When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out - and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).
Restaurant: South Mountain Cafe
Location: 5630 South Central Avenue
Open: About three months
Eats: Mexican, American, and a smattering of French fare
Price: $10 and under/person
South Phoenix is not exactly known for its trendy dining scene, but you'll find many of our city's most beloved and long-standing hole-in-the-wall restaurants located south of Buckeye Road.
One of the newest additions to the south Phoenix dining scene is South Mountain Cafe, a casual, counter-service restaurant located on Central Avenue, just north of Southern Avenue. The unassuming restaurant can be easy to miss — it's set back from the street in a space that has sat empty for a few years, and which used to house a fast-food restaurant many years ago.
South Mountain Cafe is owned by budding 21-year-old restaurateur Jose Zacarias Jr., who has worked to rehab the old standalone building, turning it into a small, counter-service cafe. In a somewhat unconventional reversal of roles, the chef at the back of the house is Jose Zacarias, Sr., the owner's father, who has previously cooked alongside Valley baker extraordinaire Eugenia Theodosopoulos of Essence Bakery Cafe.
In any case, South Mountain Cafe is a family affair, and on any given day, you'll probably find one family member or other behind the counter taking orders. The sign outside the restaurant describes the food as "Latin American cuisine," but the menu is mostly a motley selection of Mexican and American dishes — with a couple of excursions into French cafe food.
All dishes, though, fall squarely under the banner of comfort food. You'll find everything from nachos and tacos to burgers and sandwiches, and there are even a few seafood options available on the dinner side of the menu. The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with breakfast options available until 3 p.m. on the weekends.
On a recent lunchtime visit, we sampled the cafe's take on the croque monsieur, the classic French sandwich. It came out very hot and nicely capped with a delicious blend of house-made Béchamel sauce and a generous helping of melted gruyère cheese. The ham was nicely crisp at the edges, and the thick-cut bread held up nicely under the weight of all that buttery sauce, cheese, and ham. The version here is pretty irresistible, and the restaurant also makes a sort of Southwestern version that's made with jalapeño. We can't wait to come back and try it.
You'll find a lot of homestyle Mexican dishes on the menu, and one of the best we sampled recently was a cheese enchilada plate. The dish is simple and familiar, but elevated by a homemade enchilada sauce, which was nicely seasoned. If you prefer your sauce to lean more toward the vaguely sweet, tomato side of the sauce spectrum, then these enchiladas are for you. And if you are enticed by a good side of Mexican-style arroz, the rice here is a must-try: it's very moist and well-seasoned, which is not something you can say for every Mexican combo plate around town.
Chicken tacos were also straightforward yet delicious. The roasted chicken was served up in big, juicy cubes, slightly smoke-tinged from the grill, and subtly seasoned with a citrus marinade. We also sampled the cafe's steak quesadillas, which arrived bulging with big, chewy cubes of grilled steak. The meat deliciously glued together with copious amounts of a salty, glossy blend of melted cheeses.
So, expect your portions to be generous and very hearty. Most menu items are priced well below the $10 mark, which makes South Mountain Cafe a great value, and a welcome break from the fast-food restaurants in the neighborhood.
Sure, the restaurant might be running a bit low on curb appeal — the parking lot fell into disrepair after years of vacancy, and the dining room inevitably has the bones of a fast-food joint. But we're told that the restaurant will be gradually making improvements to the parking lot, and fixing up the patio as the weather begins to cool.
In the meantime, you'll want to enjoy South Mountain Cafe for its homespun take on Mexican comfort food, and for the fact that it might be the only cafe around town where you can feast on enchiladas, tacos, and a very good croque monsieur, all in one convenient spot.