Story and photos by Rachel Verbits, October 2017 Issue.
Midtown Phoenix is currently in the midst of a restaurant Renaissance. Everywhere you look, a new restaurant is popping up and attracting more food lovers and cocktail enthusiasts than the week before. But with a seemingly endless list of new dining destinations, such as Camp S ocial and Cold Beers And Cheeseburgers, joining the ranks of popular eateries along Midtown’s newly dubbed “Restaurant Row,” it can be hard to stand out.
One cantina, however, is doing just that. Casa Añejo Tacos and Tequila, owned by Evening Entertainment Group, has been cranking out wood-fired twists on authentic Mexican fare, inspired by authentic flavors and traditional dishes since May 5.
Because you can’t throw a pestle in any direction without hitting a Mexican restaurant in Phoenix these days, this creative cantina has a few tricks up its sleeve that has not only piqued people’s interest, but kept them coming back for more.
One such example of this is the star power that HGTV and DIY Network personality Alison Victoria, host of “Kitchen Crashers,” has brought to the operation as its creative director.
Upon entering the stylish indoor/outdoor dining space, located inside The Colony Shopping Center just north of Seventh Street and Missouri Avenue, we found ourselves immersed in a vibrant space with the upscale authenticity you’d hope to find on a quintessential jaunt south of the border. Decorative lanterns scatter mood lighting from the eye-catching bar in the center of the room to the pottery-lined walls. Everything from the rich wood touches inside to the light-adorned trees on the patio offer visitors a warm welcome.
We arrived just in time for happy hour (3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday) which meant it was still too warm to enjoy the ambiance of the wraparound patio. So instead we enjoyed the small-but-mighty selection of $5 happy hour margaritas. I was intrigued by the hibiscus berry margarita, which is crafted with Blanco tequila, berry hibiscus and lime and topped with a real orchid. Fruity, without being overly sweet, the unmistakable purple cocktail was just as decadent to look at as it was to drink. My dining partner selected the equally tantalizing watermelon margarita, made with reposado tequila and lime and garnished with a fresh cube of watermelon. Spoiler alert: Pepper makes a guest appearance on this one, giving the light drink a delightfully spicy kick!
Casa Añejo’s menu boasts an extensive tequila list that offers shots ranging from Espolon Blanco ($9) to Clase Azul Añejo ($55), depending on what your palate and your wallet are in the mood for.
Instead of blindly making a selection and hoping for the best, I enlisted the help of the staff. They were happy to lend their expertise, so my advice is to take advantage of it – I was glad I did.
We decided to pair our tequila with some of Casa Añejo’s shared plates, which include such familiar dishes as street corn, ceviche and black bean dip and even more unique items, like papas y chorizo, made with tomatillo, cojita, chipotle aioli and a six-minute egg. Extra hungry patrons can easily fill up on the machaca nachos, which are loaded with queso, frijoles, guacamole, pickled jalapeño, lettuce, crema, onion, cilantro and tomatillo.
As someone who had never tried chicharrones, I couldn’t pass up ordering some fried pork skins to see why these crispy bites are so popular. Just as I hoped, they were extremely light, puffy and crunchy without being greasy at all. A few splashes of Cholula with cojita cheese and cilantro completed the dish by adding flavor and spice to the popped pork skins. I really don’t know how I made it so far in life without these puffy, crisp morsels, and never again will I dismiss you, chicharrones.
Moving on to what makes Casa Añejo truly unique: the guacamole. A generous size portion of classic guacamole is available for purists, but since Casa Añejo is all about that little extra something, they’ve taken almost everyone’s favorite starter a step further by letting patrons stock their guac!
Thanks to a little research ahead of time, we asked our waitress for a “Stock Your Guac” menu and were presented with a sheet of about a dozen mix-ins to customize our guacamole. These items range from black beans and pepitas to pineapple and grasshoppers. Yes, you read that right: grasshoppers. To be specific, chapulines, which are a certain type of grasshopper commonly eaten in areas of Mexico, and are just one of a few unique mix-ins available to stock your guac with. If you’re looking to try something new, we recommend adding the green apple Pop Rocks or the smoked salmon to your avocado masterpiece. And don’t forget to specify your heat, from one to three flames, as well.
If a restaurant is going to risk stepping this far out of the box, it has to be done right. And Casa Añejo’s efforts have already earned them three Best of the Valley awards, including one for “Best Use of Grasshoppers,” which was enough for me to trust the chef’s creation. After debating on the level of adventure our palates we’re prepared to embark on, we loaded ours up with roasted corn, queso fresco and the chapulines (don’t worry, they’re small!). Without adding much flavor, the chapulines did provide a crunchy element to an otherwise creamy dish, and the roasted corn complimented the critter with the fresh sweetness we knew we could count on.
How do you follow up a culinary grasshopper adventure? With a Taco Tuesday celebration, of course. We couldn’t resist mixing and matching three tacos for just $8, which is Casa Añejo’s Taco Tuesday deal every week.
Served a la carte, Casa Añejo’s offerings may first appear to be your typical street tacos, but the unique flavor combination in these creations truly showcase what makes the cuisine here special. I’m a firm believer in (almost) no taco left behind, so we tried as many as our stomachs would allow, and our clear winners were 1) the tender grilled swordfish with mango pineapple salsa, 2) carnitas with pickled onion and tomatillo and 3) short ribs with charred poblano and pickled onions, but I would have them all again in a heartbeat.
Don’t let the size of the tacos fool you, either. When the plates arrived at our table, I was initially a bit disappointed at how small they seemed, but I quickly changed my mind when I noticed the heaping portions of the fillings. And that’s the best part of the taco anyway, right?
Besides tacos, the cantina offers a number of flavorful, wood-fired entrees. Making a choice isn’t easy, as the options include such favorites as authentic roadside pollo, green chili pork and a Sonoran Dog. I couldn’t leave without trying one more selection, and the small order of pozole, made with tender pork shoulder, hominy, red chili, avocado and fresh flour tortillas for scooping, was the perfect final course – before dessert.
There really is no other way to end a meal of this variety than homemade churros. Covered in cinnamon sugar and served up with a trio of dipping sauces (chocolate, strawberries and cream and mango chutney), our churros arrived hot and fresh, and also proved to be more than we could conquer.
If you’re short on time, check out Casa Añejo’s curbside kitchen, which offers tacos to go, Sonoran hot dogs and canned beers. If you’re looking to feed more than a few, ask about the taco take-out menu.
Casa Añejo offers the trifecta we’re looking for in a dining experience: ambiance, authenticity and award-winning cuisine. Pro tip: With fall temps finally approaching, you’d be wise to skip the guesswork on many of the new places popping up and bring your out-of-town guests here for a taste of the southwest this fall.
Casa Añejo Tacos and Tequila
5600 N. Seventh St., Phoenix
11 a.m.- midnight, Mon-Thurs
10 a.m.-midnight, Sat
10 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun