First Taste

Chico Malo in Downtown Phoenix is a Bad Boy With an Identity Problem

The Chico Malo dinner menu features a hipster Frida flashing you signs.
The Chico Malo dinner menu features a hipster Frida flashing you signs. Patricia Escarcega

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).

Restaurant: Chico Malo
Location: 50 West Jefferson Street
Open: Less than a week
Eats: Pan-Latin cuisine, with an emphasis on tacos
Price: $20-$40/person

Restaurateurs and marketing folks these days really seem to be into the whole restaurant anthropomorphizing thing — talking up a restaurant as if it were a cool person you want to hang with all the time.

When Mora Italian opened in uptown Phoenix not too long ago, for example, we found out that Mora was not just the Italian word for blackberry, but also a fictional character that's sort of the spirit animal of the restaurant: a sexy, red-lipped girl in a black motorcycle jacket.

Chico Malo
 — the name is a slightly awkward Spanish translation of the phrase "bad boy" — is another cool new kid in town. It's hard not to hear the name Chico Malo and imagine the kind of back story that the restaurant's development team invented for it: Chico Malo is an international playboy with a streetwise attitude, a sort of young, Latino James Bond. Chico Malo is Johnny Depp — 21 Jump Street-era Johnny Depp. It's James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, if James Dean had grown up in Tijuana. Well, you get the idea.

The thing is, you can aspire to make your restaurant as distinctly sexy as possible, but even sex appeal will only carry you so far.

Chico Malo is certainly easy on the eyes, though. The restaurant has transformed the prime spot at CityScape that formerly housed the coffee shop and market known as The Corner. Unlike The Corner, Chico Malo offers a nice indoor-outdoor aesthetic that feels like a natural fit for CityScape. There is an outdoor patio with access to the bar, and that space has already injected a little more life and energy to the general vicinity of Jefferson and Central.

The restaurant also boasts a very stylish lobby area, featuring a lavish, bold mural that playfully collects some of the trendiest and most recognizable motifs of Mexican culture and art onto a single wall. It notably features a hipster Frida flashing signs, a masked luchador, and a duo of singing calavera skeletons.
click to enlarge Chico Malo at CityScape features an outdoor patio with access to the restaurant's bar. - PATRICIA ESCARCEGA
Chico Malo at CityScape features an outdoor patio with access to the restaurant's bar.
Patricia Escarcega
Inside, there's a long, sleek bar; a florescent-lit open kitchen that sort of resembles a takeout counter; booths embellished with upholstered with traditional Mexican blankets; and a book wall mural by local artists JB Snyder and Tato Caraveo.

Service is upbeat and sometimes even downright ebulient. On a recent visit, my server almost broke out into song when describing just how amazing the elote appetizer tastes. There are still some service wrinkles to smooth out, though, especially in the area of timing. A host brought over a tall, metal table-side purse holder to my table so I could hang my purse while I had dinner, but it was brought out precisely at the same moment that my server was handing me the bill.

The Chico Malo dinner menu is a sort of quirky assemblage of pan-Latin dishes, with everything from chips and salsa to Peruvian anticuchos to tacos to pricey seafood plates. If you were hoping that Chico Malo is the antidote to the great, big vacuous hole in the downtown Phoenix dining scene — that is, a spot for great Mexican food — it feels like you'll probably have to keep waiting.

There is table-side guacamole service, but I followed my server's recommendation on a recent visit and ordered the elote appetizer. The elote is served on the stick, and it's poached in corn nut broth — yes, the same corn nut snacks you buy at the convenience store on a whim — and then drizzled with popcorn butter and accented with cotija, mayonnaise, citrus, and chile. It's a pretty good elote, especially if you're particularly fond of the thick, clarified butter you usually find on theater-style popcorn. It's not so good, though, that you'll want to break into song.

click to enlarge The elote appetizer at Chico Malo features corn that has been poached in corn nut broth and drizzled with thick, movie-style butter. - PATRICIA ESCARCEGA
The elote appetizer at Chico Malo features corn that has been poached in corn nut broth and drizzled with thick, movie-style butter.
Patricia Escarcega
There's a small menu of anticuchos, marinated meat skewers that are traditionally sold on street carts throughout South America. Chico Malo offers beef, chicken, and shrimp anticuchos. I tried the chicken and shrimp on a recent visit, and the shrimp was far and away the more interesting of the two. The shrimp were lightly, pleasingly spicy, and complemented by a nice, herb-scented green salsa. The chicken anticucho was a little under-seasoned, though, and paired with diced onions and bell peppers, the dish was a little too reminiscent of somebody's fajita dinner.

click to enlarge The shrimp anticucho at Chico Malo in downtown Phoenix. - PATRICIA ESCARCEGA
The shrimp anticucho at Chico Malo in downtown Phoenix.
Patricia Escarcega
There are tacos, of course, which are built atop the restaurant's freshly pressed corn tortillas. The tacos are about the size of your palm, and at about $5 a pop, you can quickly run up a tab and still feel hungry.

You'll find popular tacos like al pastor and carne asada, along with varieties like duck carnitas, pollo tinga, short rib, and chorizo y papas. I tried the al pastor and pollo tinga, of which neither really left much of a memorable impression. The flavor on the chicken tinga was a little flat; the al pastor had good flavor, but not the sweet, slightly charred appeal you really want from al pastor. Maybe it's the tiny portions — two bites and your taco is history — but these tacos don't seem poised to replace any of your local favorites.
click to enlarge The chicken tinga taco at Chico Malo. - PATRICIA ESCARCEGA
The chicken tinga taco at Chico Malo.
Patricia Escarcega
The dinner menu includes a handful of dinner entrees, including a "pork verde" dish that is sort of a deconstructed take on chile verde. It was one of the stronger dishes of the night, with the exception of the airy chicharron served on the side — it looks an awful lot like bubble wrap, and it tasted like it, too. But the pork was gorgeously cooked, fork-tender and very rich, and accented with a beautifully light and creamy green salsa.

It will be interesting to see if maybe this turns out to be Chico Malo's strong suit — not tacos or other classic street foods, but playful, modern entrees that riff on Latin American and Southwestern themes.

Chico Malo comes to us from the appropriately-named Culture Shock Hospitality, a conglomeration of local industry veterans with talent that includes Steve Smith, most recently of Fat Ox in Scottsdale. The restaurant's website describes the Chico Malo concept as "unapologetically bold, flavorful Mexican + South American fare." For now, though, the dinner menu feels like it's still trying to find its strength. Like any bad boy caught in the grips of an identity crisis, Chico Malo indulges in a lot of style but delivers too little substance.
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Patricia Escárcega was Phoenix New Times' food critic.