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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 $3.50
FFS taco $4
Cookout burrito $12
Green chile bowl $12
Chill Elotero $6