Opening a Mexican restaurant in this city full of Mexican restaurants has got to be tricky. The demand is clearly there, but so is the competition, and it takes a lot to stand out from the crowd. Homemade tortillas? Excellent guac? Cravable tacos? Even among the Valley's upscale Mexican eateries, the bar is set really high.
(How high? Consider the reputation of destination-worthy Barrio Cafe in Central Phoenix, and its inimitable chef-owner, Silvana Salcido Esparza, who's currently in the running for a James Beard Award. It's hard not to compare any newcomer's food to hers.)
So when Taberna Mexicana opened late last year in the Scottsdale Seville space that used to house Roy's, I was eager to find out whether chef Alex Padilla could deliver the goods. He's a Houston transplant who used to work for acclaimed chef Nancy Oakes at San Francisco's Boulevard, and who recently opened Ninfa's Mexican Kitchen, a Glendale outpost of a famed Tex-Mex spot that shares the same owners as Taberna.
After a few visits to this convivial place, I can tell that Padilla has the potential to be a serious player. His menu is ambitious, with luxurious ingredients (think rib eye carne asada) and refreshing Central American flourishes that keep dishes from veering into predictable territory.
Overall, food is plated beautifully. And, despite the high-profile Scottsdale location (which, let's face it, can sometimes be shorthand for mild-mannered gringo food), Padilla doesn't pull any punches when it comes to mouth-searing spices or dynamic flavors. Thankfully, the house specialty margarita (made with Cointreau and agave nectar) was so good that I didn't mind reaching for a cold palate-cleanser every few bites.
The bigger-picture issue, from what I can tell, is consistency, with regard to preparation as well as timing. That's no small task given such a large dining room (and a handsome one at that, with soft lighting, vibrantly colored upholstery, rustic dark wood, and a row of suspended, antiqued doors that divide the room and double as art). There's even more seating on the spacious patio.
Likewise, the service was amiable but lacking polish. Sometimes I couldn't flag down a server for a glass of water, while other times I felt doted upon. But most of the time, the genuinely kind, chatty folks I encountered made up for any shortcomings with sheer personality. And the friendly manager didn't hesitate to comp my shrimp-less shrimp and halibut ceviche one night.
That ceviche was the elusive white unicorn of Taberna — I tried two more times to order it, to no avail. One night, they said they were out. And another night, they said it would take too long to prepare. Why was this happening right in the middle of service (especially if they knew the dish is that popular)? And why wouldn't they simply tell customers up front if something wasn't available?
In any case, I enjoyed the ahi ceviche (jazzed up with guajillo oil, serrano peppers, and pepitas) as well as silky scallop ceviche. From the menu description, I expected the scallops to be light ("marinated with fresh passion fruit and truffle salt") but they had an intriguing red chile heat that kicked in after a few seconds. My only suggestion would be to offer more than just a couple black pepper puffs to eat with it. When those were gone, I resorted to eating the ceviche with the black corn tortilla chips and fried plantain chips served at the beginning of the meal (a classy touch, with two delicious salsas).
Guacamole was a sort of best-of-both-worlds version of the appetizer. Instead of being chunky or creamy, this was a creamy avocado base with chunks of avocado and tomato mixed in, topped with fresh cilantro, salty queso anejo, and a few artfully arranged strips of fried plantain.
The must-try tres picaditas, a trio of tender, doughy masa boats (similar to sopes), were mouthwatering with braised pork carnitas, avocado, onion, cilantro crema and crumbled queso on top. And plump shrimp, sizzled in garlic butter with spicy chiles, were memorable with bacon pico de gallo.
A choice of homemade flour or corn tortillas was the highlight of Taberna's taco platters. However, what I had fell quite short of greatness — perfectly cooked filet mignon tacos, drizzled with chipotle mayo, were lukewarm by the time they made it to my table, while scallop and pork belly tacos seemed strangely bland and dry. Was there any actual sea urchin in their exotic-sounding aioli? I've eaten enough raw sea urchin to detect its distinctive, otherworldly sweetness, and this creamy goo didn't have one iota of urchin. On paper, anyway, these tacos could've been a standout item.
I had better luck with entrées. Pumpkin seed-crusted seared scallops were a bit salty on their own, but just right with a bite of sweet, creamy corn puree and earthy huitlacoche ("Mexican truffle") garlic sauce. Even more luscious was cochinita pibil, a slow-cooked Yucatan pork dish served with pink pickled onions, herb-flecked crema, and crisp fried plantains. It was milder than some versions I've had, but as melt-in-your-mouth tender as pork could possibly be.
Spicy chicken enchiladas weren't the predictable version rolled up in tortillas and smothered in sauce and melted cheese, but rather a lighter, layered dish that was a cross between chilaquiles and lasagna — very tasty.
Another traditional dish got a lighter spin, and gratefully so: a fat chile relleno was roasted, not fried, and not oozing with melted cheese. Instead, the deep emerald poblano contained a colorful jumble of spinach, zucchini, mushrooms, spicy tomato sauce, and a judicious amount of crumbled Oaxaca cheese.
Sides came separately, in portions big enough for two. Fluffy, tomatoey rice and spicy, cheese-topped black beans were worth it, but bland sliced potatoes with cheese and peppers were not.
Likewise, I'd gladly take an encore of the wonderful cheesecake flan with Kahlua, but would rather forget about the Mexican bread pudding, a huge, unappetizing brown heap.
Taberna Mexicana is still a diamond in the rough, but it shouldn't take much to polish it up into a nice culinary gem.