Fuego Tacos is one of the last restaurants standing at the Camelback Esplanade — at least for now.
The mixed-use development on the southeast corner of Camelback Road and 24th Street, across from Biltmore Fashion Park (home of Christopher's Restaurant and Crush Lounge, Seasons 52, and True Food), hasn't had it so easy — especially when it comes to its restaurants.
Low visibility from the street, parking garage hassles, and the economic downturn of the past few years (which left many of the center's shops and offices vacant) seem to all have a hand in the Esplanade's bad luck.
"Having to park in the garage and remembering to get validation was always a deterrent," said Micah Olson, bar owner at the soon-to-open Crudo in Central Phoenix and formerly a bartender at Merc Bar, the tucked-away lounge inside the Camelback Esplanade. "No one wants to stop by for a cocktail and then pay nine dollars for parking."
Olson said the high number of vacant offices also has had an affect on businesses in the area. "We [Merc Bar] used to have a full room at 5:30. It's not that way anymore."
As if those factors weren't enough, when the center's AMC Theatre re-opened in September as the AMC Esplanade 14 Dine-In Theater, moviegoers pinched for time could forgo stopping at one of the nearby eateries before or after their show and have a meal during the movie, recliner-style, complete with a server. Along the way, restaurants such as Brugos Pizza Co. and Picazzo's Organic Italian Kitchen left nearly as soon as they arrived, and Au Petit Four, the French restaurant and bakery, relocated to Old Town Scottsdale in November.
Perhaps the hardest-hitting was this year's shuttering of two of the center's best-known establishments, McCormick & Schmick's and Morton's The Steakhouse. (Houston's, another steakhouse in the complex and part of the Hillstone Restaurant Group, moved out of the Esplanade in December 2010 and successfully reopened down the street as a Hillstone property.)
A casual spinoff to Fuego Bistro, the tiny Latin-inspired eatery in north Central Phoenix, Fuego Tacos opened in the Camelback Esplanade in January 2011 in the former Nixon's location. From owner Jeff Ward, Fuego Tacos bills itself as "the best tacos in the country!" and offers eight familiar styles, reasonably priced, and served up street-style or as burritos, along with two salads, a handful of appetizers, and signature cocktails.
Flavorwise, Fuego Tacos is a far cry from Ward's original concept. And its mostly mediocre fare and, at times, indifferent service give the appearance that, like many of its former neighbors, the restaurant simply has given up.
But that doesn't mean one can't find a few dishes that inspire hope for the rest.
When it comes to starters, the complimentary salsa is very good, pleasantly spicy and served alongside warm, crispy chips. The guacamole is solid, as well, best sampled solo rather than as part of hard-to-eat vegetarian tostadas piled high with sugar-cured cabbage and cheese. The standout appetizer comes in the form of three Cubano sliders. Deliciously messy and stuffed with tangy roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese, and Dijon mustard, the soft, pressed mini-rolls are this appetizer's best asset.
Despite the menu's claim, the pastry coverings of the empanadas are not flaky, but rather hard, and once broken into, their fillings of ground beef, cumin, cheese, and Anaheim chiles elicit little in the way of inspired flavor. They are, however, better than the chicken quesadilla, a dish (not to mention the protein inside it) that should be avoided at Fuego Tacos. The large and soggy quesadilla triangles, filled with somewhat slimy chicken meat, were more reminiscent of a low-end chain than a casual restaurant.
Signature entrees at Fuego Tacos come in the form of two corn tacos or flour burritos with arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) and Cuban black beans. Both options present challenges for key ingredients. Depending on the selection, taco toppings like sugar-cured cabbage, housemade pico de gallo, and a Oaxacan cheese blend are too heavy-handed and obscure the star of the show, and the burritos, overstuffed with rice, taste of little else.
Like the chicken, the breaded and deep-fried (too deep-fried) shrimp should be skipped. The only fish option, the tilapia, is better breaded and inside tacos than blackened and alongside a forgettable mixture of Romaine lettuce, black bean and corn salsa, tortilla strips, and an Oaxaca cheese blend — it deserves to be called a Caesar salad only by way of its barely-there dressing of roasted poblano Caesar.
As it is on the Cubano sliders, the pork is the standout selection in the taco category. As pernil asado, its moist, tangy flavor nicely accompanies a colorful mango chile salsa atop a double layer of fresh corn tortillas. And if you're siding with beef, skip the dry carne asada and order up the short rib barbacoa. Packed with tender short ribs braised in a liquid creation with the flavors of pineapple, chipotle, and a delightful undertone of Dr Pepper, these tacos easily are the most unique of the bunch.
The small brick, beige, and wood interior of Fuego Tacos is comfortable, and the high ceiling and mezzanine area ensure that it doesn't feel too cramped. Behind the bar, backlit boxes filled with alcohol bottles seem to change color with the restaurant's often too-loud and seemingly out-of-place techno beats. But compared to the cuisine, these are minor quibbles.
And when it comes to the service, if you are visiting Fuego Tacos, my wish is that, unlike my experiences (save for one where the service was exceptional), your visit isn't treated as simply another task to perform. I hope that you are greeted at the door, that your dirty dishes aren't left sitting at the table, and that, amid several other options, you are not seated at a single, too-small table where your server will advise that you place your beverages on the windowsill.
As one of a handful of current dining options in the Camelback Esplanade (Dallas-based Del Frisco's Grille has announced plans to move into the old Houston's location this summer), and the only one for food of its kind, Fuego Tacos has the opportunity to position itself as a go-to destination. But until then, I'll take the tunnel over to Biltmore Fashion Park, where stronger dining options await.