The Naco Torta at Gallo Blanco.EXPAND
The Naco Torta at Gallo Blanco.
Jackie Mercandetti

The Rooster Returns: Good Food, Confused Service at Gallo Blanco in Garfield

When the first iteration of Gallo Blanco debuted at the Clarendon Hotel in midtown Phoenix nearly a decade ago, the restaurant helped fill a void in Phoenix’s Mexican food scene: not exactly a mom-and-pop shop, but worlds apart from chain restaurants with watered-down margaritas, sizzling fajita platters, and unironic displays of sombrero kitsch plastered all over the walls.

Gallo Blanco was casually hip and modern, a destination for Mexican fonda grub like tacos, tortas, and elote. The food was treated seriously and crafted with culinary school panache, and gilded by the cheeky cosmopolitan humor of an honest-to-God chilango (a.k.a., a Mexico City native). I mean, where else could you feast on a Mexican sandwich called the Naco Torta?

Gallo Blanco’s chef-owner, Doug Robson, a chilango by birth, brought cultural fluency and formal training to his restaurant, and delivered compelling and distinctly contemporary riffs on familiar dishes. During its roughly six-year run at the Clarendon, the restaurant was the rare hotel eatery that seemed to be more popular with locals than actual hotel guests.

Some kind of dispute with the Clarendon led to the restaurant’s abrupt closure in early 2015, and its departure left a notable gap in the Valley’s small constellation of modern, mid-range Mexican restaurants. True, fans of Robson’s cooking could hike uptown to eat at his other Mexican restaurant, Otro Cafe. But that restaurant has always felt less like Gallo Blanco’s twin, and more like its slightly buttoned-down sibling.

Gallo Blanco's interior.EXPAND
Gallo Blanco's interior.
Jackie Mercandetti

Last year, after a two-year hiatus and much anticipation, Gallo Blanco reopened in downtown Phoenix’s Garfield neighborhood, in a historic 1920s-era, shoebox-shaped brick building that once housed a neighborhood American Way Market. It’s a lovely, whitewashed building on a corner lot, flanked by a couple of regal-looking Mexican fan palms, and its old American Way Market sign left intact for posterity.

Inside, high unfinished ceilings and freshly installed windows flood the interior with natural light. Shiny concrete floors, reclaimed wood accents, and quirky, Mexican-inspired artwork give the space even more character. A C-shaped turquoise bar in the middle of the restaurant bifurcates the dining room into two distinct spaces. The bar side of the room is set up for full table service, and features long, wooden communal high-top tables. The other half of the room provides glimpses into the partially open kitchen, and an oversize black-and-white letterboard menu, vintage to a T, which hangs behind the counter. Of course, this being sunny Phoenix, there’s also an outdoor patio, with street-side views of the neighborhood.

It’s a beautiful space that gets pleasantly buzzy and loud at night. The setup is somewhat inelegant, though. With no central entrance, first-time guests hang around doorways, looking around for a host station that doesn’t exist. Eventually, somebody relays the general instructions: Sit wherever you want. During breakfast and lunch service, depending on what side of the room you sit in, you order at the counter, and the food is delivered to your table.

No matter where you wind up sitting, though, you’ll want to spend some time with bartender JT Taber’s cocktail menu, which includes playful concoctions like the Jamaica, made with Jamaica-infused tequila, or the crisp yet snappy Ancho Borracho, a gin cocktail featuring ancho verde and ginger.

Elote callejero is a classic Mexican street snack.EXPAND
Elote callejero is a classic Mexican street snack.
Jackie Mercandetti

The all-day antojitos (“little cravings”) menu, which will look familiar to fans of the old Gallo Blanco and Otro Cafe, is uniformly strong. House guacamole remains a highlight, an ultra-fresh, slightly chunky rendition that was nicely touched with some fresh citrus on a recent visit. It pairs beautifully with the restaurant’s irresistibly thick, hot tortilla chips. Elote callejero, perhaps the most workaday of all Mexican street snacks, is prepared with the kind of attention usually reserved for expensive cuts of meat. The gently charred ear of corn is smothered in salty white cheese and mayo, and punched up with some chile piquin, an irresistible combo that evokes the best street preparations.

Other strong starters include Mexico City-style treats like a huarache campechano — a flat, sandal-shaped tortilla layered with marinated meats, including al pastor, longaniza, and carne asada. It pulsates with extra-savory flavor. It’s just a warm-up, though, for the extra-cheesy envuelto, which involves pineapple-topped al pastor folded inside a sheet of melted Chihuahua and Manchego cheese. It comes with a small stack of freshly pressed tortillas, so that you can pick at the melty, glistening roll of chile-tinged meat and cheese. It’s playful and delicious.

Chicharron de queso, a cheesy homage to the wonders of crackly fried pork skin, is another notably playful dish. But for all its ingenuity, the “chicharron” — a thin sheet of rich, salty fried cheese — also feels one-dimensional. It would be interesting to see this dish, another holdover from the old menu, evolve into something that feels less like a novelty.

Tacos were always a strong point of the Gallo Blanco menu, and this time around, they seem even more simple and exquisite: deftly marinated meats served on smooth, freshly pressed corn tortillas, designed to be demolished in a couple of bites. Carne asada, chopped into glistening, gorgeously charred cubes, is juicy and rich. Al pastor, smoky and vaguely sweet, is sliced so finely that it takes on a melty quality. Fish tacos encapsulate all the things you love about a beachy fish taco: The crisp white fish is cleanly battered and fried, and wrapped in a fresh, herb-tinged creamy dressing.

For my money, though, Gallo Blanco really shines as a torta joint. The restaurant’s Mexican sandwiches are better than ever, thanks to fresh, thick telera rolls, which are now baked in-house. The Naco Torta is back, an ultra-savory, drippy sandwich bulging with thin-sliced, grilled steak, a couple of eggs, and slivers of fresh avocado. There’s also the meat-and-cheese spectacle that is La Bomba, which is layered with smoky al pastor, wrapped up in the gorgeous lactic tang of melted Chihuahua and Manchego cheese. It’s terrific, and the bread has the doughy, buttery, crisped-up quality that seems designed to test the willpower of carb-phobics.

Outside of Gallo Blanco’s holy trinity of tacos, tortas, and elote, the menu is stippled with other notable dishes, including the pollo del dia, a roasted half-chicken whose preparation changes daily. On a recent visit, the chicken was almost impossibly succulent, and richly basted in a beautiful honey-sweet glaze. There’s also a lovely slim, griddle-sealed bean and cheese burrito, featuring the timeless combination of whole, smoky pinto beans and molten-hot cheese.

I’m not sure Gallo Blanco gets enough credit as a great Mexican breakfast destination. Robson’s riffs on staples like huevos rancheros, chilaquiles, and huevos hogados are polished, without sacrificing their hearty, home-style appeal. Chilaquiles, especially, remain a compelling reason to brunch. Robson’s popular version features a short stack of oven-crisped corn tortillas, ceremoniously topped with two eggs and pasted together with melted Chihuahua and Oaxaca cheese. The stack soaks up the kitchen’s lovely, fire-roasted tomatillo salsa, and you slice into it like a round cake.

Pollo del dia.EXPAND
Pollo del dia.
Jackie Mercandetti

Is the new Gallo Blanco as great as its predecessor? My first impression of this long-awaited reboot wasn’t exactly dazzling: Service sometimes felt brusque and chaotic. On one night, I watched my server deliver my food to the wrong table, and a side of cilantro lime rice was served lukewarm on two separate visits. So you get the sense of a restaurant that’s still finding its sea legs, although I’ve found my experience improving with each subsequent visit.

Some complaints, I think, flow out of the restaurant’s slightly confused format: Does Gallo Blanco aspire to be a full-service restaurant, or does it work best as a casual, counter-service neighborhood spot? I’m not sure. I’m also not sure how useful it is to compare this new iteration to the original Gallo Blanco, a restaurant that by now feels slightly misted by memory and nostalgia. Today’s Gallo Blanco Cafe y Bar, despite its flaws, is still very good — and still evolving.

Gallo Blanco Cafe y Bar. 928 East Pierce Street; 602-327-0880.
Hours: Tuesday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m. to midnight; Saturday 8 a.m. to midnight; Sunday 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.; closed Monday

Elote callejero $7
Naco torta $10
Pollo del dia $19
Chilaquiles $11

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