The Urban Thing: Urban Phoenix Café
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
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
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
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.
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
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.