Restaurant Review: Café Tranquilo

Story and photos by Chelsea Young, September 2015 Issue.

The funky vibe of The Clarendon Hotel and Spa beckons both visitors and locals year round. Widely known for its signature saltwater pool and rooftop with views of downtown Phoenix, this four-star boutique hotel is an ideal home for a stellar restaurant.

Nestled in the northeast corner of the first floor sits Café Tranquilo, a modern Mexican eatery that replaced the much-loved Gallo Blanco in February. Being from Texas, and a lover of all things infused with spice and south-of-the-border flavor, I was excited to try Café Tranquilo. After all, nothing beats an icy margarita and a bowl of tortilla chips on a warm Friday after work, am I right?

Upon entering, a bar and lounge area gives way to a dining room of floor-to-ceiling windows, exposed ductwork and crisp, modern touches (think sleek woods and pristine whites). I personally loved the cobalt bottles of water that adorn each table.

My first visit was a Friday dinner, and we were seated in a quiet corner (it wasn’t crowded at 7 p.m., but within an hour the place started to fill up). The sleek, minimalist space is small, so I’d suggest reservations during prime dining times.

Classic margarita (above) and “El Hefe” margarita.

When our first server inquired about our drink orders (our table saw a total of three servers in one meal), I opted for the “El Hefe” margarita, which comprises jalapeno-infused tequila, elderflower liqueur, fresh lime juice, lavender syrup and blueberry purée. Whenever I see elderflower liqueur or lavender on a drink menu, I’m instantly intrigued as I love these two flavors. While the “El Hefe” was aesthetically pleasing, with a bright fuchsia color and a small stick of three blueberries delicately balanced across the salt-covered rim, the blueberry purée was overpowering for my taste. My friend ordered the classic margarita, which turned out to be the better choice (in both flavor and price).

We kicked off our meal with an order of guacamole, which took a while to arrive, so we munched on chips with two kinds of salsas, a verde and a red, while we waited. The guacamole arrived, topped with mangoes and cilantro, but the flavor wasn’t as dynamic as I’d expect after tasting the daring dose of blueberry in the specialty margarita.

We ordered a variety of entrées to share, and the first up was pork emmoladas: Corn tortillas filled with shredded pork, smothered in mole and sprinkled with Oaxaca cheese, served up with rice, beans and grilled veggies.

We also selected the Campechana Ahogada torta, which promised grilled rib-eye, chorizo, tomato, mayo and Oaxaca cheese “smothered in red sauce.” When it arrived, there was a touch of this sauce underneath all the meat layered on one slice of the massive, open-faced sandwich. On the other slice sat the avocado, but no tomato. There’s also the option of adding an egg for a dollar.

Pork barbacoa taco.

As if that wasn’t enough to fill us up, I figured we should also try the tacos, so I ordered one pork barbacoa and one papa y nopal (mashed potato and grilled cactus). The pork was on the dry side, but the cilantro and pickled red onion sprinkled on top combined for a near-perfect flavor combination; however, the tortilla, mashed potato and cactus proved to be just too much of a texture adventure for my taste.

This visit left me less-than enthusiastic and hungry to give it another go, so I returned two days later for Sunday brunch. Knowing the demand for good brunch in the gayborhood, I made reservations. As expected, the place was abuzz with what appeared to a mix of locals and hotels guests; as a result, we waited almost 10 minutes to be seated.

Their specialty brunch drink, a “Mexican Mimosa,” was a combination of prosecco and the agua fresca of the day. Although we were told today’s agua fresca was honeydew, our first round of drinks arrived featuring pineapple. I asked to switch mine to honeydew, and I’m glad I did. It proved to be a perfectly refreshing drink for summer sipping. And, the coffee (which is from Lux) was, of course, everything you’d want in a steaming cup o’ joe.

Cinnamon-infused churro waffles.

I couldn’t resist the cinnamon-infused churro waffles off the special brunch menu, which arrived covered in berries, with a dollop of whipped cream and drizzled with caramel sauce. If you’re in the mood for a sweet breakfast item, this one will definitely do the trick.

Huevos rancheros.

For the main course, I ordered the huevos rancheros, which turned out to be a new experience for me because, here, the dish’s foundation consists of sopapillas (versus tortillas, which I’m accustomed to), giving it a softer, thicker texture. Topped with white beans, over-easy eggs, crema, Oaxaca cheese, and doused in a red sauce, this dish was the clear winner, in my opinion.

The Clarendon is not short on winning attributes, but it seems that Café Tranquilo is still catching up to its host hotel when it comes to excellence, attention to details and consistency. And, to be fair, this restaurant has big shoes to fill (I even heard someone call it the “not Gallo Blanco”). For now, I’m hoping the third time at Café Tranquilo is a charm.

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