The Spot: Milagro Grill 4280 E. Indian School Road, #101, Phoenix 602-773-5844 www.milagrogrillaz.com
Hours: Happy Hour is offered 3:30-6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
The Interior: Street-side Milagro Grill looks more upscale and way more fun than its strip mall location would suggest, but this is the new normal: strip mall restaurants boasting enough classy decor elements -- in this case, brick, wood and metal -- to transcend the location. About half the restaurant is dining room, while the other half is lounge, furnished with multiple TVs, the requisite garage doors and an indoor-outdoor bar. That's all well and good, but this time of year, you'll want to head straight for the patio, which is really more like a spacious deck boasting tables and chairs plus a row of booths overlooking Indian School Road. It's not as noisy as you'd imagine and I love the tush-friendly comfort of a booth -- not torturous patio furniture -- outdoors.
The Food: Siblings Reed, Ryan, Jaret and Brynn Johnson, the grandchildren of Woody and Victoria Johnson (who founded the Macayo's Mexican restaurant empire) own and operate Milagro (which means "miracle" in Spanish) with their mother "Nana," but this trendy, upbeat operation bears absolutely no resemblance to the utterly predictable food of that local chain. For starters, the Johnsons hired James Fox, whose resume includes Big Earl's BBQ (and, more importantly, Zinc Bistro and The Mission, where Fox worked under super-talent Matt Carter). Clearly, they never intended to go the traditional AZ-Mex route anyway. "Mexican-American fusion with European influences and a South American flair" is the faintly overwrought description found on Milagro's website, and while that may be how it all plays out on the regular menu, happy hour offerings, priced between $5-$7, are simple and straightforward.
Case in point: creamy, chunky, just-right guacamole, jazzed up with lime, serrano chiles, red onion, fresh cilantro and a sprinkle of cotija cheese. Although the chips aren't served warm, they're thin and crisp, and I love the house salsa -- a dark, earthy, not-particularly-fiery blend made with faintly smoky cascabel chiles.
Camarones Dulces are lettuce wraps Mexican-style -- crunchy, sweet and irresistible. A handful of tiny, beer-battered rock shrimp come piled atop crisp-tender gem lettuce (think butter lettuce crossed with romaine), drizzled with sweet aioli (do I taste honey mustard?) and topped with house-pickled chiles. I could eat a dozen of them.
But what I've really come for are the tacos because brand new Milagro swept the Arizona Taco Festival a week or so ago, earning first, second or third place in nearly every category and walking off with the Grand Champion award. Call it a miracle.
Milagro offers three taco choices at happy hour -- chicken, pork or steak -- which may not be mixed and matched. Seven bucks buys you three of the same tacos, topped with fresh cilantro, cotija cheese and a smear of guacamole. The roasted pork is cooked al pastor-style with ancho chile and pineapple, while the steak is a traditional carne asada. Both are juicy, tender and mostly flavorful, although I find myself thinking that neither is quite as good as my idealized version of each dish. This is the curse of being crowned Grand Champion. So much to live up to!
Dessert isn't on the happy hour menu, but our server talks us into baby-size chocolate churros served with cajeta (goat's milk caramel) and pistachio cream. Because the churros have been piled on top of each other, they've gotten soft from the steam, which doesn't stop us from polishing them off anyway, eating the pistachio cream straight from the dish with our forks.
The Drink: Milagro runs all kinds discounts on happy hour beverages: $4 draft beers, $4 premium bottled beer, $4 Sangria roja, $5 select wines by the glass, $5 house margarita and a $6 Habanero Raspberry Margarita. Yes, I know. It sounds odd and maybe too girlie, but it looks and tastes pretty good -- a little hot, a little sweet and very festive.
Conclusion: I'd come back in a heartbeat just to relax on the patio over margaritas, chips, salsa and guacamole. For me, the Camarones Dulces alone are worth a trip. Although the regular menu (which definitely takes a page from The Mission) seems pretty pricy, happy hour offers an affordable way to enjoy this easygoing neighborhood hangout.
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