Their Industry in Ruins, Phoenix Chefs and Cooks Provide Free Food Anyway

Samantha Sanz and Silvana Salcido Esparza by the Barrio Cafe van.
Samantha Sanz and Silvana Salcido Esparza by the Barrio Cafe van. Chris Malloy
Out back behind Barrio Cafe, a white van, parked day after day, rests starkly against the restaurant’s explosive murals. Barrio Cafe has been closed for two weeks. But at 5 p.m. every day, the van’s rear doors open, providing free food like red chile burritos, barbecue pork, and cochinita pibil — even groceries and huitlacoche for vegans.

“This is not a time for me to be worried about my finances,” says longtime Barrio Cafe Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza. “This is a time for me to be worried about my fellow man.”

Esparza, who recently quarantined while awaiting coronavirus test results (which were negative), has been bringing chefs to Barrio Cafe each day, preparing food to be loaded into the van. The food changes daily. There are 50 to 80 family-style meals available to needy community members each evening. “A single guy could get a few days out of it,” Esparza says. “Or a family could eat dinner out of it that night. Or they could grab two bags if it’s a big family.”

Who can take from the van? Anyone. "No questions asked,” Esparza says.

click to enlarge A fridge at Barrio Cafe that has been cooling donated food. - CHRIS MALLOY
A fridge at Barrio Cafe that has been cooling donated food.
Chris Malloy
In the two weeks since the coronavirus first whipped its wrecking ball into the Phoenix restaurant scene, kitchens have closed or pivoted to takeout models. Some of those still open have evolved into community kitchens, in whole or in part. These kitchens are giving free meals to the hungry, to medical professionals, to folks who don’t fit into either group but just want to eat. In short, they’re doing what they always do: feed people, only a little bit differently.

When restaurants pivot even just an iota or two to community models, business can suffer to ease the suffering of others. Esparza spends a few hundred dollars a day to stock the van. She receives donations. She has dug into her bank account. “I was going to retire in two years,” she says. “Guess what? You’re going to have to put up with my annoying ass for a lot longer than I thought.”

Esparza has a history of shouldering her community. For instance, in early 2019, when the federal government shut down, she comped meals for furloughed workers. The tendency to help, she believes, is deeply rooted in her culture. “Last year, we fed federal workers,” she says. “Why? Because we’re Mexican. Because when the neighbor’s house burns down, as much as we hate that fucking bitch, we bring a pot of beans over and we feed their kids.”

Most of the cooks she’s bringing into the Barrio Cafe kitchen have Mexican roots. The roster of visiting chefs includes some big names, like an appearance from the Tacos Chiwas folks, plus plenty of homestyle cooks, like Esparza’s sister, who’s on the docket to make their mother’s recipes. (For a full schedule, see Esparza’s Instagram.)

On Monday, Chef Samantha Sanz from the now-temporarily closed Talavera came by with her Sous Chef Victor Davila and Executive Chef Chuck Kazmer. They bustled in the eerily deserted Barrio Cafe kitchen, portioning corn tortillas, spooning rice, simmering a steel vat of carne de jugo — meat braised in its juices.

“When Silvana got involved with this, she reached out to me,” Sanz says. “In a heartbeat, I was here.”

click to enlarge Kazmer (left), Sanz, and Davila preparing stew. - CHRIS MALLOY
Kazmer (left), Sanz, and Davila preparing stew.
Chris Malloy
With donations of potatoes, of packaged barbecue sauce, of money to buy ingredients, Esparza’s volunteers cook free meals for the community. Sanz and her crew made enough for roughly 50 families, a task that occupied them from 9 a.m. to shortly before the van opened. When the cooking was done, they loaded plastic containers of stew into the back, returned to the kitchen for cleaning, and needy community members started to come by to take home sustenance.

Other local restaurant operators have taken similar measures.

For one, Oren Hartman of NakedQ has been giving away a torrential stream of food for an independent restaurant owner: 700 pints of chicken soup one day, 1,000 barbecue sandwiches another — more than he sold daily before the virus. Hartman is providing these meals for health care workers, first responders, hospitality workers, delivery drivers, and “anyone who has seriously reduced earnings.”

“I’m in a position to help people,” he says. “I see this as an opportunity to give and to give some of my guys a lifeline.” Hartman is giving away barbecue spaghetti, sending sandwiches to hospitals. His Chandler restaurant has closed, but his Phoenix and Scottsdale locations remain open for takeout and for folks to grab free food. “Anyone who calls me from any organization, I’m going to give them whatever they want,” he says.

He has a restaurant under construction in the west Valley. His sales are down double digits relative to past months. “Every day I keep my restaurant open, I’m losing money,” Hartman says, noting, too, that he’s happy to be open.

click to enlarge Anibal Abayneh and and Salem Beyene own Cafe Lalibela in Tempe. - JACOB TYLER DUNN
Anibal Abayneh and and Salem Beyene own Cafe Lalibela in Tempe.
Jacob Tyler Dunn
In Tempe, Ethiopian restaurant Cafe Lalibela will be giving free meals to nurses, first responders, and health care workers all this week. Last Friday, it gave 300 free meals to customers regardless of their societal role. Outside of these giveaways, the eatery has shifted to takeout and trimmed prices by 25 percent.

When co-owner Anibal Abayneh handed free meals to people, he said many almost cried. “It’s not a time to make money,” he says. “It’s a time to support each other.”

Abayneh isn’t losing sleep over the financial ramifications. “I don’t worry nothing, because we have God here,” he says. “If you can give, that will give you more.”

Many others are providing free meals to their communities. Kaleidoscope Juices recently offered free juices and smoothies to first responders. Tacos Chiwas has posted to social media that it’ll cook for people out of food (if folks directly message ahead of time). Macayo’s has been dropping off food at hospitals, police and fire departments, and other locations. On Tuesday, Arcadia Meat Market hosted the Corny Masa food truck to cook 150 plates of carnitas for foodservice workers without jobs or with new challenges. The butcher shop, too, might do other giveaways in the near future.

The long future, for many of these chefs, has snapped into focus.

Abayneh is thinking about cooking more regularly for the elderly. The chaos of COVID-19 has freed his mindset. “It gives you so many ideas,” he says.

click to enlarge People have been throwing small monetary donations over this wall out back behind Barrio Cafe. - CHRIS MALLOY
People have been throwing small monetary donations over this wall out back behind Barrio Cafe.
Chris Malloy
Esparza, too, is planning a new normal. On Monday morning, she rolled 100 breakfast burritos for UNICEF. “We’ll make 100 burritos every day and send them out,” she says, even after the coronavirus has passed.

“I will never be the same after this,” Esparza says. “This changed the restaurant model. It changed me as a human being.”
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy