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: Taco Chelo
Location: 501 East Roosevelt Street
Open: Less than three months
Eats: Tacos, plus Mexican snacks and cocktails
Price: $10-$20 per person
Is there a Mexican restaurant boom underway in downtown Phoenix? There's long been a strong local appetite for Mexican cooking in downtown, and it seems like restaurateurs are finally answering the call.
In the past few months, a spate of Mexican restaurants have opened in and around downtown, including Chico Malo, Gallo Blanco Cafe, Céntrico, El Chino Restaurante y Cantina, and Roland's Cafe Market Bar.
One of the most eagerly anticipated of this new wave of downtown Mexican restaurants was Taco Chelo, a style-conscious taquería that opened in the old Flowers building near Roosevelt and Fifth streets in March.
Described as a collaboration between chef Suny Santana, designer Gennaro Garcia, and restaurateur Aaron Chamberlin, Taco Chelo zeros in on what has arguably become the most precious Mexican cultural commodity of the past decade: tacos.
Fetishized, worshipped, Instagrammed, and memed to death, tacos seem like the least imaginative format for a modern Mexican restaurant. But tacos, as you well know, are also timeless and delicious. The genius of tacos is their innate adaptability. Any cook can take up tacos and work them into a vessel of culinary expression.
At Taco Chelo, tacos are vessels for simple, well-crafted ingredients and flavors. The restaurant's tight menu revolves around five signature tacos: barbacoa, carnitas, fish, carne asada, and vegetable.
They'll cost you about a dollar more than you would probably pay at your favorite neighborhood lonchera or taquería. But you don't come to a trendy spot like Taco Chelo for the most economical taco dinner in town. You come, at least in part, to soak in the restaurant's bright, vivid design.
The Taco Chelo dining room is a bespoke marvel of color and Mexican-inspired motifs. There's a lovely turquoise bar, trimmed with Day of the Dead-inspired calavera tile work; a mass of pendant lights hanging from the rafters; and a stylish, on-trend neon sign mounted onto an artfully faded brick wall. It's a vibrant space that feels like it was designed, for better or worse, to be showcased on Instagram.
There's another intriguing design feature: a shipping container, cleverly attached to the restaurant, rejiggered into a working kitchen. In that tight space, you'll sometimes catch a glimpse of the kitchen pressing out tortillas, which are made using a locally produced masa.
The drink menu features a short list of cocktails, plus options like Mexican coke, Jarritos, house-made agua frescas, and a modest but thoughtful selection of Mexican beer and wine.
I ordered the house margarita on a recent visit, a straightforward and traditional Jose Cuervo rendition with a skillful balance of tartness and sweetness. The drink's streamlined design, free of unnecessary toppers or ingredients, was refreshing. The only hitch here is that my drink wasn't dispatched until halfway through dinner, turning it by default into a late-meal dessert chaser.
A small appetizer menu features classic Mexican botanas like chicharrones. The eminently snackable treat was cleanly fried and beautifully crisp on a recent visit. A smattering of earthy chile powder on the lime-touched chicharrón added some nice complexity. It comes with a side of fresh guacamole, which under different circumstances might register as a small, delicious blessing. Here, though, the presence of guacamole feels a little strangely superfluous. Sure, you could dunk your chicharrón in guacamole, but what's the point of chicharrón if you can't savor it in all its fatty, naked glory?
Another botana, frijoles a la charra, makes for a more wholesome starter, or possibly a side dish. The stewed pinto beans are flavored with bacon and garnished with pico de gallo. It's a straightforward and pleasantly earthy stew, although my bowl needed more salt to really bring it to life.
How are the tacos? They are simple and uncomplicated, sparingly dressed with homemade salsas to let meats and veggies shine. The carne asada taco, on a recent visit, was spilling over with flavorful, blistered grilled steak, which was deftly accented with a tomatillo and avocado salsa. Slow-cooked barbacoa, meanwhile, was palpably rich and flavorful, and the house carnitas taco resonated with fatty, natural succulence.
Slightly less satisfying was a ho-hum fish taco. The least satisfying taco on my visit, though, was the vegetable option, a subdued blend of mushrooms, corn, black beans, and queso fresco. There's something perfunctory about its wholesomeness, and its subtle flavors, on a recent visit, were undermined by the bitter tang of arugula.
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For dessert, there's tres leches cake, a bright, dainty-looking confection adorned with toasted coconut, almonds, and fresh citrus. Whipped cream melts deliciously into the cake. It's a lovely dessert, although the middle portion of my cake was a little stiff and dry. How satisfied you are with this dessert will hinge on how devoted you are to the idea that a tres leches cake should be positively saturated in sweet milk.
Quibbles aside, Taco Chelo proves you don't have to re-invent the wheel to deliver culinary substance. It might not be a game-changer for downtown Phoenix. Hell, it might not even be your new favorite downtown taquería. But Taco Chelo is a solid addition to downtown Phoenix's growing Mexican food scene.
Taco Chelo. 501 East Roosevelt Street; 602-368-5316.
Sunday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.