When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out — and 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, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).
Restaurant: La Marquesa
Location: 1915 East McDowell Road
Open: Three weeks
Eats: Jalisco-style birria and beyond
Price: $10 to $20 per person
Hours: Tuesday to Thursday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; closed Monday.
It begins with an agave leaf, the tough leathery swords from the plant that yields tequila. The leaf gets 30 minutes in a clay oven fired with gas and mesquite. Now supple and pliant, it can then be folded around goat. The goat has been soaked for 24 hours, then marinated in adobo for another day.
Wrapped parcels of goat — cut pieces rather than the whole animal — are packed into clay vessels whose cracks are sealed with masa, and finally baked for 12 hours. In the end, La Marquesa’s goat birria is tatemada, toasted to a fleeting veneer of crispness.
Also, like a great night out, it is spiked with tequila.
The tequila is no gimmick or ploy to lure a young party crowd. Both tequila and birria come from Jalisco; the rich goat stew often is cooked using the agave-based spirit in its home region.
The family behind La Marquesa, which opened a few weeks ago just a ball's kick west of State Route 51 on McDowell Road, also come from Jalisco. Use of tequila in the Guzmans' multiday recipe, which yields bowls and shallow tureens, is a nod to home and, owner Felipe Guzman says, a departure from the northern-style birrias more common in metro Phoenix.
If you eat in central Phoenix, you probably know La Santisima Gourmet Taco Shop — the Guzman family’s other restaurant. The signature of La Santisima is a lineup of salsas displayed in a chilled bar that is a Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory for adults. The food at La Santisima is Pan-Mexican, ranging from cochinita pibil (Yucatan) to black mole (Oaxaca) to charcoal-grilled carne asada (Sonora). Where La Santisima freewheels with strawberry salsa and specialties from the Sonoran Desert to the Puuc hills, La Marquesa focuses on the Guzmans' former home — Jalisco.
Just about all the food has been cooked in a mesquite-fired clay oven: chammoro (pork shank), cachete (beef cheek), marrow bone. Though there are additional options, including a host of appetizers and meat-heavy tacos, the crux of the menu is birria. Variations abound: goat, beef, shrimp, even a vegan birria with mushrooms, peppers, and nopales. They are all served with colored baskets of piping-hot corn tortillas, to be jazzed with onion, cilantro, key lime, and salsa.
One of the two salsas has been tailored to birria. It is neon orange and creamy, powered by a chile-de-arbol-related pepper Guzman imports from Yahualica, a town in northeast Jalisco. This salsa improves the goat birria if you spoon the stewed meat into tacos. But if you eat it straight from the tureen, the salsa's voracity interferes.
The birria is a great version, one that deserves a place in the canon of Phoenix birria joints. The broth is rich and delicate with just enough salt to let the spirit of the roasted goat express itself — not loudly or harshly, but clearly. The chunks of goat are soft and mellow, whole but showing heat-engendered seams ready to be pulled into pieces by your fork. It is homestyle. A lost cousin of chicken soup. Founded in the kind of warming broth that can cure your cold in about five slurps.
A small but highly attentive staff hangs around the small dining room, delivering tureens to tables. They may pour Mexican lagers from the bar, or cocktails, but you would do best to order horchata. La Santisima is known for a fruit-filled horchata, often said to be the best in town, but this fruit-less relative is better.
You would also be wise to order beyond birria.
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Sure, the esquites are clotted with an unholy amount of mayo, primed to seize stomach real estate better left open. And sure, the bean dip that starts meals is less inspiring than the simple salsa duo. And sure, prices may rise a little high. But when you consider the intention and result, these issues feel small.
Esquites do better rained over three lengths of bisected bones, which come with an order of marrow. Punch your spoon through the lacy sheath that forms in the mesquite oven, and scrape out the hot, fatty interior richness. It's all made perfect with a cold drink.
Tacos are a highlight, and not only those you can make with tortillas when not eating birria as soup. Lengua isn’t cubed, but sliced into long, yielding pieces. Cachete packs a rich, irony intensity. Best of all is cabeza, silky and decadent and jammed with as much oomph as its fragrant corn tortilla is meat.
And at La Marquesa, the bowls and tortillas seem to be nice and full — just like you'll be.