In the hunt for the latest trendy restaurants, our spotlight often misses neighborhoods that are home to some of the Valley's best kitchens — including those making metro Phoenix's best tacos. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be guiding you toward the Valley’s tastiest tacos, and the taquerías that serve them. Welcome to Taco Summer.
28: Helio Basin Brewing Company
Brewery: Helio Basin Brewing Company, 3935 East Thomas Road
Open Since: 2016
Style: Arizonan ingredients and flavors in taco form
Signature Taco: Seasonal tacos served on spent brewing grain and Pima Indian-grown corn
The story is familiar one: Helio Basin Brewing Company, off at the southern edge of Arcadia, is located where hidden gems in our city so often are: in a strip mall. In this case, right next to a Red Wing boot store.
Outside, the lettering atop the windows reads: “Hand Crafted Brews” and “Authentic Arizona Food.”
You’d expect the former, which Helio Basin has delivered on since they opened about a year ago. At the three-month mark, they were included in BeerAdvocate’s annual ‘Class Of’ list and named as one of the 34 best new breweries in the country for 2016, citing their immediate grasp on quality control that eludes most new brewers for years, if not indefinitely.
The latter — the “Authentic Arizona Food” — came as a pleasant surprise in a world replete with ubiquitous bar foods such as cheese pretzels, beer cheese, and burgers.
To be fair, there are chips and dip and chicharrones, perhaps the quintessential bar food, on the menu. However, at Helio Basin, the dip is made using pasilla peppers and nopales, the green and meaty interiors of cactus pods.
The tostada is equally unusual, beginning with a corn tortilla made from colorful, local Native American corns and filled with chickpeas from Valley Pima Indian farmer Ramona Button that are pureed and fried in place of refried beans. Their hyper-local taco is finished with a topping of fire-roasted onion, prickly pear grapes, and the option to add wild game sausage.
Chef Tamara Stanger saysthat their team decided to highlight tacos on the menu because they were a blank slate that fit into the bar food atmosphere, food you could eat with your hands, but which allowed Stanger to explore Arizona-specific ingredients in a format that would be familiar and friendly to any patron of the Southwest.
“When when they opened their brewery, they wanted something that’s really easy and approachable,” Stanger says. “They said to make tacos, so I said let’s throw in all of these ingredients that you can really only find around Arizona and you can’t find anywhere else.”
That being said, her tacos escape the genre completely. She serves two types of tortillas and both are unusual. The corn, mentioned above, is made with a yellow Native American-gown Pima varietal from here in the Valley that she blends with chiles. The wheat tortillas are blended with spent grain from the brewery, which lends them a nutty and earthy flavor. While one taco might be topped with coffee-rubbed tri-tip, another will be filled with chicken coated in a mesquite honey glaze, made with sweet mesquite flour that Stanger stocks up on when the flour is harvested.
“It’s extremely hard to find,” Stanger says.
She also makes a seasonal vegetable taco, using the likes of roasted summer squash from Crooked Sky Farms, mushrooms, and local greens, starring tepary beans, a variety that has a long history in this region of the Southwest and which almost went extinct when they fell out of popularity during the era of convenience foods.
The beans, small, brown, and nutty, along with some of their colorful cousins (such as the pink tepary bean) are being farmed and dried for retail by Ramona Farms, one of the few companies to create a dependable business selling native Arizona foods. Stanger loves their white beans, which she says taste like cheddar, and she uses their red and blue corn varietals for tamales, which are an occasional special addition to the menu.
Raised Utah and having cooked in multiple kitchens across Phoenix before landing at Helio Basin, Stanger says that she didn’t initially seek out Arizona ingredients.
“I found some ingredients at a farmers' market and I wanted to know more. As the opportunity grew, I wanted to find out as much as I could,” Stanger says. “People started to introduce me to ingredients I had never even heard of.”
These days, she works with foragers who are trying to find restaurants interested in carrying their products.
“I love working with new ingredients.”
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Stanger says that most of their ingredients, because of very short growing seasons, usually end up in limited daily specials, either in entrees or taco form.
Our Taco Summer picks so far:
50. Taqueria Don Beto
49. Kiss Pollos Estilo Sinaloa
48. Tacos Tijuana
47. El Burrito Grande
46. El Horseshoe Restaurant
45. Tacos Sahuaro
44. El Pollo Correteado
42. La Fiesta
41. Taqueria Lucy
40. Tortas Ahogadas George
39. Taqueria El Chino
38. Joe's Tacos
37. Taqueria El Gallo de Lagos
36. Tacos Huicho
35. Puffy Taco Shack
34. Ni De Aqui Ne De Alla
33. Mr. Mesquite
32. Senor Ozzy's
31. Tacos Jalisco
30. Taqueria Los Yaquis