Q&A: Rene Andrade on Grilling, Sonora, and His New Grand Avenue Restaurant

Chef Rene Andrade, formerly head chef at Ghost Ranch, is now doing his own thing at Bacanora.
Chef Rene Andrade, formerly head chef at Ghost Ranch, is now doing his own thing at Bacanora. Chris Malloy
Last we sat down with Rene Andrade, he was knifing open a $4,000 sack of chiltepines foraged near his family’s ranch in Baviacora, Sonora. The restaurant world has changed since then, nearly two years ago, and Andrade has left his chef role at Ghost Ranch to open his own place on Grand Avenue: Bacanora.

Actually, he won’t be totally on his own. Nadia Holguin and Armando Hernandez of Tacos Chiwas have partnered with Andrade, who will be making menu decisions and working the wood grill.

Named for the clear spirit of Sonora, Bacanora grows from roots that tunnel to the chef’s home region. Andrade has cooked at high-end spots like Sanctuary and The Mission. Now, at last, he’s cooking food from the land where those furious little peppers grow wild, reddening mountains.

We chatted with the chef about the pandemic, changing times, Sonora, bacanora and Bacanora, and cooking in the old Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva Space.

Phoenix New Times: There are a lot of Sonoran restaurants in town, mostly trucks and taco joints. You’re pretty firmly in the fine dining sphere with Bacanora. What should we expect?

Rene Andrade: I want to represent the Sonoran Desert, but I also want to take you home. I want it to be like you’re coming to my house and I’m cooking for you. I want to use all the experience I’ve had through the years, working at Sanctuary, working at The Mission, traveling and working in other countries. All of this stuff I’ve learned.

Sonoran food in Arizona is tacos, just tacos. Look at the Taco Boy’s. Those guys are killing it. Those are great tacos.

But Sonoran food is about more than just tacos. It’s about the smoke and the heat. I’m using 100 percent mesquite, almond, and pecan wood. I’m cooking fish. I’m hanging pork chops over the grill. I want to get people excited about Sonoran food.

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"I want to get people excited about Sonoran food."
Chris Malloy
New Times: How do you balance chef-driven cooking and home cooking at Bacanora?

RA: This is a very technical restaurant. I don’t have an oven. I don’t have a stove. I only have a grill. I have a 7-by-4 grill that is working just amazing. I wanted to take it back to that — the old-style cooking, the grandma cooking, the asaderos. Cooking with that love and the techniques I have learned, cooking very close to my heart.

New Times: Can you take us back to your past, eating and cooking in Sonora?

RA: I was born in Nogales, Arizona. Then I lived in Nogales, Sonora, with my parents, and then with my grandparents. I really understood food at a young age.

My connection with the Sonoran Desert and the region is important to me, like the chiltepin. Growing up, I ground the pepper, I ate the pepper. I would go to the Baviacora River, to the little pueblo there — it’s just a nice spot. Two of my family members, my aunt and uncle, both have taquerias there. They’re actually the best tacos in town.

That connection to me, it’s emotional and romantic. I’ve been cooking in the Sonoran Desert my whole life. I just really want to pay respect to my own culture, my own region.

New Times: To start, you’ve rolled out a focused menu of caramelos, roasted chicken, and a few other things. Just takeout for now. What dishes are you excited to cook for people?

RA: The grilled chicken with salsa, beans, and tortillas. The chicken comes from Two Wash Ranch. It’s just so special to work with. It’s tender, it’s juicy. I just want to pay respect back to that.

New Times: So you grill your chicken over wood?

RA: 100 percent wood from Berry Brothers. That’s pretty much how I cook at home.

I mean, Sonora, think about it. Just cross the border and what’s going to happen? You get these guys with these little grills making tacos. You go to Hermosillo, you see a guy with a little grill making tacos. You really are playing with the fire. If it rained and the wood is wet, you spend 45 minutes drying it. It’s just a love story.

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A haul of chiltepins from Chef Andrade.
Chris Malloy
New Times: Sonora is known for its grilled meats. Do you want your restaurant to be?

RA: The best beef in the world comes from Sonora. We export beef all over the world. We also have the Sea of Cortez right there, the fish, the shrimp. I think this menu is going to be that — a really good way of honoring the region.

New Times: So you have a grill and that’s it. Are you grilling all of your sides?

RA: Yeah. I’m really challenging myself to be quite honest. For the salsa, we grill everything for it over the open fire. We make this chunky salsa. And then beans, they’re pinto beans that I cook on the grill with habanero, garlic, oregano. People go crazy over them. It’s just simplicity. I don’t want to put 25 garnishes on a dish. I want you to come through, have this potato, queso fresco on top, olive oil, sea salt, chicken, and chile on the side — I grill it and mix it with pickled onions and carrots. And on the side, you get that flour tortilla.

We make that flour tortilla. We make that flour tortilla with Armando and Nadia [of Tacos Chiwas].

New Times: You’re cooking out of a pretty small space. How big is your staff?

RA: It’s a bartender, one server, plus a dishwasher, and myself. Four or five people.

New Times: Your space — the old Gran Reserva space — had a great bar overlooking its kitchen. Will yours be stocking bacanora?

RA: I am serving Bacanora. I’m lucky to be trying some good bacanora now. I want to do many agaves, like mezcal, tequila, and sotol. Bacanora will always be number one.

New Times: How has the pandemic changed you and your trajectory as a promising young chef?

RA: The pandemic changed a lot of things in a positive way. How different it was a year ago. I’ve opened my mind a little bit. I’m really trying to be in the present. I get to open this beautiful restaurant, with the ups and downs. The pandemic changed me a lot for the better, and helped me understand things that we take for granted.

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"I would eventually love to have this spot. I love this spot."
Jacob Tyler Dunn
New Times: You’re taking over Silvana Salcido Esparza’s old spot. Is a torch being passed? Do you feel that at all?

RA: Yeah, that’s how it feels about this place. It’s very emotional and special, man.

I went to — I’ll give you the rundown really fast — I went to have dinner at Silvana’s when Silvana opened Gran Reserva. I was like damn this place is so great. I put out to the universe, I said: I would eventually love to have this spot. I love this spot. How crazy would that be? I was with my friends and told them that. I was like oh whatever, this is just crazy talk.

I’m very thankful that I got this opportunity. I don’t want to take it for granted. I want to make sure that I pay respect to her. I want to keep that legacy: 1301, just remember that number.

Silvana was there cooking Mexican food. What I want to do is keep the legacy going.

New Times: What do you like about the space itself?

RA: When you enter the restaurant, you can see me cooking in the back. When you sit at the bar, you can see me cooking. That’s what I want. I added a wood beam and changed the space a little bit without changing the magic of what the space is. The space is always going to be a historical, magical all-windows space.

New Times: What are your hopes for this restaurant?

RA: We’re on Grand Avenue. I opened this restaurant with more elevated items so people could travel from Scottsdale, from Tempe and just come and get a good meal. We’re on the best side of town. We’re on the best street. It’s just so magical. You’ve got downtown Phoenix in front of you. It’s just beautiful.

I want to tell stories with my food. I want to tell stories with my restaurant.
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy