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Dec 30, 2009 11:14 PM

Looking for the best Mexican food in Phoenix: Barrio Cafe and Gallo Blanco Report

My goal for my recent brief trip to Phoenix, besides visiting friends (who we took to a very good celebratory meal at T.Cook’s one night, but I will leave that for another report) was to search out really good Mexican food, since that is one cuisine I have a surprisingly hard time finding at home.

I really wanted to head to Sedona to try Elote Café (Jeff Smedstad has long been a favorite chef), but alas, time did not allow it this trip (However, I was able to pick up his cookbook at the gift shop at the Desert Botanical Garden and am already enjoying cooking from it!).

Our first night in town, hubby and I headed over to Barrio Café for a fairly late dinner after our flight. Barrio Cafe has been on my list for years, but somehow I never made it until now. I was tickled to learn that the chef is from my newly adopted home town of Merced, where her parents owned a bakery.

I have to say that, from the moment I walked in, I absolutely LOVED the vibe of the place: cozy and hopping but not outrageously noisy, with modern Mexican art livening the walls (with a few real conversation pieces!) It was the eighth night of Hanukkah, and a lit menorah on the bar was a perfect welcoming touch. Loved it. We had a very brief wait at the small bar, not even enough time to get to know their amazing tequila list, before we were seated at a comfortable table.

I had the house margarita, which was nice, while hubby’s low rider margarita, with Don Julio silver, lime & Cointreau, was excellent.

So at this point, I was falling in love with the place. But love can be disappointing. Sadly, the food didn’t live up to the promise of the vibe and the creative, regional menu.

I started with the sopa de chile moron, advertised on the menu as a “Roasted sweet & spicy pepper soup “. Unfortunately, the spice was MIA and the soup was sweet almost to the point of being sugary: very one note, just this side of cloying. Also, served barely warm on a cold night.

For mains, I had the chile en nogada, while hubby had the enchiladas suizas. I expected the sauce to be a bit sweet, and it was, but the filling lacked depth to counter it, and was overcooked. However, it was disconcerting that the sauce on the enchiladas was also sweet, noticeably so. Did the chef inherit a sweet tooth from that bakery? Vegetables on the side were forgettable.

At this point we felt we’d had enough sugar for the evening, and skipped dessert.
Service was generally fine, although we did have to remind our server that hubby had ordered a second margarita.

Sigh. Don’t get me wrong: if we had a place like this in Merced, (a small town with few restaurants that could even be classified as decent) I’d probably be a regular. But in Phoenix, and with a menu that read like a dream, I expected much more….

And we got it a few days later when hubby and I stopped into Gallo Blanco in the Clarendon Hotel for a late breakfast. Wow. The light, modern interior was very comfortable, and we loved the emphasis on local and sustainable products. Gallo Blanco proudly lists its local suppliers.

This place lived up to its promise. Well, at least the food (and excellent service) did. My one ding on the place (and coffee geeks have been warned): the coffee was terrible. Horrible, almost undrinkable.

On to the food: Hubby had huevos rancheros, I had the chilaquiles, along with fresh squeezed orange juice. The huevos were not traditional, in that the eggs over easy were settled on a quesadilla. This would have bothered me but it was clearly explained on the menu, and in any case the ranchero sauce was delicious and eggs were perfectly cooked. Hubby devoured his meal and was very happy.

For that matter , the chilaquiles weren’t traditional either. However, they were delicious! They were in essence a deconstructed version: the fried tortillas were layered with perfectly cooked eggs over easy in a delicious, dark, complex salsa verde. I enjoyed these with more of the delicious house made tortillas.

I am still dreaming about those chilaquiles.

Now, if they could fix their coffee, this place would be perfect. As it is, I can’t wait for my next trip to Phoenix so I can try more of the Gallo Blanco menu. Highly recommended.

Gallo Blanco Cafe
401 W Clarendon Avenue, Phoenix, AZ 85013

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  1. Thanks for the detailed report. Sounds like your experiences with both restaurants match up well with mine. We had the huevos rancheros and the chilaquiles at Gallo Blanco this past weekend, and I was elated to find that it was a breakfast worth going out for. At first, I was worried that my partner was put off by the non-traditional preparations, but as she set to devouring her chilaquiles, my concerns disappeared.

    Odd about the coffee, though. The cups I had were not stellar, but definitely good. I suspect operator error somewhere along the way--like someone either didn't make the coffee properly to begin with or allowed it to sit too long.

    Gallo Blanco Cafe
    401 W Clarendon Avenue, Phoenix, AZ 85013

    3 Replies
    1. re: hohokam

      Yes indeed, operator error. They use Cartel Coffee Lab, which is quite good coffee, and the last cup I had there a couple weeks ago was very solid. I'd also never tried dessert - wow the flan is excellent, and everyone else enjoyed their orange cake. I just love the food there, although I am less-than-enthused about the sauce on their fish tacos. Besides that though, everything else is very good. I've had great specials of pork belly and octopus tacos, the naco torta is incredible, and as you've both stated, the chilechiles are excellent. GB is easily my favorite Mexican food in town for the money.

      1. re: hohokam

        I wondered about that. The first cup tasted particularly bad, definitely had been sitting. However, while the refill tasted slightly more palatable, it still wasn't good. As hubby commented, it was like drinking old, burnt Foldgers and fresher but still old Foldgers....If locals can vouch for the coffee used (I am not familiar with it, it must have been operator error, and hopefully unusual.

        Of course, it won't matter when I make it back there for dinner since I will try a margarita next time! (not that there weren't people drinking their breakfast while we were there :-))

        When I first saw the non-traditional preparation of the chilaquiles, I was also worried. Until I took my first bite. Coffee aside, I really loved Gallo Blanco.

        1. re: susancinsf

          Thanks for the report. I'm more fond of Gallo Blanco than Barrio Cafe, but I'll confess to not having visited the latter for several years.

          Regarding the coffee, maybe you were part of a revival of one of those classic Folgers commercials in which a well-known restaurant's usual coffee is replaced with Folgers. The late Chris Farley handled the situation particularly well in this parody: