If there is such a thing as a classic, old-school Sunday morning in south Phoenix, it might include church with the family, followed by a leisurely breakfast or lunch at a place like Hola Cabrito.
The south Phoenix restaurant, set amid the sun-washed bare lots and used car dealerships near 16th Street and Broadway Road, is situated just south of where the dusty Salt River bed cuts a rut through the hard desert earth. It’s easy enough to spot the restaurant from a distance — the long, squat building is painted a bright canary-yellow. And on the weekends, the sprawling, gravel lot gets jam-packed, bearing a passing resemblance to an impromptu parking-lot flea market.
A short line trails out the front door on Sunday mornings, and the restaurant’s wait list can start to resemble the lists at the fashionable brunch parlors uptown. But the staff hustles, tables are cleared at pit-crew speed, and servers rush around balancing platters with soup bowls and Saran-wrapped meat platters. You probably won’t have to wait too long, though, and there are enough distractions to pass the time quickly: vendors outside the restaurant sell candy treats, plastic toys, and homespun handicrafts, and the scent of slightly musky, freshly roasted goat perfumes the air and whets the appetite.
Inside, a crowded lobby offers a glimpse of a partially open kitchen, where a couple of cooks warm up freshly pressed corn tortillas at a manic pace. The lively main dining room, an otherwise plain space, is livened up with a grand and colorful mural of a noble lion in repose, which doesn’t make much sense until you spot the green-and-white fútbol crest on the menu, and the postcard-pretty pictures of a sunny, Spanish colonial cityscape — tributes to the owners’ hometown of Leon, Guanajuato.
Cabrito in Spanish means young goat, and so the specialty at Hola Cabrito is birria, the Mexican-style braised goat stew whose preparation can vary as much as pozole. This is Sunday morning food, a deep and flavorful balm to soothe hangovers and bolster your spirit for the coming work week. It’s also food for celebration — a pot of birria often marks special occasions like birthdays and wedding celebrations. It helps to come to Hola Cabrito primed and ready to feast, or with the determination, at least, to lift your flagging spirits.
The menu is small and focused, so that most regulars will already have it memorized. When in doubt, the most popular order is probably the birria con consomé, the version of the dish in its most traditional form. The lightly chile-rubbed goat meat is roasted to a tender, slinky finish, then dampened with a few ladles of dark-brown consommé. The consommé is simple and delicious, a meaty, flavorful clarified broth with notes of garlic and just a whiff of spice. For $1.50, you can order a bowl of the broth by itself, for sipping at your leisure, or perhaps to flavor other dishes.
A sip of consommé and a hunk of juicy goat meat, experienced in tandem, produces a swell of deep, earthy flavor. It can be hard not to swoon a little right at the table. Your server will ask if you want your consommé with or without garbanzo beans — your choice — and there’s no right or wrong answer.
The other most-requested order at Hola Cabrito is probably the half-pound or one-pound portion of the goat meat, served sans consommé, the meat softly shredded and heaped onto a white platter. You can order the meat regular, or else tatemada — charred lightly on the grill. Both are great, but birria tatemada is gently crispy and darkened by its turn on the grill, and the added texture seems to carry the meat’s natural richness further afield.
Whether you order it charred or not, the meat comes with all the fixings — chopped white onion, cilantro, homemade salsa, and about a half-dozen pillowy-soft corn tortillas. You’ll find yourself before a modest taco-making feast — a soul-lifting kind of meal built out of scraps of corn tortilla, slivers of goat meat, dabs of salsa, and a few squeezes of fresh lime. It’s not fancy, but the abundance of it all feels indisputably luxurious and filling.
On the weekends, the kitchen also makes a very good menudo, the broth made extra-thick and well-seasoned. Tacos are always available; the best options are a very fine al pastor, and a wonderful, meltingly fatty cabeza taco.
But you’ll come for the birria, which is still not widely available around town. You might notice bright yellow signs posted around the Hola Cabrito dining room, warning diners in Spanish to watch out for stray bones. But stray bones may turn out to be the least of your worries — they are mostly few and far between. More likely, you’ll worry about how to convince your less adventurous friends to come brunch with you at Hola Cabrito.
Another small-menu restaurant that does one thing, and does it rigorously well, is Kiss Pollos Estilo Sinaloa, which specializes in pollo asado, grilled chicken that’s marinated for 24 hours in a Sinaloa-inspired secret spice blend.
The tiny counter-service restaurant in south-central Phoenix sits in the shadows of downtown Phoenix, tucked away in a residential area near Third Avenue and Buckeye Road. The restaurant’s boxy, white brick façade and bright red signage — and the staccato thunder of butcher knives hitting the chopping block in the kitchen — is not exactly glamourous. But the bare-bones dining room, whose central features include a well-stocked salsa bar and a St. Jude statue beaming from atop the counter ledge, is airy and inviting.
The menu is small enough that, with aid from a hungry dining companion or two, you can sample nearly everything cooking in the kitchen. Creative pop-up items will occasionally show up on the menu — recently, it was brown sugar cookies and horchata-flavored gelatin.
But more likely, you are here for the restaurant’s signature pollo asado, which is intensely flavorful and well-seasoned. Like some versions of carne asada, the meat is chopped to near-oblivion, so that what shows up on your plate is a heap of slightly smoky, blisteringly-hot, meaty nubs.
Chicken is featured in nearly every dish, including the Kiss taco, two smallish corn tortillas topped with grizzled bits of chicken. The meat is spongy and delicious, and comes nicely blanketed in melted white cheese, which registers as much more than a cheap flavor enhancer. The cheese, you might say, holds the whole thing together.
There’s also a Papa taco — not named after your dad, but after the humble potato, which is diced and griddle-crisped into soft, flawlessly seasoned scraps. It’s embedded with chicken, and inflected with a sprinkling of salty pork nubs. It’s wonderful.
You must try the Flip taco, though, which is everything the Taco Bell Double Decker taco aspires to be, but regretfully is not. It’s built on a small, dried-out and crunchy corn tortilla — call it a tostada, if you must — which is lightly layered with fire-roasted salsa, refried beans, melted cheese, a few sprinkles of pork and chicken, then topped with a soft, pliable corn tortilla. The end-product is a sort of slim, wafer-taco sandwich, deliciously embedded with layer after layer of savory, cheesy, salty flavor. The blend of soft and crunchy textures, and the deft arrangement of flavors, makes sense in a way that Taco Bell concoctions rarely do.
The Kiss Papa is also wonderful: slightly crispy diced potatoes, topped with sticky, melted cheese and a sprinkling of pork and chicken. These are potatoes in all their unbridled and starchy glory, and quite irresistible.
Cheese, potatoes, and chicken — and tacos. This is meat-and-potatoes grub, highly unpretentious, yet made with a connoisseur’s touch.
Kiss Pollos co-owner Jose Leon, a native of Compton, California, launched the restaurant with his wife, Diana, and chef Elio Perez about 11 months ago, and locals who have discovered the restaurant’s pollo asado swoon and rave about it with an acolyte’s devotion.
Leon says that the secret behind the restaurant’s ultra-flavorful grilled chicken is the result of his family’s Sinaloa-inspired recipes, married with chef Perez’s Italian kitchen training. Sinaloa meets Umbria? Strange bedfellows, but it works.
4835 South 16th Street
Hours: Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Birria with consomé $7.50
Half-pound of birria $7.50
Kiss Pollos Estilo Sinaloa
306 West Yavapai Street
Hours: Monday 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Tuesday through Thursday 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Friday 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; closed Sunday
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Kiss Taco $1.69
Papa Taco $1.79
Flip Taco $2.50
Kiss Papa (large) with a soft corn tortilla $5.99