Restaurant Review: Barrio Café Gran Reserva

Story and photos by Rachel Verbits, April 2017 Issue.

In honor of this year’s Pride issue, we decided to pay a visit to a Phoenix restaurateur who could easily be described as Phoenix’s proudest. And, in return, we’re proud to have her as part of our community.

Of course we’re talking about the famously outspoken Barrio jefa herself, chef Silvana Salcido Esparza. With five nominations for the James Beard Foundation’s prestigious award for Best Chef Southwest to her name – including 2017 – we knew we were embarking on an award-winning culinary experience that we would not soon forget.

Editor’s Note: The finalists for the 2017 James Beard Awards will be named March 15 and the

winners will be announced May 1 at the James Beard Awards Gala in Chicago.

However, it was her decision to close Barrio Café, Barrio Urbano and Barrio Café Gran Reserva Feb. 16 as part of the “day without immigrants” protest that’s landed her in the news most recently.

Not only does this year mark the 15th anniversary of the original Barrio Cafe’s grand opening, but June marks one year since she brought us her most recent project: Barrio Café Gran Reserva.

Commanding its own corner at Grand and 13th avenues (in the original Bragg’s Pie Factory), Gran Reserva offers a blend of signature sabor de barrio Phoenix – and the rest of the culinary world has come to love – with an upscale twist.

As the newest member of the Barrio familia, Gran Reserva expands on chef Silvana’s approach to pushing the boundaries of what Mexican food can be.

Upon arriving at Gran Reserva, it was clear that good, GREAT rather, things come in small packages. This restaurant’s intimate dining room has only eight tables and two seats at the bar (facing an impressive wall of tequila selections and adjacent to the open kitchen), so reservations are highly recommended, but walk-ins are welcome.

The best way to describe Gran Reserva is a combination of some of the classic and most-loved Barrio dishes and exquisitely executed new offerings all wrapped up in a fine dining experience.

We took our seats in the window-encircled and art-adorned dining room where the contrast of freshly cut flowers and candles against the white tablecloths added an unmistakable vibrance to the space’s ambiance, and right away we were greeted by warm bread with savory roasted olives for topping – for anyone who thought this was going to be a stereotypical Mexican food experience, here is your evidence to the contrary.

Barrio guacamole.

At Gran Reserva the coveted Menu de Gustacion (tasting menu) reigns supreme. However, a small selection of chef Silvana’s most iconic dishes is also available.

One thing comiga chingona fans will recognize right away, is that the signature Barrio guacamole has not been left off the menu here. As much of an experience for the eyes as it is for the mouth, each order – which includes fresh avocado, onions, jalapenos, tomato, cilantro and pomegranate seeds – is mixed and mashed right at your table.

Starter salad.

The starter salad, which is a slightly less decadent version of the Ensalata de Barrio, was a mix of mixed greens that also boasted the every popular pomegranate seeds.

I should also add that, if you’re ready to try something new but don’t quite know what to order, putting your trust in your server will certainly pay off. This is the approach we took and we couldn’t have been more pleased.

Cochinita Pibil.

Always a Barrio favorite, chef Silvana’s Cochinita Pibil can also be found on the menu here and comes highly recommended. Wrapped in a banana leaf, pork shoulder is marinated in achiote and sour orange, then slow roasted over night to the perfect tenderness. By the time it’s garnished with sour orange pickled red onions and is served alongside homemade corn tortillas, the flavorful pork is ready to just melt in your mouth.

Infladita de Hoja Santa.

We also decided on the Infladita de Hoja Santa (on the tasting menu), which was a culinary experience we savored almost as much as the dish itself. A decadent Oaxaca queso mousse is artfully poured over a bed of fire roasted cherry tomatoes and Anaheim chiles, delicately fried pearl onion and potato puff. Truly a demonstration that will – and did – turn heads, the hot mousse soaked into the veggies as it was poured right before our eyes.

Then there’s the mole du jour, which changes as often as the days of the week, featuring different meats that highlight a rich, thick mole sauce that’s simmered to perfection. Our visit offered chicken thighs, which were tender, filling, and holy mole (pun intended), mouthwatering. Served alongside a blend of roasted seasonal vegetables, the dish is simple yet powerful for the taste buds. With the daily and seasonal options, chances are, the mole you tried last time won’t be the mole you get next time, making the flavor possibilities endless.

Mole du jour.

Dining tip: If you’re interested in just some aspects of the Menu de Gustacion, without committing to the entire experience, each item is available as a larger portion served a la carte. So, if you spot something you want as an entrée, it’s available!

Well worth the time they take to prepare and enjoy, each of the Menu de Gustacion’s six courses have been thoughtfully created and tell their own story through flavor combinations, preparation and tradition. The menu also offers wine and beer pairing options to uniquely elevate each of the courses as well.

The Menu de Gustacion is absolutely the way to go for the full Gran Reserva experience – just be sure to plan accordingly, as the six courses can last about an hour and a half. But starting at $44, it’s a steal for an array of concepts from the mind of a chef that’s considered one of the country’s foremost authorities on bold, regional Mexican cooking.

You don’t have to take our word for it, though. When it comes to food, tasting is believing – which is why within mere months of opening, Gran Reserva landed in the “Top 100 Restaurants 2016” by Open Table.

And since the restaurant only seats 27, we recommend planning ahead by making a reservation before your visit. In the meantime, buena suerte chef. We say the fifth time is the charm!

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