Roland’s Cafe Market Bar closed this week. The collaboration between Chris Bianco and the Tacos Chiwas team, Nadia Holguin and Armando Hernandez, was long-hyped and grandly reviewed. And not just by local press, but, on a level that few Phoenix restaurants see, by national media. It seemed halfway to becoming a new icon of the city.
So why did this unique and capable restaurant close? And what does that say about Phoenix?
Third, the convergence of culinary philosophies felt new and vital.
These philosophies are what elevated and doomed Roland’s. Layering Bianco’s brand of avid minimalism and elite ingredients with regional Mexican food from the heart of a supremely talented young chef led to pioneering food unlike any other in Phoenix. Here, in a town where at least half of Mexican restaurants are serving commodity meat and big-ag vegetables, here was one sourcing the best pork, trucking in peppers from Chihuahua, and griddling these warm, pliant, unreal tortillas crafted from newly ground White Sonora wheat.
Here was regional Mexican with pristine inputs, gentle flights away from tradition, and tiny Italian flourishes, often resulting in dishes you couldn’t find elsewhere. It always felt a little surreal, sipping sotol negronis in a luck-lorn neck of Phoenix beyond the fringe of downtown and all its recent buoyancy, black char from the hot bottom of a brand-new, world-class mortadella quesadilla charcoaling your hands.
That was part of the issue: Roland’s felt way ahead of its time, at least for Phoenix. We live in a city where the chain and local-corporate restaurants are far more popular than they are in other populous cities. The number of strong, forward-looking restaurants that have closed in the past few years has been alarming. Sure, places like DeSoto Market go dark, ambitious projects executed unfortunately, but then so does an ambitious, seamlessly executed place like Roland’s.
Some may say that Roland’s was in a bad location. This is true to the core. Out the window was a vista of faded buildings low-slung on the road and desert sunlight hard on car metal. If this restaurant had opened downtown, or in the right locale to the north, these words wouldn’t exist.
At the same time, the closing of Roland’s feels to both follow and frustrate logic. The food and beverage enthusiasts of Phoenix want this city to become a first-rate food city, and we want this more than we’re willing to admit. And here was a first-rate restaurant, a progressive Mexican eatery that likely would have been welcomed in New York or California or any metropolis in America. In Phoenix, it didn’t last a year.
You have to wonder just what that says.