A Phoenix Food Tour: Interview with Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza

By: Katarina Kovacevic

January 6, 2014

Most people in Phoenix know Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza as the Phoenix food guru and James Beard-nominated mastermind behind Barrio Café and Barrio Queen. But this kind and straight-talking Phoenician is even more than that. She’s a local arts champion. A community activist. A real chef’s chef. And she is, quite possibly, Phoenix’s number-one fan.

Why do you choose to live in Phoenix? What do you think is the most annoying misconception about the city?

I live in Phoenix because it is a brilliant city. It feels like anything is possible here. I came here for culinary school and stayed because I saw the tremendous possibilities this growing city offered me. It’s so big and there’s still plenty of space for everyone. It’s so aptly named. You really can come here and reinvent yourself. I did. I put my stake in the ground and bet it all on Phoenix.

I think the most annoying misconception is that we’re not a community that welcomes difference. That’s about as far from the truth of my experience than I can say. Another misconception is that it’s too hot here in the summer. It’s perfectly and fantastically liveable all year round. Besides, the sun shines all the time and who can say no to a little Vitamin D?

A Phoenix Food Tour: Interview with Chef Silvana Salcido Esarza

Artists painting murals on the walls of Barrio Café © Visit Phoenix

Your Calle 16 art project has gained a lot of ground. Can you share with us the inspiration behind this movement?

Calle 16 is an ad hoc group of activists, artists and small-business owners that I imagined in response to the SB1070 law” (which gives police officers the authority to ask people for proof of immigration incident to a “lawful stop, detention or arrest”). I knew we had to create a new way for Mexicans and Mexican Americans to be visible in our city, and I see Calle 16 as a powerful way to show our solidarity in the face of racism and prejudice.

We seek to beautify the 16th Street Corridor by painting murals in support of community engagement and our artistic works are partnerships between neighbours. Brown artists have a venue for their work in a public space and the project literally illustrates the importance of Mexican cultures in Arizona. It’s a beautiful, collaborative and joyful model for activism and resistance.

A Phoenix Food Tour: Interview with Chef Silvana Salcido Esarza

Murals along Calle 16 in Phoenix © Visit Phoenix

If we were looking for you on a weekday at lunchtime, which Phoenix restaurant would we find you in?

“At lunchtime, I’m usually working. So you’d find me at the airport, downtown or in south Scottsdale. If you look for me when I’m hungry, at 2 p.m., you can find me at Playa Hermosa on Calle 16. They serve up some of the best seafood in the Valley.”

A Phoenix Food Tour: Interview with Chef Silvana Salcido Esarza

Durant’s in Phoenix, the city’s classic steakhouse © Visit Phoenix

What are some restaurants a Phoenix visitor can’t miss?

Durant’s is classic all the way”¦from the décor to the service. This steakhouse is older than me and I’m old! I like to go, sit in an overstuffed booth in their darkened bar, and enjoy a classically served steak. One of my favourite new restaurants is Sochu House. The food is super-fresh and interesting. I especially love the flat noodles, which are served in a well-balanced sauce of hot and sweet. Johnny really gets down with his flavours. Another favourite is Hana Japanese Eatery on 7th Street. They have the best sushi in town, hands down.”

Where do you go for a special night out in Phoenix? How about to nurse a hangover the next day?

“Hangovers are rare but when they occur the only remedy is the menudo at Pepe’s Taco Villa on Camelback Road. For a special night out, we dine at Tomaso’s. Their wine list is amazing and the Carpaccio is the best in town. I have a weakness for Italian food and they make some of the best in Phoenix.”

A Phoenix Food Tour: Interview with Chef Silvana Salcido Esarza

Crescent Ballroom © Visit Phoenix

Fill in the blank: “I could eat __________ at ____________ day in and day out, and never get sick of it.”

“A Wiseguy Pizza at Pizzeria Bianco. Chef Bianco’s wood-roasted pies can’t be beat. I’d eat them as fast as he could turn them out!”

Let’s talk some more art. What are some of your favourite galleries in Phoenix?

“I love The Hive on 16th Street. It’s a welcoming place, completely without pretence. They support the work of local artists by showing it alongside the work of artists from other countries and from the reservations surrounding our city. The compound of work being done there is really amazing. I also support Tilt. These two young women started their gallery in downtown Phoenix and moved to Scottsdale just recently. They focus on photography and often show work that includes mixed media.”

What are some of your other favourite must-try spots in the city?

“I love the Film Bar. It’s an independent movie house with a cool concept. We can get a drink, see a great film, and enjoy good conversation afterward. The Rhythm Room is a great venue for live music in Phoenix and so is the Crescent Ballroom. The last time I went out for music, though, I went to The Trunk Space on Grand Ave. Their programming is off the hook!”

Header photo: Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza © Visit Phoenix

Written by Katarina Kovacevic

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Katarina Kovacevic

Katarina Kovacevic is a freelance travel writer, author of The Food Lovers’ Guide To Phoenix & Scottsdale, and founder/editor of Style Jaunt, a blog about fashionable travel. Her work has appeared in publications like American Spa, The New York Post, Travel + Leisure online, and more. Follow her travels on Twitter @Little_K and Instagram @Little_K_Kata.

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