People talk about the rise of downtown Phoenix. Rightfully, people get juiced about the growth of its food scene. How many gushing articles have you read about the glow-up of Roosevelt Row by now, 17? This growth has been great for many reasons. In my mind, though, we need to start talking about downtown Mesa.
In particular, the brief stretch of Main Street from Date to Hibbert has leveled up its food and drink mightily in the last three or so years. Somehow, within the last year, the growth has seemed even steeper. Pound-for-pound, pint-for-pint, taco-for-taco, downtown Mesa can now hang with just about anywhere in the Valley.
The anchors in its food lineup are impressive: Worth Takeaway, Myke’s Pizza, Republica Empanada, Tacos Chiwas. Ditto its drink, led by Cider Corps, Chupacabra Tap Room, and 12 West Brewing Co. And the flow of new blood just keeps on coming, signaled by spiffy signs and construction noise. Proof Bread is slated to open soon. In July, downtown Mesa welcomed Que Chevere, one of my favorite openings of this year.
Que Chevere is the kind of new spot increasingly setting downtown Mesa apart: mom-and-pop, no pretension, good vibes, lots of character, great food.
Pleasantly bereft of decor and dishes that exist for Instagram, without anything even remotely resembling a PR blitz, Que Chevere opened during the terrifying Arizona upswing of the COVID-19 pandemic — a tiny black dining room spilling tables onto a sidewalk patio that can get lively. Its owners are Orvid Cutler and Maria Fernanda, a husband-and-wife-team. Fernanda is from Venezuela. So is her restaurant’s food.
The name “Que Chevere” might be familiar. It’s painted on the food truck Cutler and Fernanda have run four years, often parking at Phoenix’s Uptown Farmers Market. At the brick-and-mortar in Mesa, arepas are the star. Empanadas play a supporting role. This is a menu, though, where the deeper cuts can keep up.
Let’s start with my favorite thing at Que Chevere: the patacon. When this sandwich arrives, you may question your ability to finish. It’s the size of a brick. It’s a warm, happy mess, just spilling shredded beef and chicken. The cheese? Melted cheddar. The “bread” on this sandwich? Not bread. In the way of a classic patacon, the sandwich is built on two paddles of congealed plantain slices; each paddle is composed of many plantain slices fried, tortilla-pressed into a rough disc, then finished on the flattop.
The plantains are crisp and salty, a nice foil to the filling of slow-cooked meat, mellowly spiced with Serrano peppers and tender. I erased my patacon from the universe in about four minutes.
The chachapa — a thick, corn pancake folded like an omelet and filled with queso mano — possesses a nuanced sweetness and showcases corn in rare, beautiful light. For more of a plate-style meal, look to pabellon criollo, a union of garlicky black beans, simple white rice, and more of that tender, six-hour-cooked, pepper-warmed shredded beef.
The pabellon criollo also comes with a pale puffy white puck, kissed brown by the griddle: an arepa. At the few barstools, at indoor tables, and among the outside bunchers knocking down cuba libre cocktails before noon on Sundays, arepas dominate.
In many ways, the arepa is to Venezuela as the tortilla is to Mexico. Venezuela’s version is known to be taller and more three-dimensional than neighboring Colombia’s, another arepa-fueled country, though both qualify as corn-based flatbreads. Cutler and Fernanda shape theirs from a dough of Venezuelan cornmeal, dough pucks griddled on both sides.
Some arepas are served just like that, as sides. Others are sliced open and stuffed, served as mains.
An arepa stuffed with black beans and queso blanco, a Venezuelan cheese, centers the simple goodness of admirably cooked beans. Another arepa, this one stuffed with long-stewed shredded chicken that comes cold, like a chicken salad, is slightly bland, even with its boosts of cilantro and avocado. The arepas that embrace the cow are the heaviest hitters, including one featuring — surprise! — that rich shredded beef. Another combines beef and other elements of the pabellon criollo plate. When these arepas are newborns and hot and ready to go, they are stellar.
At Que Chevere, the empanadas are strong. For a food that’s mostly fried dough, they’re surprisingly light and supple. Get them as part of a mixed starter with tequenos, spiral, stretchy Venezuelan cheese sticks rolled by hand every morning — the most popular item on the menu.
In many ways, Que Chevere is a restaurant built for our weird new dining age, though it likely would have succeeded before. It has a small scattering of tables and can do some dine-in. On top of this, the food takes out nicely and comes out of the kitchen relatively fast. We’re long past the time a restaurant needs 15-ingredient dishes and tricked-out dining rooms to be “good.” Especially in our new era, leaner might prove better.
Standing at the bar, waiting for a takeout order, it’s easy to see what a place like Que Chevere adds to downtown Mesa. It’s easier when soccer is playing on the TV, a few tables are humming, and you’ve got your hand around a cold Guarapita (“Venezuelan jungle juice,” Cutler says) fresh with passion fruit and cherry.
“I love downtown Mesa,” Cutler says. “I really feel like it has a lot of potential. The community here is amazing. I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else right now.”
Like Cutler, you can feel the energy of the place rising, almost merging into the state of mind that comes on as, elbows on the bar, you slurp down a tropical drink. It feels like you might as well be toasting a new era.
142 West Main Street, Mesa
Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday.
Cane Mechada Arepa $10
Cachapa with Queso Mano $10
Starter Sampler $14
Sliced Sweet Plantains $4
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