barstools and the staff helps set the tone, helps you pick what to eat. Carne asada sizzles on the flattop, tea steeps, diners chat, and burritos packing fries get set on tables.

The duo’s food is part Mexican, part Southwestern, with a dash of stoner and circus. “We don’t want to call ourselves Mexican food because we’re not doing traditional style,” Frazier says. “It’s not like Hot Cheetos are found in the old-time cookbooks.”

Shaped to conform to the heat-loving, chile-stewing Contreras — who ran the kitchen at Camp Social before joining forces with Frazier, and right here at 3on Smith before opening Camp Social — the Urban Phoenix Café menu ranges. It veers into some far-out breakfast and lunch potentials, some that not only step out of the box but leave the box behind. This isn’t rogue creativity for the sake of getting weird. The ghost chile oil, Hot Cheetos, and prickly pear jam give the menu zap, sure, but they also enhance dishes.

click to enlarge Another keeper: the Cho, a chorizo taco. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Another keeper: the Cho, a chorizo taco.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
It all starts with the cafe’s deep taco roster, which stretches from breakfast into lunch (both served all day until 3 p.m., closing time).

If you like tacos and want to bear-hug the spirit of Urban Phoenix Café, order the THC. Like all the tacos at Urban Phoenix Café, the THC is built on a soft-but-chewy Tacos Chiwas flour tortilla, some of the best in town. Inside? Spam! Lengths like pink French fry fingers, griddled on the outside for brownness and texture. Squishy and firmer than expected, the Spam gets a little lost under purple slaw. Crumbled Hot Cheetos bring low heat and some bite, but largely blend in. The many unlikely parts that compose this taco don’t fully jive, but it is nonetheless a solid pork taco, one at a different, carefree speed.

Other tacos fall in the range between FFS (flawless) and THC (solid). Closer to THC, lightly marked carne asada is on point, but its greater taco could benefit from added moisture: more pickled onions, or maybe salsa. Lava-orange chorizo stars in a taco closer to FFS, bringing depth, steady heat, and lime-tinged cream cheese.

click to enlarge A stacked breakfast tray can probably feed two. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
A stacked breakfast tray can probably feed two.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
When thinking about what to eat in the morning, Urban Phoenix Cafe’s breakfast tacos should enter your calculus. Frazier and Contreras do six. Here, riffs shine.

There’s the Monte, a bacon, egg, and tortilla take on the Monte Cristo. It’s a simple taco, buoyed by light sweetness from house-made prickly pear-jalapeno jam. On the more eye-widening end, there’s the Poblano Escobar, the only other taco I tried at Urban Phoenix Café on the level of the FFS. It’s an airy-but-hearty taco heaped with scrambled egg. What vaults the taco to a top tier are: how the eggs and chipotle crema slide into a soft-and-fluffy melting; the sugar and glide of sweet potatoes; and the soothing-but-brusque vegetal nature of the poblanos. This is a breakfast taco nicely embellished. Three and your day will peak early.

Thinking both to and beyond the taco is the way to go here, right on down to sides. There’s a velvety, soulful portion of black beans. And there’s — at last! — the first truly worthwhile use of Hot Cheetos dust I’ve encountered: as the savagely red, crackly armor of a whole-cob elote, textural foil to yellow kernels plump with juice.

Browsing the non-taco possibilities, you will notice “Bomb Plates of Rad Stuff.” These are entree-style portions, both breakfast and lunch.

click to enlarge Keri Frazier and Steven Contreras. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Keri Frazier and Steven Contreras.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
One of them, Le Reina, is a loaded tray of carne asada slices, fries, yolky eggs, elote, avocado, tortillas, and more. If you go the route of this tray destined to launch a thousand Instagram posts, come hungry. I would roll with a smaller Bomb Plate of Rad Stuff, that way you can gobble a taco or two on the side.

One way to go: Contreras stews a mean bowl of green chile. Perfectly tender hunks of pork, each about the size of a Ping-Pong ball, are the focus. They sit in and are coated with the chile, which has the look and feel of a coarse puree — no smoothness at all. The chile brings some heat, not much. It packs a nice depth of flavor, with some tiny flourishes, like cinnamon and cardamom, which almost inch the chile in a mole direction, but in a small, barely perceptible way. Like the cafe, this bowl has some real character, though it might not be apparent at first in any way other than the pepitas, studding in half-camouflage.

click to enlarge Elote also gets the Hot Cheeto treatment. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Elote also gets the Hot Cheeto treatment.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Another winner? A vegetarian take on chile colorado, called “Caulirado.” This bowl is jammed with cauliflower. Scarlet chile sauce puddles on its white forest floor; light green crema thickly webs its cruciferous canopy. That crema cools the chile smolder, together with help from ample cilantro and florid radish slivers. Each bite is a little different, but the throaty ancho-guajillo-arbol brightness washes you pleasantly throughout.

Throughout a meal here, service is a little slow but nice. The staff isn’t obsequious, doting on you like you’re a monarch. The exchange is far more natural than at many other restaurants, a back-and-forth among friendly equals. You feel comfortable, nodding to downtempo tunes, sponging up open city vibes from the street-style art.

And when some wonky touch like the crisp-but-soft Frites Street fries buried deep in a burrito clicks, it all makes sense, even if only a few dishes truly dazzle. Be sure to open your mind to those cream cheese and Spam potentials before you sit down. And before you exit, grab a steamy newborn churro for the road.

Urban Phoenix Café
3701 East Indian School Road
Hours: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday

Poblano Escobar
FFS taco $4
Cookout burrito $12
Green chile bowl $12
Chill Elotero $6
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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