First Taste

GuacStar Kitchen & Cantina: Good Drinks, Great Food, Weird Vibe

Good drinks. Great food. Weird atmosphere.
Good drinks. Great food. Weird atmosphere. Lauren Cusimano
When a new spot opens in town, we're eager to check it out, 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 — an occasion to sample a few items and satisfy curiosities (both yours and ours).

Restaurant: GuacStar Kitchen & Cantina
Location: 920 East University Drive, #204, Tempe
Eats/drinks: Vegan Mexican food and cocktails
Open: About two months
Price: $$
Hours: 4 to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday

I have two big takeaways from GuacStar Kitchen and Cantina, the poppin' new vegan restaurant in central Tempe.

First, the good: Rene Andrade puts the chef in chef’s kiss. The former mastermind behind Ghost Ranch and the star of our previous chiltepin coverage is turning out excellent dishes, and he's backed by a kind, attentive serving staff.

Now the bad: The atmosphere is a mess.

If you get takeout, you would never know. The exterior looks cool, all lit up on the second story in a brick-heavy shopping plaza neighboring the Tempe Improv. Music and laughing spill out of the place. It’s truly inviting. But once you climb those stairs, the music is all you hear. So much so that you can’t easily communicate with the staff. You’re masked, your host is masked, and you are shouting how you’d love something on the patio.

I know that GuacStar is in major ASU country, located as it is near University Drive and Rural Road. But it's not like they're on Mill Avenue. The nightclub vibe is odd, considering it's just a restaurant. The “spray-painted” graffiti-style logo on the east wall feels a bit played, like something that would have covered the walls of a tech startup in 2007. The neon-lit bar feels out of place this far from Mill's main strip. And the playlist is loud, but we covered that, and all over the place, populated with everything from Alanis Morissette to Garth Brooks to Stone Tempe Pilots to Bon Jovi.

But, hey, at least we were heading toward the patio. Except the patio was about four tables on a sliver of a balcony. It felt completely detached. More like we were being turned out the back entrance than being seated. A “Deliveries Only” sign may be in plain sight over your dining companion’s shoulder. Also, each puck light is has a different piece of colored plastic over it for a multicolored aesthetic. Ours was (clearly) blue.

click to enlarge But big recommend on that GuacPoc. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
But big recommend on that GuacPoc.
Lauren Cusimano
Okay, enough griping. On to the drinks.

The cocktails here are all tequila-based. Mi Tia is a tropical drink using tequila and all the fun Tiki ingredients (creme de coconut, pineapple and lime juice, vanilla bean extract). This drink sounded incredibly up my alley, and while good and good-looking, I’ve had much better (and stronger) Tiki drinks elsewhere (at places like The Ostrich or The Drunk Munk). Same with the Funky Donkey, a tequila version of a Moscow Mule that would still be appealing to those who might not love the smell and taste of tequila (like my dinner companion). But the lime juice, mango puree, mint Demerara simple syrup, and Q Mixers ginger beer meant this burro was not long for this world. However, there are better mules out there (like at AZ/88 or even The Duce).

I do not have mild words for the Tropical Heat margarita, an excellent cocktail. The chile de árbol was hot, apparently six times hotter than a jalapeño according to the menu. I felt that, but the immediate hit of the pineapple puree, mixed with the God-sent avocado pit and cilantro-infused tequila, gave it a nice balance. I would have had another if I didn’t have to descend those brick stairs.

click to enlarge Though great, there could have been more mini tacos. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
Though great, there could have been more mini tacos.
Lauren Cusimano
Regarding the chips and salsa, don't waste time debating which dip to try. Go straight for the trio — roasted tomato salsa, guacamole, and white bean puree. I demolished the salsa while my partner raved over the puree.

I went with a plate of three adobada asada tacos for my entree. These were three hand-pressed corn tortillas weighted with shitake and oyster mushrooms, corn nibblets, jalapeno fresno, and a squiggle of adobo sauce. All three were warm, flavorful mouthfuls of well-prepared mushrooms. But that is all they were — mouthfuls. I was surprised at their size (pretty small) compared to their price tag ($14). This plate could use one, even two, more tacos.

The Grilled Guac Pocket is eye-catching on the menu as well as the plate. It’s a little pressed flour tortilla packed with hot queso, poblano pinto beans, pico de gallo, stringy mozzarella, anaheim chile, and an impossible meat blend —along with red enchilada sauce, guacamole, and avocado crema to make each bite malleable. It’s also fantastic. Its first bite will remind you of Taco Bell, but in the best way possible. Like the best late-night, drunk, freshest tasting Taco Bell you’ve ever had, even though the star ingredient is that Impossible Foods meat blend. Big recommend.

click to enlarge Good, but there are better mules are there. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
Good, but there are better mules are there.
Lauren Cusimano
With mouths burning from the chile de árbol margarita (and my birthday approaching), I needed cake. Tres leches cake. This was a stupendous dessert, something I’d return for alone. The moist little squares of vanilla cake were beautifully topped with hand-torn mint leaf, diced strawberries, and whipped horchata cream. Incredible. We left happy.

Though I still mildly cringe at GuacStar’s dining room, in-house guests (and there were many of them) did seem to be enjoying themselves. Bottom line: I’d recommend the food to anyone, vegan or no, but I'm not sure I see myself headed back to dine in. 
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Lauren Cusimano is Phoenix New Times' food and drink editor. She is a journalist and food waste writer based in Tempe. Joys include eating wings, riding bikes, knowing everyone at the bar, talking too much about The Simpsons, and falling asleep while reading.
Contact: Lauren Cusimano