I love the stuff. Phoenix is no stranger to good Mexican food, despite the inane ramblings of the owner of Pink Taco. But after a while, you find that the old stand-by’s are just that, and I find myself often wishing for some new place to open up and breathe a breath of fresh air into the Mexican food scene.
Right on cue, a new restaurant opened up and got Phoenix excited. Much of the excitement was from the fact that the new place was to be found right next door to the Phoenix Ranch Market at 16th Street and Roosevelt in Phoenix. Even better was that it was run by the people who own Phoenix Ranch Market. Many people in the Valley are dedicated fans of the food court inside Phoenix Ranch Market, with its wonderful tortas, horchata, street tacos and fresh tortillas coming right off the cooking belt.
The new place, Tradiciones, is a sit-down restaurant with table service, strolling mariachis and access to the fresh ingredients that have made the food court a success. That was all I needed to know to try this place. Thankfully, two of my co-workers were game to try it with me, so we took an extra long lunch and headed over to the new spot.
The outside of Tradiciones is based on a Mexican plaza and, from what I have read, is jumping on the weekends with little carts selling various wares and a lots of food being served. But for our purposes, we wanted a pleasant, comfortable, sit-down experience. Hanna, Angelica and myself headed inside Tradiciones and were immediately seated at a four-top with comfortable wood chairs.
Before the three of us even got to the menus, we took in the atmosphere. The interior was pure eye candy. It was very open and spacious with lots of Mexican touches (Mexican tile, murals, flowers) that made you feel like you were in a restaurant in any number of small towns or villages in Mexico. The booths against the far wall were slightly elevated so you could see the entire restaurant, included the semi-open kitchen. Due to the openness, we could hear the dulcet tones of the mariachis, even though they were clear across the vast dining room.
A member of the bus staff brought us chips and two kinds of salsa to begin our meal. We surveyed the menus while we munched on the chips. I thought the chips were excellent. Hanna and Angelica agreed. They were slightly thick with just the right amount of salt. The best part was that they clearly were made from fresh tortillas. We all agreed that the tomatillo salsa was the best of the two. It had a wonderful punch to it along with a hint of cilantro that made it shine. While the tomato-based salsa with its spiciness and rich flavor wasn’t bad, it just couldn’t stand up to the delicious tomatillos. Still, both were quite good and we had no complaints, especially after we had polished off two baskets of chips and a lot of salsa.
Our server arrived and took our order. Hanna cut to the quick and ordered a Horchata ($3.00). Angelica and I settled for Diet Cokes ($1.75 each). Hanna and Angelica weigh about 60 lbs each, so I knew that I couldn’t convince them to get an entree and split an appetizer, so I started my meal with the Sopa Poblana ($5.95). For my entree, I was thrilled with the description of the Lomo Azteca ($9.99): pork loin slices in a chipotle cream sauce. Hanna went with the Enchiladas Suiza ($9.95) and Angelica, being the radical vegetarian that I have come to know and love, opted for the Spinach and Mushroom Enchiladas ($8.95).
As soon as our server had left, the strolling mariachis arrived and asked us if we had any requests. Since I am not up on my strolling mariachi hit parade list, I was somewhat tempted to just ask for my two defaults: “Freebird” and “House of the Rising Sun.” I thought better of it, although they probably knew them and would have played them. Alas, we thanked them but said we didn’t have any special requests.
At this point, Hanna noted that the costumes on the mariachis as well as the staff were perfectly matched to the interior. Vibrant colors, traditional looks, lots of touches that just made everything work. We talked about the details of the interior for a good amount of time as we waited for our meals. It really was a very appealing and relaxing place to enjoy a lunch.
Hanna’s horchata arrived in a tall, plastic glass, sporting a slight frothiness on top. She said it was quite good with “just the right amount of cinnamon and not to thick or too thin.” Considering that every time I have gone out for Mexican food with Hanna, she has ordered horchata, I think she knows her stuff.
My soup arrived about 10 minutes after we placed our order and the large bowl had chunks of squash floating on top. It smelled wonderful and had plenty of fresh vegetable swimming around in the bowl. I mixed up the soup and took a bite which included the broth, a strip of poblano chile, some corn and some of the squash. It was quite good. The soup was fresh and subtle. Perhaps too subtle. While I liked the soup a lot, the broth needed more pizazz. Perhaps the seasoning was off or the stock wasn’t as rich as it could have been. The rest of the soup, especially the strips of roasted poblano, was great, but the broth held the whole thing back. That alone would turn a lot of people off, but I found it a distraction, not a disaster.
About half a bowl of soup later, our entrees arrived with a fresh basket of chips. My Lomo Azteca was set in front of me and the pink hue of the chipotle cream sauce was just one more thing for the eyes. I dove into the pork loin, dabbing up plenty of the sauce to take my first bite. Wow. It was grand. The pork was moist and tender and had been prepared with a thick crushed peppercorn crust. The cream sauce was delicious, with its fiery edge and a smoothness that really played well off the pork. Then, about ten seconds later, the chipotle and the peppercorns had a little party on my tongue and I was mopping my brow from the heat. It was a wonderful sensation. Everything about the pork and the cream sauce was spot on and I was very pleased with my selection. The refried beans were also good as they had not been pureed to death and the plentiful use of seasoning added a great flavor. While the rice was moist and fluffy, it was still rather boring.
Hanna’s Enchiladas Suiza were pretty with the light green color from the tomatillo sauce spooned on top of the tortillas. Hanna said the shredded chicken was “excellent” and there was plenty of it encased in the the fresh tortillas. She also mentioned the fact that they were not stingy with the cheese they sprinkled on top. Hanna was happy she chose the green sauced enchiladas because she adored the tomatillo salsa as well as her enchiladas. The beans, she felt, were well above average, while the rice did nothing for her, although she admitted that she isn’t very fond of Mexican rice anyway. Still, she found her enchiladas to be a big winner and would get them again.
Angelica, unfortunately, was not the big winner at the table. I could tell from just her initial bites that she wasn’t going to be raving about her meal. She found her enchiladas to be good, but the sauce was lacking. The mushrooms, tortillas, cheese and spinach were all great, she stated, but were marred by a barely average sauce that seemed an afterthought. I tried a taste and thought the sauce was terrible. It was simply tomato sauce and chile powder. There wasn’t any of the craftsmanship that went into the tortillas or the tomatillo sauce or my pork loin. If any of the other ingredients had been lacking as well, this would have been an unmitigated failure for Angelica. However, she was a trooper and found something to like about the enchiladas: namely, everything except the sauce. She found the beans and rice to be good, but I know she was disappointed in her meal.
We finished our meal and relaxed, sipping the last of our drinks and taking in the music. We requested the bill and the total was $44.69 including tax. We felt this was a good value, especially due to the freshness of the food. The service was okay, but nothing stellar. Part of that stemmed from the fact that the servers and bus staff seemed to step on each other’s toes when dealing with customers.
Heading back to the car, we walked over to the market and did some quick shopping, where Hanna was determined to get some fresh tortillas and some pastries. I looked over at the packed food court and remembered my last meal there, dining on street tacos and a pork torta.
As we headed back to the office, we all agreed that we had a very enjoyable lunch despite Angelica’s enchilada sauce disappointment, but we discovered that the more you head toward the right side of the menu with its traditional Mexican dishes and away from the Americanized offerings, the better the food gets. In retrospect, I wish Tradiciones would have taken more risks with the gringo selections, but I can certainly understand the model for keeping things on the menu to attract all demographics.
There were plenty of things on the menu to keep me going back to Tradiciones, but like a savvy shopper, I would have to be very selective in what I chose.
Tradiciones is a winner, in my opinion, and a welcome breath of fresh air in the Phoenix Mexican food scene. If it took a few more chances, it would be beyond outstanding.
1602 East Roosevelt Street
Phoenix, AZ 85006
Hours: Tuesday through Thursday - 10:30 AM to 10 PM; Friday and Saturday - 10:30 AM to 11 PM; Sunday - 10:30 AM to 10 PM.
Notes: Just to the west of Phoenix Ranch Market
Additional photos can be found at www.feastinginphoenix.com