Cafe Reviews

Poblano May Have Difficulty Competing with Neighborhood Staples

Dishes are pretty at Poblano. So pretty that even as you are deciding from the menu, your server may direct your attention to the wall, where photographs feature larger-than life images of poblano chiles dripping with cheese, and just-so arrangements of parrillada meats.

"They will look like that," your server will say, pointing. And she will be right. When the square plates and bowls arrive, what is placed atop or inside these bright white canvasses will look very close to the photo, or something that could be in a photo.

You will notice the details: slices of peppers — one green, one red — carefully crisscrossed atop a perfectly shaped mound of rice, tubular streaks of melted Oaxaca cheese applied ever so evenly across salsa-drenched enchiladas or as a white asterisk over a bed of fries and carne asada, and small central nests of yellow and red tortilla strips hugged by variations of soups.

These pretty plates, to which so much attention has been paid, might feel the most at home served in a cozy atmosphere of spacious booths and low lights.

But at Poblano, located in a former fast-food building in Central Phoenix, a drive-thru and fluorescent lighting help to set an unusual scene for this casual Mexican eatery. And given its concept of middle-of-the-road fare at affordable prices — a concept that feels like the Mexican version of Pei Wei — Poblano's peculiar pairing of casual meets convenience may be trying to prove a point or, more likely, positioning itself as a would-be chain restaurant concept.

The idea isn't such a stretch considering Poblano is owned by the Diaz family, which also runs Armando's Mexican Food, a fast-food chain with three locations in the Valley. Isamary Diaz, a native of San Luis Potosi in Mexico, is co-owner and executive chef of Poblano and oversees the food at all the family's restaurants.

Like Armando's, Poblano sports a drive-thru and late-night hours, but that's where the similarities end. There are more photos of pretty dishes before you pull around to the extensive menu, where anything from tortas to fish tacos to chiles en nogada can be ordered and served up window-side within minutes.

Poblano wants to be more than a fast-food joint — and it is, but that road seems to be a lonely one. At times, the red building with the large, horizontal window revealing a handful of guests inside a brightly lit room is reminiscent of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks.

After all, for most folks from this working-class neighborhood, drinks and grub can be had for cheap at longtime favorite La Piñata, across the street or the ingredients for an authentic home-cooked Mexican dinner can be purchased at the Mercado next door.

Inside, time and money spent on renovations can be seen in Poblano's tile floors, leather booths and seating, and marble-top tables. Large electronic menus welcome guests, as does a view of the kitchen, a soda dispenser, and an ordering counter. Unfortunately, these amenities are passed up by most patrons, who, upon entering — and not finding a clear path to the counter — opt to sit down instead, where they're waited on by a friendly once-behind-the-counter server (still sporting the headset required to take drive-thru orders) who explains the menu, refills drinks and homemade chips and salsa, and busses the table.

But that doesn't mean a Pei Wei-like concept for the owners of a local fast-food chain is a bad one. Along with its pretty plates, a casual atmosphere, and friendly service, Poblano offers a broad menu of breakfast, lunch, and dinner items highlighting cuisine throughout areas of Mexico such as Puebla, Mexico City, and Oaxaca. The arrangement of items on the front side of the menu might suggest a push toward signature dishes such as mole poblano, tampiqueña arrachera (grilled flank stank), whole red snapper, and the classic chile en nogada, with Mexican staples such as burritos, tacos, tortas, and enchiladas relegated to the back.

And if you're feeling a bit overwhelmed by the tour of all-over Mexican cuisine, Poblano offers some hints of the familiar with French fries, vegetable medleys, cheesecake, a Caesar salad — even Ocean Spray Craisins in the guacamole.

When it comes to flavor, Poblano plays it safe, perhaps shooting for the lowest common denominator in acceptable-for-the-masses dining. These are not bad or poorly prepared dishes; they are merely unexciting ones. The mole poblano is dainty, its slices of chicken breast covered in a slightly bittersweet sauce, the arrachera steak comes coated in an cautious red enchilada topping, the enchiladas suizas offer a hint of tanginess, the fish tacos are helpless without the chipotle sauce, and the poblano fries appetizer (a mound of cheesy fries and carne asada) is begging for more flavorful meat.

A vegetable medley side dish (including cauliflower and garnished carrots) and a small mound of ho-hum white rice made dishes such as the lightly breaded Ensenada shrimp and the Rosarito fish fillet barely recognizable as Mexican fare. Even the Acapulco, one of the more "exotic" dishes on the menu, with its fish fillet wrapped in banana leaves, looked tame next to these sides.

There are good dishes to be found at Poblano. As the restaurant's name would indicate, best bets include any dish featuring the namesake chile pepper. And these dishes are where bold flavors can be enjoyed.

The colorful quesadilla sampler offers four unique tastes in its offerings of poblano chiles and caramelized onions, tangy shredded chicken, summer squash and roasted corn, and smoky-sweet huitlacoche, also known as corn smut; stuffed poblano chiles, with a choice of beef, cheese, or veggies are satisfyingly tasty with just the right amount of heat; and the chile en nogada, filled with picadillo (a mixture of ground beef, fruits, and spices) and topped with a walnut-based cream sauce and pomegranate seeds, was a little sweet for my taste, but the dish still benefited from the fresh and spicy poblano.

As you finish your meal with an order of flan or tres leches cake, you may find yourself wondering why Poblano would set up shop in an area filled with so many established Mexican restaurants. Surely, there's a shopping mall parking lot in the suburbs where these attractively presented and merely pleasant-tasting, dishes would fit right in.

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Laura Hahnefeld
Contact: Laura Hahnefeld