When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out — and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).
: 202 North Central Avenue
: Less than three months
: Polished Mexican staples like chilaquiles and tacos, plus a smattering of burgers, sandwiches, and salads
: $10-20 per person
Downtown Phoenix's Mexican food scene has been enjoying a modest growth spurt. In the last year, high-profile new Mexican restaurants like Chico Malo and Gallo Blanco have opened in and around downtown. With an ongoing building boom in the area, it's likely we'll see more taquerías and sit-down spots trickle in over the next couple of years.
One of the newest kids on the block is Céntrico, a Mexican restaurant that opened inside the historic San Carlos Hotel last December. Céntrico took over the lobby-adjacent corner space that formerly housed a downtown location of the Vietnamese restaurant Rice Paper.
Céntrico joins a growing constellation of new restaurants and bars clustered near the intersection of Central Avenue and Monroe Street. In the past year, the block has welcomed Cornish Pasty Co. and the Deli Tavern (formerly the Downtown Deli). The increasingly dense core of restaurants and bars on Monroe has inspired a new neighborhood nickname and hashtag: #MonRow.
The team behind Céntrico includes Pete Salaz and Edson Madrigal, longtime champions of downtown Phoenix who also own and operate Bar Smith and Monarch Theatre, two downtown nightlife mainstays.
The space looks notably crisper than it did when it housed Rice Paper. The airy restaurant interior boasts fresh white walls, attractive new tilework on the bar, and new seating options, including high-top tables and some tufted banquette seating. The restaurant's wraparound patio still offers front-row views onto Central Avenue and Monroe Street.
On a recent Saturday morning, the dining room was buzzy and lively, with rock en español songs humming out of the house speakers. Old black-and-white movies on mute — classics from the Golden Age of Mexican cinema — flickered on two flat-screen TVs mounted high over the dining room.
Céntrico, at least for now, serves only breakfast and lunch. The restaurant wraps up service at 2 p.m. on most days. On Fridays, though, the doors open in the late afternoon for an extended cocktail hour, plus a limited small bites menu.
Otherwise, breakfast is served all day, and the lunch menu kicks in around 11 a.m. That means, if you time things just right — as I did on a recent visit — you can order from either side of the menu.
Chef Miguel Beltran's antojitos ("little cravings") menu includes standard plates like chips and fresh salsa, fresh guacamole, and queso fundido served with rajas and flour tortillas. My server recommended the chile verde — tender braised pork served in a savory and barely tart tomatillo salsa that was dappled with melty clumps of Oaxaca cheese. The chile verde is served with a short stack of flour tortillas, so you can dig into the extra-saucy pork with your tortilla at will. The world is filled with middling bowls of green chile. This isn't one of them.
From the breakfast side of the menu, I sampled chilaquiles bathed in a lovely red chile sauce that barely hinted at spice. The chilaquiles are laced with caramelized onions and Oaxaca cheese, slicked with a layer of beans, and topped with fresh herbs and papery rounds of shaved radish. It's a restrained and elegant rendition that's light on the cheese, relying more on the earthy chile sauce for flavor.
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Tacos gobernador, the classic beachy Sinaloan shrimp taco, is a minimalist take on what often turns out to be a cheese-smothered taco. Here, the well-cooked shrimp are juicy and plump, and lightly bathed in a gently spicy tomato sauce. They're topped with shredded cabbage, pico, and Oaxaca cheese. It's a light, well-conceived taco that lets the natural flavor of the shrimp sing.
Carne asada tacos, served on powdery soft flour tortillas, feature hunks of marinated skirt steak and juicy nubs of grilled nopal cactus. The carne asada and nopales are nicely punched up with some smoky chipotle salsa. It's a great taco that smartly makes use of grilled nopal to add a pleasingly smoky and tart dimension to the dish. It'd be wonderful to see more local Mexican restaurants feature nopalitos front and center on their menus, as they are here.
It will be interesting to see how the Céntrico menu takes shape over time, and what role the restaurant will play in creating a denser food and drink corridor along Monroe and Central. For now, at least, there's a solid new Mexican breakfast and lunch spot in downtown Phoenix.
Céntrico. 202 North Central Avenue; 602-254-8226.
Tuesday through Friday 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Friday 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. (limited evening menu)