In creative fields, there are often talented creators who forge ahead of their contemporaries, making work so unique and proficient that the public isn’t ready for it. There isn’t an easy bridge to the work, or attitudes aren’t right yet, and perhaps they never will be. Bach’s cello suites were unknown during his life. Almost nobody read Moby-Dick in the 1850s. There is some of this in the tale of Roland’s.
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?
What made Roland’s exciting was how far its elements were from the Mexican restaurant norm here. First, Roland’s was set in a sublimely restored brick building dating to World War I, eclipsed in its origins only by its history. Second, the star power of the team could have fueled a rocket to Mars: a pizza legend and a young duo behind some of the city's greatest tacos, gorditas, and quesadillas.
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.
It was like time had glitched, skipped, and you were sitting in this vast open restaurant from some odd future.
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 the food at Roland’s was plain. This is a failure of imagination. A tortilla as good as a Roland’s tortilla has a matrix of steps and considerations that go into the process before the tortilla is even made. And with the tortilla, the dish begins. The complexity wasn’t always visible in the form of massively twanging familiar flavors or neon colors, but it was there in other ways.
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.
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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.
Last year at the Devour Culinary Classic (which Roland’s didn’t attend this year), I remember tasting a Roland’s tortilla rolled with orange chile Colorado. This was before the restaurant opened, when it was a bright speck in the near future. The tortilla had this giant floral fragrance. Its heat was so rounded, so bright, so ideal for the sun. This was merely the restaurant’s first pawn move, and yet it was quietly galvanizing — like hearing a fugue or reading a line of something wild.