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: Ladera Taverna y Cocina
Location: 8729 North Central Avenue
Open: About two months
Eats: Regional Mexican dishes
You might remember the corner spot near Central and Alice avenues in north central Phoenix as the former home of Corbin's, a longtime neighborhood bar and grill in the Sunnyslope area that closed its doors back in 2014.
Now, with the arrival of Ladera Taverna y Cocina, that corner looks markedly different. A brick wall now surrounds the perimeter of the property, and the building itself has been painted a crisp Grecian white. The new restaurant also has an extensive outdoor dining room known as the "Great Patio," which features a weathered brick floor and a big stone fireplace. It feels worlds apart from anything you might normally describe as a bar and grill.
Ladera is one of the newest efforts from Genuine Concepts, the team behind stylish neighborhood restaurants and bars like the Vig, the Womack, Linger Longer Lounge and the Little Woody. The group has a knack for sliding into well-established neighborhoods and setting up spots that feel like they've been there forever.
Ladera is no different. The restaurant, whose menu offers an upscale riff on regional Mexican cooking, already feels like a well-entrenched neighborhood destination.
Out on the patio, a roof shields diners from the elements, chandeliers provide flattering illumination, and huddles of terracotta pots packed with assorted succulents are lined up at every turn, giving the room the sort of rustic yet refined appeal that has come to define upscale Southwestern-Mexican design.
There's also a small lawn at the edge of the yard with a cornhole setup, because what would a neighborhood destination be these days without a lawn game or two?
Inside, the dimly lit dining room features big booths, tables with talavera-inspired tops, and a long bar whose natural state appears to be always crowded. Service on a recent night was attentive and generally prompt, especially in light of a packed dining room.
The drink menu has fun with traditional Mexican cocktails. The "Margarita en la Casa," for instance, is paired with a full-size fruit paleta that you can suck down, or let melt right into your drink, if you want. There's a refreshing, Squirt-infused version of the paloma, here called a "Pinche Paloma," which seems cute until you realize you can't utter the name of your drink in front of your conservative Mexican grandmother, or any other sort of polite company.
For those whose drinking needs are slightly less complicated, there's El Vagabundo, a can of Tecate with a shot of tequila on the side. It's the kind of thing you might see men drinking in an old Pedro Infante movie, and kind of a fun break from the usual parade of ultra-trendy cocktails.
A natural starting point for dinner at Ladera is the house guacamole, a vaguely chunky, very fresh rendition that includes caramelized bits of orange, smokey onions, and a smattering of grilled serrano peppers. It's well-balanced and not too spicy, and all-around a very good guacamole. The degree of enjoyment you extract from the dish will depend on how you feel about citrus in your guacamole - I enjoyed the vague sweetness it contributed to the dish. Few people will probably object to the fine dusting of cotija cheese that covers the top layer of the dish.
If you only have the space for one appetizer, though, consider the puerco en chile verde. It comes in a small cast-iron pan, a fragrant stew of succulent pork, green chiles, onions, and soft hunks of potato.
On a recent visit, the dish's seasoning was as good as it gets: a rich, bubbly fusion of salty savoriness and deep, smoky flavor. It comes with an over-easy egg on top, which is not merely decorative. Breaking the yolk, and gently swirling in the protein, turns out to be one of the small pleasures of eating this dish. Some warm corn tortillas are provided on the side for dipping and fashioning rich, drippy tacos out of pork, egg, potatoes, and chile.
There is a small taco menu, of course, with six options that include al pastor, carne asada, carnitas, barbacoa, cochinita pibil, and nopalitos. There are three tacos per order; on a recent visit, the kitchen wasn't taking mix-and-match orders, so I settled on three of the cochinita pibil tacos.
Ladera makes its own sturdy corn tortillas, which greatly adds to the appeal of these tacos, and the slow-roasted pork itself is pretty wonderful. The cochinita pibil, slightly sweet and full of deep, earthy garlicky notes, is hard to not to love. A scattering of pickled red onions, some tangy salsa verde, and salty cotija cheese come together in lush harmony.
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The restaurant's menu of platos fuertes, or entrees, is heavy on regional seafood dishes and Mexican classics.
There's a well-crafted, chocolate-colored mole dish that achieves a nice, sophisticated balance of spice, smokiness, and earthiness. Its complex flavor is not so intense that it will scare off the mole-shy, but not nearly as bland and halfhearted as other encounters you may have had with restaurant mole. The mole is ladled over pollo asado, nicely succulent on a recent visit, and served with a side of very good, buttery hominy rice.
Ladera has much going for it, including an energetic young executive chef, Jorge Gomez; a sprawling outdoor patio that already seems to be a neighborhood asset; and, of course, a strong, crowd-pleasing menu that feels like a well-honed, greatest hits of regional Mexican dishes, delivered with a refined eye and careful preparation. It will be interesting to see if the menu evolves over time, or moves toward taking a few risks here and there. For now, though, Ladera is a welcome addition to the neighborhood.