At one time in my childhood, there were two upscale malls in Phoenix. The one of greatest prestige was Biltmore Fashion Park at 24th Street and Camelback. That is where the jetset shopped when they wanted to rub elbows with the rest of the Phoenix elite, most of whom lived in the Biltmore district.
The next mall of prestige was Thomas Mall, located on the southeast corner of 44th Street and Thomas. While not as elegant as Biltmore Fashion Park, it was a great mall that catered to Arcadia types that couldnt afford Gucci, Tiffany and Brooks Brothers. This mall housed an old Diamonds (bought out by Dillards decades ago), a Montgomery Ward, and the yummy Hoffbrau House deli with the best hot dogs in Phoenix.
But on Friday nights, the place was fairly dead because everyone was across the street at the Howard Johnsons having the all-you-can-eat clam strip night. I dont know how many of those strips I ate in my life time, but it certainly was mammoth in proportion. However, like Diamonds before it, the HoJos disappeared and the stand-alone building housed a variety of independent restaurants before becoming a JBs (of the Big Boy chain).
The JBs closed a while back and a new Mexican restaurant appeared after a refit of the building. Instead of the stark white and blue trimming, the new building is sporting a Southwestern color scheme and a new cuisine.
Chayos Mexican Kitchen has been open for business for a few months and the fresh, earthy color scheme is just what East Thomas Road has needed to refresh its somewhat tired looks. I pulled into the substantial and had to park toward the back as the place was busy during a recent lunch period. I walked into the front and liked the interior as much as the exterior. To my right was a bar area with plenty of tables for grabbing a margarita. To the left was the dining area, which was decorated with Southwestern and Mexican accents and the large blinds covering the windows were open to fill the area with plenty of sunshine.
I was quickly seated and notice the specials board declaring a number of vegetarian options. I was seated in the main area at a table for four, but was also offered a booth. I stayed with the table and was quickly given water and my menu.
Only moments passed and a staff member brought me a bowl of chips and three dipping sauces. The chips were slightly warm and very fresh. They were crisp and lightly salted. Things were off to a good start. The three sauces were a hot, thin sauce with a chipotle taste and plenty of spicy. The salsa was ice cold and the chopped vegetables were bright and slightly crunchy. The final sauce looked like a thinned guacamole, however, I was unable to try this avocado dip as I am allergic to that particular fruit. The two dips I did try were very good and I had no complaints about them.
My server arrived and took my order. I decided to see how the new place handled a margarita and chose the Frozen House Margarita ($4.50). I also added an Iced Tea ($1.50). For my meal, I was wanting some soup, so I selected a bowl of the Sopa de Tortilla ($3.50). The Enchiladas con Tacos Plate ($8.99) concluded my order. I was given an option of having my tacos served plain (bisteck) or with peppers and onions (alambre). I chose the latter.
While I waited, I surveyed the interior further. The place was cavernous with plenty of seating in the back in case the main room got full. The noise level was soft and the place just had a cheery disposition.
My margarita arrived and I was anxious to try it. I took my first sip and was pleased with the tequilla-lime beverage. It had a great balance. There was a bit of a frothy top to it, but it didnt detract from the taste. The salt on the rim was a bit thick for my taste, but that is really a personal preference. I would give the margarita a thumbs up.
My server brought my soup right after serving the margarita. In a large bowl, a broth, tortilla strips and cheese stewed and awaited tasting. I dove right in and was quite surprised at how rich the broth was. It wasnt overly salty, but was somewhat tomatoey and somewhat spicy with a bit of smoke added. There were no vegetables in the broth, but I didnt think it needed any. The tortilla strips were still crispy and the melted cheese was quite tasty. This would be a great soup for comfort food.
There was about a five-minute span between the time I finished my soup and when my entree ordered. The first scene that hit my nose was that of a smokey meat. It was a wonderful smell and had me salivating. On my plate were two soft tacos, rice, beans and two cheese enchiladas served in a mini-casserole dish. It all looked very good.
I first tried the enchiladas and I was immediately disappointed. The taste was decent enough, but for what ever reason, the enchiladas from the middle to the bottom were ice cold. While the cheese on top was melted and bubbling on the sides, the cooking process stalled and cold enchiladas were the result. I mentioned it to my server and she said I was the second person to mention that during the day. Hopefully, the kitchen will get the message.
The rice was pretty good. It was fluffy and had some spice to it, but still could have been much better. As a filler, rice is fine, but there are so many small things that could be done that could really make it shine. The beans were lacking as well. The problem was that the cup of ranchero-style beans was about 1/10 beans and 9/10th water. One bite had me convinced to simply ignore them.
I was hoping that this would not be another restaurant experience where the build up is great and the main production is lacking. Thankfully, the tacos saved the entree from a complete disappointment. These tacos were outstanding. The steak, onions and peppers were absolutely delicious with a great caramalization on the onions and peppers and some char on the meat. The soft corn tortillas housing the mixture were fresh and hot. I could have had a plate of these tacos and been very happy. It was a great save in the end.
I polished off the tacos and nodded to my server for my bill. The service was good and pleasant with a very nice server who was happy to engage in conversation about the restaurant and how long they had been open. My total bill was $19.99 which included tax.
I grabbed a paper menu and exited the restaurant. I would return to Chayos because they had a lot of items on their menu that looked enticing. I certainly know that the tacos, soup and margarita were good. Perhaps I will try back in a few months to see if the cooking issues were more than just a few gaffes. As I got into my car, I remembered my many trips to Howard Johnsons for the AYCE clam strips.
Now, if only Chayos had an AYCE alambre taco night on Fridays, I would be there.
Chayos Mexican Kitchen
4532 East Thomas Road
Phoenix, AZ 85016