Chef Brian Webb and restaurateur Joseph Aguayo have made names for themselves as adventurous food pioneers. Aguayo brought bold, affordable Mexican fare to downtown in 2010 with his popular Verde, which closed after just seven months. Webb, who previously worked at Pointe South Mountain Resort in Phoenix, took the lead in the food truck craze when his and wife Margita's Hey Joe! mobile eatery turned heads with their take on Filipino street food. (The couple won New Times' 2011 culinary Big Brain award.)
Last year, Webb and Aguayo teamed with Michael Reyes (of Scottsdale's Pure Sushi and the sublime Otro Café) to launch Paz Cantina in the former home of The Local, which also closed after only half a year. With all that restauranting behind them, expectations were high. The result from this revered trio's joint venture is a mixed bag of inconsistently pleasurable food and service.
To be fair, diners likely come to Paz for a quick bite, not a dining experience. There are no esoteric ingredients or wild surprises in Webb's Mexican cuisine; no seafood cocktail served in the hollow of a halved avocado; nothing stylishly arranged on a giant white plate. This is inexpensive, casual-dinner-on-the-go food.
Paz's wide outdoor patio, more hospitable than the bare-bones interior dining rooms, is a tip-off that this Roosevelt Row hangout is about something other than the perfect tacos and tortas. Trees wrapped in twinkly lights, a cement dance floor, a pair of ping-pong tables -- all hint at the truth: This is a very nice taco stand, offering casual Mexican food.
The bar, with a mix of high and low tables, serves excellent margaritas, and the slightly more formal dining area with banquettes and (surprise!) cloth napkins and real flatware is somewhat less noisy. The menu, neither too large nor especially wide-ranging, includes a selection of open-face soft tacos, tortas, and flautas. Food doesn't arrive swiftly; on one occasion, a companion and I sat just in front of Webb's tiny kitchen, where we watched our entrées and appetizers, which were served together, sitting on a shelf for a full 10 minutes while our server chatted with people in the bar. At a recent lunch, I watched tables seated after me receive attention before our befuddled waitress (who, when I ordered a Pellegrino, asked if that was a mixed drink) discovered me sitting in plain sight.
Again, Paz is about quick, simple grub. When there's any finesse at all, it's fortunately applied to some of the things that really matter in a Mexican restaurant, like the guacamole, which I recommend. Hints of onion and garlic and nice, ripe chunks of avocado made this otherwise smooth mash a real treat.
The complimentary chips and salsa were unexciting. The watery salsa, spiced with cilantro and tomato seeds, offered neither heat nor tang. The chips, which weren't warm nor especially fresh-tasting, were crisp, at least, and came in handy when an order of Queso de Paz was served à la carte; was I supposed to eat it with a spoon? This hot and creamy pepper jack, mildly spiced and garnished with pico de gallo, was among very few items I'd return to Paz for.
The chicken quesadilla, which appears to be available only on the children's menu, was another. Pairing pepper-spicy chipotle chicken with tangy yellow cheeses, it needed no boost from salsa (good thing!) or any other condiment.
Ironically, the least Mexican item on the appetizer menu is among the very best items Paz offers: The Paz house salad is a simple blend of spring mix lettuce, cubed jicama, tomato, and charred corn drizzled with rich Goddess dressing. This and the quinoa and kale salad, too chewy and under-dressed to finish, are among a very few vegetarian offerings, which include a side of corn on the cob that came perfectly charred, sweet, and juicy.
Webb's tortas are fresh and less fiery than the Mexican sandwiches served from most local food trucks. The carnitas torta is infused with deep, toasty flavors of lard and roasted pork. The Sonoran dog torta combines an unremarkable, chopped-up frankfurter with a jalapeño-infused mayonnaise; both are served on fluffy, lightly sweet baked rolls.
Tacos were on the smallish side, presented open-face on warm, thin corn tortillas loaded with plenty of meat. The carne asada taco was fine: tender grilled steak sprinkled with onion and cilantro and topped with a radish slaw. Better was the pork belly taco, which offered a big, gristly lump of fat clinging to crispy, tender pork and dressed with pickled cabbage and papaya.
Another signature taco, the Nopales, is made with grilled cactus. Bitter and stringy, its strips of succulent are clobbered by shredded cheese and pico de gallo. Seafood tacos were a mixed bag: The mahi-mahi variety was dressed with a crisp, tangy jalapeño slaw atop tender, moist, lightly breaded fish, while the taco de mar, which combined calamari with cabbage slaw, is a mess, its octopus chewy and bland and not well supported by globs of crema.
Other entrées are also less successful. The chicken flautas are crisp and perfect for scooping up more of that flavorful guacamole, but are stuffed with flavorless meat and too little Oaxaca cheese. A side of shredded cabbage is pointless, lost under pico de gallo and globs of crema and more guacamole.
House nachos are strictly drive-in-theater quality: Soggy corn chips piled with beans, pico de gallo, and far too much queso and guacamole. I ordered mine with carne asada, which was buried under too many other flavors.
Sides were mostly a disaster, none more tellingly than the refried beans, which offered almost none of the starchy texture of traditional frijoles. The prevailing flavor in this runny bowl of too-salty pintos was lard.
If Paz offered more of its simple pleasures -- good guac, a nice charred corn -- there might be more to say about its cuisine. On the other hand, the crowds that mob this place, day and night, seem less interested in cuisine than in getting some quick, inexpensive grub. Paz Cantina belongs to them.
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Paz Cantina 1011 North Third Street 602-368-2487 www.pazcantina.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight Monday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday; 9 a.m. to midnight Sunday
Queso de Paz $5 Paz house salad $6.50 Flautas $8 Carnita torta $8