Cafe Reviews

Cafe Review: Tru Tacos and Chilté Tacos Are Getting Creative With Tortillas

Those eraser-pink tortillas come with two different taco orders, nopales and a hybrid of nopales and al pastor.
Those eraser-pink tortillas come with two different taco orders, nopales and a hybrid of nopales and al pastor. Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Follow the neon cactus signs, green and small along a patio on Arcadia’s edge. They’ll lead you in through the back of Jewel’s Bakery & Cafe, where you’ll find a tongue-pink tortilla. It’s made in a pop-up at the cafe, Tru’s Tacos. This tortilla gets its hue from prickly pear. Twisted Bee Farms provides powder made from picked, pureed, and freeze-dried cactus fruit. Justine and Misael Trujillo, the owners of Jewel’s and Tru Tacos, mix it with masa and press those pink tortillas. (They also make a ruby-red tortilla. It draws its color from Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.)

Justine got the idea for Tru Tacos when eating traditional food cooked by Misael’s family. “His family has done taco catering for a while,” she says. “Misael took me to one of the events, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is better than any taco I’ve ever had.’”

At Tru Tacos, open at Jewel’s Thursday through Saturday, the two try to recreate these tacos from family recipes, lightly editing them with “their own spin” here and there. The menu consists of a handful of familiar tacos, like lengua and squash, with carne asada fries and elote rounding things out. There are also weekly specials, including a family posole recipe. You can eat at a booth inside, out on the patio, or take food home. Inside, griddles sing, margaritas flow cold, and cooks shave al pastor pork browned by fire from a vertical spit.

click to enlarge Carne asada fries and elote round out the menu at Tru Tacos. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Carne asada fries and elote round out the menu at Tru Tacos.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Those eraser-pink tortillas come with two different taco orders, nopales and a hybrid of nopales and al pastor. Does the prickly pear make a difference? Visually, yes. No doubt that those who eat with their eyes via Instagram are lured to the shop by pink tacos. Aesthetically? Yes again. A tortilla touched with cactus fruit for a taco piled with sliced cactus makes thematic and cosmic sense. Does it matter in terms of taste?

I can’t say. If it does, it’s subtle. You’d have to try the tortilla alone. I inhaled my loaded pink taco too fast to notice.

The al pastor at Tru Tacos is pretty faithfully made from “a passed-down family recipe for generations.” The pork is juicy and well-seasoned, not at all overly heavy on pineapple. The nopales lend some pop and freshness. All said, this is a really nice taco.

I also dug the carne asada. For it, the meat isn’t atomized into bits but left in chunks slightly larger than average, giving the taco some welcome steaky heft. The lengua taco and zucchini taco (a special) are also solid.

On the drinks end, I’d note that the $5 margaritas aren’t your minimally sweet tequila daisies in the classic style, but versions sugary with orange juice and strawberry puree, making for more of the kind of drink you might slug poolside at a hotel near the sea.

My favorite taco at Tru is an unlikely one: poblano pepper and cream cheese. Also a special, it has lengths of pepper in a bath of melted cream cheese that, somehow, manages to stay inside the tortilla. The cream cheese shows the pepper in its best light: full and roasty and vegetal, an A-plus taco that deserves to jump from special to regular.

click to enlarge A quesabirria taco on a squid ink tortilla. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
A quesabirria taco on a squid ink tortilla.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
You might get a similar feeling when eating at Chilté Tacos — that you wish some of the menu items would stick around longer. Chilté, a tented stand that moves around from place to place, from bar to farmers’ market to brewery, has just a few dishes on a given outing. These flip monthly (or so), usually to fit a new creative theme.

Lawrence Smith and Aseret Arroyo launched Chilté in fall 2020. Lawrence has cooked at Elements, Match, Ghost Ranch, and Tempe Public Market Café, where he revamped the pastry program. Arroyo has roots in social media and marketing. Roles at Chilté are elastic and each owner often works on tasks that fall within the other’s core skill set. Crucially, Arroyo also has roots in Sinaloa. “That’s really where a lot of experience is coming from,” Smith says of Chilté. “What she grew up eating.”

Though their pop-up has “tacos” in its name, Smith and Assert have been moving into broader territory.

Recently, the duo rolled out birria fufu — a dissected and re-fused mashup that is typical of what you might find at Chilté. The fufu bridged the backgrounds of the owners in an inventive way. Smith, who is black, has eaten plenty of fufu, the starchy West African staple. Arroyo’s culture created birria. Their mashup went viral on TikTok, Smith says, but the response to reimagining two separate traditional foods wasn’t all positive. They got death threats.

click to enlarge Lawrence Smith and Aseret Arroyo run Chite Tacos. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Lawrence Smith and Aseret Arroyo run Chite Tacos.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
So they scrapped the fufu — which to this critic looked and sounded amazing. “We took a couple days off to regroup, and now we’re back at it,” Smith says.

In February, the theme was a more traditional one for Chilté. They tackled birria.

Beyond the short-lived fufu, Smith dished out a birria ramen and a quesabirria taco on a squid ink tortilla. He griddled the tacos a dozen at a time, tossing on newly pressed black tortillas, melting cheese atop stewed beef, and reaching into the thin smoke of the grill to scrape tacos into to-go clamshells filled with slaw, local microgreens, limes, pickled red onions, and a loose salsa that packs modest pepper flavor and good fire.

These tacos are stuffed, crammed, bursting with tender beef. Bits of green chile accent. The outer shells have a dimension of crispness from their time on the grill. They ripple with toasted corn’s fragrant and earthy depths, as Chilté sources its masa from a Los Angeles vendor who gets the good stuff from Oaxaca. It was a strong taco with a whole lot of personality, especially dipped in a beef-rich birria broth long on heat. A vegetarian version, plump with mushrooms and jackfruit, was somehow just as good.

But that theme is gone. This month, Chilté is rolling out concepts that lean into Asia through the history of immigration from Asia to Mexico. Smith and Arroyo plan to drop (and may have dropped by the time you read this) a banh-mi-torta mashup as well as a bulgogi-style braised beef cheek taco cradled on a tortilla made from seaweed, rice, and cornflower.

Smith says that Chilté will be getting more creative over time. Bring it on. With their careful, distinct, old-and-new points of view, both Chilté and Tru Tacos are welcome additions to our tiny local galaxy of mobile and pop-up taco shops.

Tru Tacos
4041 East Thomas Road (inside Jewel’s)
Al Pastor Taco
Carne Asada Taco $2.75
Nopales Taco $2.75
Poblano Cream Taco (special)

Chilté Tacos
Monthly offerings rotate
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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