Luis Milan Chef, owner Sol Diablo Cantina 560 S. College Ave., Tempe www.soldiablocantinatempe.com
If you haven't been down on College Avenue in Tempe lately, you might be in for a surprise. What was once a fairly quiet corner of the Arizona State University campus has recently become a hub of activity; this is where you'll find the school's giant new bookstore and a handful of new local restaurants including Postino from powerhouse restaurant group Upward Projects and the Valley's second location of Snooze, based in Denver.
This is also where you'll find Sol Diablo Cantina, a taqueria and tequila bar from chef Luis Milan.
"This was just supposed to be a small project I wanted to do," says the chef.
Obviously, it's not so small any more. The restaurant, located on the second floor of a building on the west side of College, seats nearly 100 people inside and another few dozen on the patios outside. There's a large bar stocked with a variety of tequilas and a dining room filled with flat screen televisions for watching sports.
If you've been inside the space before it was probably when this location housed one of a number of typical college establishments. And unfortunately, changing the public perception about the restaurant has been a challenge, says Milan, who bought the restaurant in August.
The name, Sol Diabo Cantina, stayed the same but the owner and chef did a complete renovation of the interior to give the place a more contemporary feel. The menu is also completely new, focusing on a selection of tacos, and draws on Milan's experiences growing up in a small mining town in Mexico, about four hours south of the border.
But the chef brings much more than childhood experiences to the table. Milan arrived in the Valley in 2006 after attending culinary school in Paris and living and working for a year in Barcelona. He landed work with chef Matt Carter at Zinc Bistro and eventually went on to help open The Mission as sous chef.
Tempe diners may already be familiar with Milan's food from when he opened Julian Wright's Canteen on Mill Avenue in 2010; since leaving that post the chef's bounced around local kitchens including Sam Fox's North and Cuttlefish in north Scottsdale.
But Milan says doing a small taqueria was always a dream and Sol Diablo Cantina is his chance to make it happen. The restaurant's current menu highlights a number of tacos made with ingredients such a choirzo, pork belly, and Milan's own creations, calamari al pastor. Served on the foundation of a handmade tortilla, Milan hopes these tacos will appeal to the hungry college set and Tempe visitors.
And the chef's not intimidated by the explosion of dining options in the immediate area.
"I can only benefit from them," Milan says. "I think people want diversity."
Five words to describe Sol Diablo Cantina: Tacos Good Food Awesome Drinks
Your favorite item on the menu and why: The Mexican cheese dip. It's a beer cheese dip but Mexican style.
The secret to making a perfect taco is...using fresh ingredients and a great salsa.
One thing you'd never put in a taco: Mmm. It's a taco, anything goes.
Describe the best taco you've ever eaten: Steamed beef tongue tacos, and fresh salsa -- pretty darn good.
Your favorite dish to cook at home: Sunday dinner with my girl, usually steak and veggies on the grill.
Your earliest childhood food memory: My dad made Rockefeller oysters, which were pretty tasty.
Your favorite drink and where you like to get it: [I'm] not much of a drinker...Il'l have some scotch at the Salt Cellar close to my house.
Your culinary guilty pleasure: Steamed mussels.
Your go-to restaurant for cheap eats: The Salt Cellar has pretty awesome food specials.
Your biggest mentor in the kitchen and the best lesson he/she taught you: Local chef Matt Carter. It was a great experience working for him.
One food-related book every one should own: I like the Larousse [Gastronomique] culinary encyclopedia.
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SHOW ME HOW
Your current food-related obsession: Tacos!!!
What restaurants are on your must-go list for 2015? We've had our hands full with the opening of this restaurant. Il'l do my research and go check one of the many great local spots in town.
If you could cook with any chef in the world, who would you choose? Celebrity chef Sean Brock looks like he'd be cool chef to work with.