"Joyride" is a curious name for a restaurant, given that it is defined as "a fast and dangerous ride, especially one in a stolen vehicle." And when you account for the fact that Joyride Taco House is the latest venture from Upward Projects, the team behind Postino, Federal Pizza, Windsor, and Churn, it is to be expected that it will be smartly designed and hip, serving well-executed if not exciting fare. Exciting, dangerous, and well-managed sounds like a winning combination to me.
Except that Mexican food in the Valley is a risky proposition. Either diners are accustomed to run-of-the-mill Sonoran fare with gringo influences, à la Carlos O'Brien's, or they are so hung up on authenticity that nothing short of street-cart fare will suffice. Joyride Taco House — with a new location in Central Phoenix and a slightly older, identical spot in Gilbert — is neither, and it raises the question: "Is great décor enough to keep customers coming back?"
Because the food surely isn't.
If there's one thing that Upward Projects does with consistency, it's design. Joyride Tacos is no exception. It's a cool space with a retro vibe (the CenPho location is housed in an old Humpty Dumpty restaurant), colorful tile on the floor, comfortable booths, and 1960s-era furnishings. The patio facing Central is a good place to be; the Scooby-Doo Mystery Machine-inspired décor makes everyone look cool and relaxed, and on my visits, it was always bustling, even at odd hours.
And there are plenty of clever details, if you look closely. We were particularly amused by the "Gum Tacos" on every table: small paper circles that you can fill with your chewed gum. It feels good to be at Joyride and, more than the food, that's what would keep me coming back.
But you are here to read about the food, aren't you? Let's start with the tacos, since this is after all, a "taco house." The Crispy Fish Tacos, a fishy, soggy, gummy mess, lacked any discernible crispness and were heavy on the "fishy." I admire the decision to use rockfish as opposed to something more predictable like cod, but the fish is irrelevant when the technique is so misguided.
"White Magic," described at a "house lime aioli" and designed to top the tacos, was only magical in the sense that someone has managed to combine mayonnaise and lime and come up with a result that lacked flavor altogether. Magical indeed, for all the wrong reasons. Fish taco aficionados, beware: You're better off at Rubio's.
I can accept that one of the 11 different tacos on Joyride's menu might miss the mark, but when nearly every choice falls flat, it becomes apparent that something is awry.
Chicken tinga, which appears in several places on the menu — including as tacos — is a smoky, chipotle-infused dish that hails from Puebla, Mexico. Described by Joyride as "kinda hot," loaded into a made-to-order corn tortilla and accompanied by avocado and — you guessed it — White Magic, chicken tinga tacos actually were kinda bland. I might be a gringo, but I still have taste buds.
Sadly, the list goes on. Braised beef tacos at least had some detectable taste but could have benefited from a few more hours of heat to tenderize the tough cuts of meat. And the carne asada tacos, by far the best choice, had a sublime flavor from the citrus marinade that was quickly forgotten when I nearly exhausted my jaw muscles trying to work my way through the gristle.
So if a taco restaurant can't execute on tacos, what can it do? Well, the guacamole is close to perfection, a preparation that only deviates from tradition with the extraneous addition of jicama. Chips and salsa are complimentary, as they should be, and the fire-roasted salsa is addictive. We asked for refills on each visit, although we had to remind our server to bring them. You can pay extra for several other varieties of salsa, but there's no need when the free salsa is this good.
As for main dishes, I truly enjoyed the Sidewalk Surfer Chilaquiles. I thought the "tall food" trend died deservedly in the 1990s, but this hearty interpretation of a brunch favorite bucks current food fashion and goes down easily at any time of day. I'm not sure why even dedicated breakfast restaurants can't seem to make a proper sunny side up egg, but at Joyride they nail it — the runny yolk intermingling with layers of pinto beans, avocado, and chicken to form a messy but indulgent combination that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Back to the misses. Ceviche, when prepared properly, relies on a technique in which the citric acid from the marinade "cooks" the seafood, but at Joyride, it's nothing more than shrimp soaked with a brutally tart lime marinade. At $12.50 per order, you're better off skipping it.
Side dishes are abundant at Joyride. Twice I opted for orange cucumber salad, and both times I think the chef forgot the orange; it tasted of fresh cucumbers, unadorned. And the Bomb Black Beans were a bomb, not "the bomb": too thick, with no textural variation or smokiness. Instead, opt for the Mexican street corn. Technically, it's an appetizer, and served as a whole cob it's an awkward one at that. (Hint: Stand the cob up and remove the kernels with a knife at a perfect 45-degree angle without slipping and stabbing either your plate or your guests.) What it lacks in grace, it makes up for in flavor, despite corn being out of season.
Service is casual but friendly; everyone makes an extroverted effort to be happy (after all, it's a joyride, right?) and Joyride welcomes diners of all ages, making a special effort with kids. I expected our hipster server to groan at my table of two kids but, instead, he made a special point of welcoming them and even had the smarts to spell out "d-e-s-s-e-r-t" instead of offering it overtly.
And you'd be wise to order dessert, with or without kids in tow. The churros con chocolate were no better than what you get at Chase Field, but the Mo's Definitely is a must-order. Kudos to whoever had the wisdom to combine housemade vanilla pudding with caramel sauce, bananas, salted pecans, and a crunchy cookie crust and put it in a glass jar. I wanted seconds.
Befitting a restaurant where the vibe seems to outshine the food, drinks are not an afterthought. Aguas frescas can be ordered with or without a variety of alcohol options, and while the cucumber mint was too viscous for my tastes, the almond horchata was perfectly balanced, and the strawberry tasted freshly picked. The cocktail renaissance is already well understood by the powers that be at Upward Projects, and the cocteles quickly make you forget the lackluster food at Joyride. The Mazatlan Mule is a potent combination of tequila, passion fruit, ginger beer, and bitters — sweet but not cloying. The cucumber serrano packs some heat from fresh serrano chiles that sneak up on your palate after the cucumber and green tea flavors subside.
And there's always cerveza, available by the glass, pint, or pitcher. Although craft beers from SanTan, Four Peaks, and Deschutes are available, it's hard to beat Negra Modelo on draft.
If I sound lukewarm on Joyride Tacos, it's because I am. At nearly every juncture, I found myself disappointed with a lack of flavor and execution. I kept hoping I'd find something worth raving about, something that lived up to the name. I never found it in the food, but it's hard to deny that Joyride delivers a good time.
Does the food at Joyride live up to the name? Negativo. But that's not to say you can't still enjoy the ride.