Cafe Reviews

Roland's Cafe Market Bar: The Restaurant We've Been Waiting For

Armando Hernandez, Chris Bianco, and Nadia Holguin.
Armando Hernandez, Chris Bianco, and Nadia Holguin. Chris Malloy
If you’re anything like me, you’ve been waiting a long time for a restaurant like Roland’s Cafe Market Bar to come along.

You’ve been waiting to drink a chiltepín pepper-infused mocha with breakfast and a bacanora-sluiced margarita at happy hour. You’ve been waiting for mortadella breakfast burritos and enchiladas montadas, served in the kind of upbeat downtown dining room where Selena’s “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” is on the regular weekend brunch soundtrack.

You’ve been waiting for a place like Roland’s Cafe Market Bar, which represents a collaboration between Tacos Chiwas’ Nadia Holguin and Armando Hernandez, and James Beard Award-winner/pizza legend Chris Bianco.
Maybe it strikes you as an unlikely collaboration. Bianco, after all, has built an empire out of flour and wood smoke. The Chiwas team has earned a loyal following on the basis of obsessively crafted norteño soul food. But the two parties have much in common — namely, a devotion to rigorous craftsmanship in the kitchen.

click to enlarge A breakfast plate featuring thin pork chops. - CHRIS MALLOY
A breakfast plate featuring thin pork chops.
Chris Malloy
It should be noted that Roland’s is no wild Mex-Italian fusion joint. The menu, rooted in the flavors of Holguin and Hernandez’s native Chihuahua, hews closer in substance to Tacos Chiwas than a Bianco restaurant. Roland’s is a Mexican restaurant, to be sure. But it’s also a place where cultures and culinary traditions intersect in ways that feel both fresh and deeply familiar.

The restaurant and bar, which opened this spring, is situated in the red-brick shell of what was once a vibrant neighborhood market on the well-worn corner of Van Buren and 15th streets. The dining room is vintage Bianco, elegantly frayed and charming, with pressed-tin ceilings, exposed brick walls, and plenty of natural light. The space boasts a full coffee bar, a semi-private dining nook, and a sleek, U-shaped bar. You’ll note the spacious open kitchen, outfitted with something you don’t typically see in most local Mexican kitchens: a wood-burning oven, which is used to bake the restaurant’s quesadillas (more on those later).

Much of Roland’s will feel familiar and homespun. The aperitivos menu includes popular Mexican street snacks like elote en vaso and tacos. Roland’s version of street corn is decadent yet well-balanced, with juicy, fresh corn kernels that hold their own against a thick slathering of mayonnaise, butter and cheese.

A carnitas taco, another starter, brims with slow-roasted pork, the well-rendered and sweetly succulent hunks slightly crisp around the edges. Less compelling are frituras, a playful ode to the crisp flour chicharrones that are often sold street-side by the bag. The crisp and cleanly fried chicharrones, loaded up with crema, salsa, avocado, and shredded cabbage, are oddly bland and forgettable.

Bianco’s culinary influence is felt in the restaurant’s terrific menu of tortas and quesadillas. The latter category feels like an homage (and upgrade) to the classic Arizona cheese crisp by way of Bianco. Roland’s quesadillas are golden-brown around the edges, and shatteringly thin out of the oven. Fashioned out of organic wheat, the tortillas are good enough to eat all on their own.

click to enlarge Bread fresh out of the Roland's oven. - CHRIS MALLOY
Bread fresh out of the Roland's oven.
Chris Malloy
Try the mortadella quesadilla, though, encrusted with asadero cheese, red onions, cilantro, and a scattering of the finely cubed Italian pork luncheon meat. It’s remarkably crispy and savory. The chorizo version, embedded with a snappy Schreiner’s chorizo that’s not too vinegary, is similarly great.

There are tortas, which are made using gently crusty Pane Bianco loaves. The steak sandwich, dressed with a smear of refried beans and layered with lettuce, guacamole and tender slivers of Niman ranch steak, is zapped with the kitchen’s wonderfully acidic chile de arbol salsa. Austere yet delicious.

Holguin, the kitchen’s culinary driving force, has a knack for filtering regional Mexican dishes through a modern lens and culinary school polish. For proof, swing by around breakfast time for a plate of enchiladas montadas. The stack of corn tortillas, pasted together with melted asadero and beans and topped with a runny fried egg, is generously smothered in a thick, garlicky chile colorado sauce that smolders with intense flavor and heat.

click to enlarge The interior of Roland's looking south from the main dining area. - CHRIS MALLOY
The interior of Roland's looking south from the main dining area.
Chris Malloy
From the small dinner menu, a stand-out dish is the entomatadas. Similar to enchiladas, the rolled tortillas are stuffed with cheese and smothered in a delicately sweet tomato sauce featuring Bianco’s own organic Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes. The saucy dish is balanced with a crisp salad of shredded cabbage, crema, and queso fresco. Not unlike lasagna, the dish is pure comfort food.

Fried empanadas, another dinner entree, are stuffed with beefy cabeza (head meat) and seasoned with smoky, pungent chile pasado. The empanadas are crisp, meaty, and fragrant, and deserve a better accompaniment than the ho-hum blended garbanzo dip that’s served on the side.

The most consistently delicious dinner item at Roland’s may very well be the kitchen’s signature chile colorado burrito, a pork-laden packet of refried beans wrapped up in unholy amounts of the restaurant’s intensely flavorful red sauce. It’s a sturdy, all-occasion dish that, for all its simplicity, is more time-intensive and delicious than it suggests.

click to enlarge CHRIS MALLOY
Chris Malloy

You’ll probably want to leave room for dessert, even if Roland’s dessert menu is still undergoing tweaks. On one night, your option might include Bianco’s famous flourless chocolate cake, or a plate of freshly fried mini-doughnuts, served with a dipping ramekin of thick cajeta. If you’re lucky, there will be fresh arroz con leche, a milky-sweet rice pudding speckled with fresh vanilla bean and topped with fresh strawberries.

Is Roland’s a destination for modern Mexican cooking with an experimental streak? Will it revolutionize the way you think about quesadillas, or burritos, or for that matter, chile colorado? Not really. But it might show you a new appreciation for a strain of regional Mexican cooking that’s rarely given the kind of reverence you’ll find at Roland’s. For now, here in Phoenix, that’s enough.

Roland’s Cafe Market Bar
1505 East Van Buren Street
Hours: 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 8 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday and Monday.

Elote en vaso $3
Enchiladas montadas $12
Mortadella quesadilla $8
Arroz con leche $6
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Patricia Escárcega was Phoenix New Times' food critic.