By Rachel Verbits, December 2018 Issue.
Tacos might not solve life’s problems, but they sure offer a tasty respite from the daily grind. I think about this every week when Tuesday rolls around, you know, the day that has been informally designated as Taco Tuesday.
What’s not to love? Tacos are filling, generally inexpensive, and satisfying to the soul. Phoenix offers plenty of spots to grab great tacos, so to get return customers, these shops need to find ways to set themselves apart from the pack.
One place doing just that is Taco Chelo. Open since March, they’re serving up homemade, authentic tacos and Mexican cuisine in a prime spot on Roosevelt Row – in close proximity to bars, music venues, and major-event arenas. It’s already a standout destination in an ever-growing ‘hood.
While the taqueria itself is new, the delicious creations coming from the open kitchen come from a familiar face in the Phoenix food scene – restaurant owner and Chef Aaron Chamberlin. With local favorites like St. Francis and our recently visited Tempe Public Market Café under his belt, we didn’t hesitate to taste what Chef Chamberlin was going to be cooking up at Taco Chelo.
Foregoing ballpark food, we visited Taco Chelo for our official taco taste test before heading to a mid-summer Diamondbacks game. The corner taco shop looks somewhat dark on the outside, but that all changed by stepping into its brightly decorated interior. Colorful, distressed wooden beams juxtaposed against bright pieces of authentic art gave us the feeling that we stumbled into a hole-in-the-wall taco shop down south. We instantly knew this place was going to exceed its hype.
The eye-catching centerpiece of Taco Chelo is without a doubt the bar. Although it was still early in the afternoon, people were already enjoying happy hour among ornately adorned bottles of mezcal, tequila, and traditional décor. We headed to the back of the small restaurant to put our order in at the counter before grabbing a seat.
The happy hour offered $5 cocktails and $2 off beers; we partook. My dinner date was recommended the house’s signature beer, La Chela De Chelo, which is crisp and light, similar to Dos Equis. I opted for their freshly made sangria, made of red wine, brandy, fresh-squeezed juices, and seasonal fruit. It was tart and refreshing – easy to see this adult beverage becoming a summer favorite.
Although we didn’t wait long for our order to arrive at the table, we entertained ourselves by deciphering the Spanish phrases on the chair backs, which provide diners a good laugh when translated properly. As I settled in and soaked up the restaurant’s relaxed vibe, I realized that the bright, authentic décor is more than just something to look at. If you can shell out a pretty penny, you can take it home with you. The artwork is by established Mexican artists and is available for purchase.
Taco Chelo’s menu is no frills and no fuss. It’s a fairly small selection to order from, with carefully chosen dishes that make the ordering process easy.
Before diving into the star items at Taco Chelo, we explored the menu’s starters, which also serve well as side dishes to their tacos and quesadillas. Their more unique offerings include traditional chicharrones the size of tortilla chips and frijoles a la charra – pinto beans flavored with bacon and stewed to the perfect tenderness.
To bring the most we can to our readers and with the menu being as concise as it is, we decided to go all in and try it all (or, almost all, at least). Not only did we order most of the menu, but we didn’t break the bank doing it, which is another thing Taco Chelo is doing right. Refreshingly, every menu item is under seven dollars.
True to its name, the main event at Taco Chelo is indeed, the selection of mouthwatering tacos. The taqueria offers three meat (carnitas, carne asada, and beef barbacoa), one fish, and one veggie taco to enjoy. We tried them all to give you the inside scoop.
The meaty tacos were tender and savory. Simply-dressed with onions, cilantro, and guacamole, they needed nothing more than their own natural flavors and to be wrapped in thick, homemade corn tortillas. They may look like regular tacos, but the slow-cooking and deep flavors make them far from ordinary.
As I am a self-proclaimed fish-taco connoisseur, Taco Chelo’s seafood taco holds up to some of the best I’ve ever tasted. Hearty pieces of battered and fried white fish were decorated with the traditional cabbage, pickled onion, chile crema, and pico de gallo. Without being particularly unique, this crispy fish taco is in a class of its own. I’ve never related more to the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
We were even tickled by how much my dinner date and I loved Taco Chelo’s veggie taco. Both meat lovers, we enjoyed the fresh take on the meatless option, and the lightness that it offered compared to the rest of the heavier, savory tacos. A mixture of seasonal veggies including corn and mushrooms were topped with adobo garlic mojo, tangy arugula and queso fresco. It tasted just like a Mexican-inspired salad wrapped in a homemade corn tortilla.
Taco Chelo has its own take on salads, as well. Their signature salad is light and zesty. It’s packed with jicama, orange, avocado crema and pepitas, which merge together to create perfectly crunchy, spicy, and refreshing bites.
I don’t know if I can name a favorite Taco Chelo dish, that’s too hard to decide. I’ll leave that up our readers and many more visits in the future. I highly recommend trying all five tacos – how else will you find your favorite?!
So, sure, maybe taco can’t solve all of life’s problems, but I’m still convinced that they can solve a few. Although it opened just a few months ago, Taco Chelo is the traditional taqueria that downtown Phoenix has been craving. Whether you’re making a pit stop before a long night out, grabbing a snack in the wee hours of the morning, or just enjoying lunch on the patio, this is a welcome addition to downtown’s burgeoning food scene and will without a doubt be serving taco lovers for a long time to come.