By Jeff Kronenfeld, April 2020 Issue.
The orange stains on my notes are evidence the food at Urban Phoenix Café overflows with flavor. If you missed Arizona Taco Fest or Tacolandia, don’t fret. This recently opened breakfast and lunch joint is a daily shrine to folded tortillas. Stuffed inside are local ingredients imaginatively mashed up with street food hacks. There are also burritos, bowls, and lighter fare like a chicken salad sandwich and avocado toast. Whether you’re hankering for something healthy but filling or dank but dietarily-questionable, you’ll find it here.
A blue-tinted mural of the Phoenix skyline greets you by the entrance. Its center is a radiant copper star. Rise up is written above in huge red and white bubble letters. This could be the restaurant’s motto. From décor to menu to the relaxed but friendly service, everything beams with local pride. The love chef/owners Steven Contreras and Keri Frazier have for the Valley is clear, but so is their understated style. There are many places in this Arcadia-adjacent neighborhood to be seen. Go to Urban Phoenix Café if you want good food in a laid-back atmosphere.
It was a little after noon on a Friday when we arrived. The café opens at seven in the morning and closes at three in the afternoon. A friendly server with short pink hair and nice ink told us to sit anywhere. There are booths, tables and barstools overlooking the open kitchen. We went for the window looking out on bustling Indian School. As we plotted our meal, the smell of roasting green chiles hung thick in the air.
To start things off, we each ordered an ear of the Chill Elotero. This corn on the cobb dish is a staple of Mexican street food. Traditionally served on a stick, here it comes quartered but still on the cobb. For a moment, I was sad not to have the whole ear to gnaw like a squirrel. However, the benefits of these smaller sections quickly became clear. One could use their fingers like my friend did, clasping the exposed sides of the corn’s interior. Or, as I chose, you could easily pick them clean with a fork.
Whatever way we got it into our mouths, the results were the same. The kernels were tender, easily cleaving free as I twirled the fork. The fire roasted corn is buttered heavily with homemade chipotle crema. Crumpled cotija cheese is liberally piled in chunks as big as an olive seed or small as a grain of sand. A few sprigs of fresh cilantro crown the four yellow hills.
The x-factor is the hot Cheeto dust which, in combination with the cheese crumbles, makes the dish almost resemble red rock mesas after a snow. There were a few other sides that looked interesting as well, such as the black beans or fries and queso. I made a note to stop in to try them if I need something quick and cheap in the future. That day was not today. We were still plucking the last golden kernels when our main courses arrived.
The menu is simple and intuitive. There are breakfast tacos, burritos and bowls on one side, with their lunch counterparts on the other. In the middle are a half-dozen assorted dishes gathered under the heading, “Bomb Plates of Rad Stuff.” I was tempted by the green chile bowl or the chicken salad sandwich on noble bread. There are some good vegetarian options in this section too. The Caulirado is a meat free chile stuffed with a garden of goodness. It has everything from pepitas, radishes, sweet potatoes and, of courses, that eponymous pale veggie cauliflower.
After shamelessly flirting with a few other dishes, I got down to business and selected four tacos. The plates, bowls and burritos all looked good, but tacos seemed the best way to try as many of the novel mashups as I could. My friend ordered a burrito and one of the breakfast tacos. I stuck to the lunch menu since it was the afternoon and I don’t like to mix meals. When the oval plates bearing my four tacos arrived, it burst with colors. I knew I made the right choice.
The first taco I tried was the FFS. This one is a real eyecatcher, mainly because of the crust of melted jack cheese. This cheese base gave the taco the same savory depth of a smashed cheese sandwich or crunchy cheese crisp. It’s very thin though, so it’s not too heavy. Piled on top is shredded beef, cabbage and a zigzag of the chipotle crema. To give it a little kick, smoked ghost chile oil is added. The crema and cabbage balance the peppery fire, and even a wimp like me had no problem with it. This was my second favorite of the quartet.
The next taco I tried was the Yardbird. I appreciated the light and cool palette. You don’t see tacos like this every day. The Yardbird is a bit like a chicken Caesar salad taco minus the anchovies. The avocado, jack cheese and salsa verde contrast nicely, with the chicken acting as a good mediator. This was a unique and light taco great for those who can’t handle heat.
The third one I tried was the Cho. No, it’s not a reference to comedian Margaret Cho, but instead refers to the dark orange meat contained within. The chorizo isn’t as peppery as your probably used to. It’s a milder take on this spicy Spanish pork sausage. The heat comes after you’ve swallowed, more savory than tear inducing. Sometime this breakfast meat really gives me heartburn, but not this time. They may partly be due to all the other flavors balancing it out. On top of the sausage is black bean corn salsa, pickled onions, serrano-lime cream cheese and cotija. This was my least favorite of the four, which is no shade.
The last taco I ate also happened to be my favorite. Called the THC, about the only thing that could have made it better was some actual marijuana magic. Alas, our state’s archaic cannabis laws make such a thing only possible in dreams or trips to California. The taco’s base is grilled Spam. On top is cabbage slaw, fancy sauce, cotija and hot Cheeto dust. I’ve had my share of Spam and even visited the Spam Museum in Minnesota on a road trip. This salty pink mystery meat is fascinating chemically and sociologically. Still, it’s usually a novelty at best and a bad joke at worse. Here though, this highly processed pork shoulder product is ready for its close up.
My friend got a carne asada burrito called the Throwback. It comes with pico, jack cheese, avocado and chipotle crema. The special ingredient in this item is the beautifully golden French fry core. It came cut in half, its inners on display like an art object. This burrito is a real looker. My friend reported it tasted as good as it looked. He said the steak was juicy, not over cooked and seemed fresh off the grill. Judging by how fast he scarfed it down, I would say it was a winner.
Less rigid categorically about his meals than myself, he also ordered the Monte, one of the breakfast tacos. There’s no flying circus here, just a solid all-American breakfast folded between a tortilla. The name refers to that most elegant of ham and cheese sandwiches, the Monte Cristo, which this taco is an homage to. It comes with sweet prickly pear jam in place of the maple syrup or preserves. There are also scrambled eggs and bacon. My friend said it was like a perfect miniature breakfast.
Alas, deadlines loomed for myself and my photographer friend. We couldn’t linger long, though I would have liked to. We didn’t even get to try the churros, one of my not-so-secret loves. It was ok though, because I was completely sated from the dank corn and quartet of tasty tacos. If you need a quick but satisfying bite, check this new kid on the block, Urban Phoenix Café.