Gallo Blanco Cafe

Hotel-restaurant relations can be tough to navigate. Traditionally, there have been a lot of dull, dreary dining rooms in middle-of-the-road hotel chains, punctuated with occasional exceptions for signature restaurants at major resorts. Lately, though, the thinking has changed to favor more distinctive restaurants; these are restaurants that locals frequent and that have identities apart from the hotels that house them. Kimpton hotels are probably best known for this approach. For the independent Clarendon Hotel in Midtown, located half a mile from the Indian School / Central station, it has been a struggle over the past few years to define a workable restaurant identity. Both approaches tried — the indie restaurant within a hotel and the hotel-operated restaurant — have had their share of problems.After years under various brand identities, the historic Clarendon Hotel rebooted in its current cosmopolitan version in late 2004. Its initial restaurant partner, Camus, followed in 2005. The partnership sounded great and seemed to work for a while, but in 2007, in a divorce as public as that of reality TV uber-breeders Jon and Kate, Camus and the Clarendon went their separate ways. After the Camus debacle, the hotel tried two home-grown concepts. The first, C4, was an attempt at a Japanese-influenced menu that failed after a few months. The second was the Clarendon Kitchen, which combined slightly Southwestern cuisine with Gothic lettering in an unexpected mix not seen since John Carpenter’s 1998 Vampires movie. Finally, in 2009, the Clarendon seems to have found the right approach by returning creative control to an independent restaurateur. The result is Gallo Blanco Cafe.

Gallo Blanco is another attempt at Mexican and Southwestern food, but more focused and inspired than the previous Clarendon Kitchen concept. The food isn’t corporate Southwestern lite with a chipotle here and a poblano there. At the same time, it’s not the heavy Sonoran food popular in so many local Mexican restaurants. Instead, it’s a more interior Mexican approach with a lighter feel and a strong influence from street food. The space at Gallo Blanco is sparse with stained concrete on the floors and exposed ducts in the ceiling. During the day, abundant natural light enters through the windows that wrap around most of the room. At night, the restaurant is dark — maybe a little too dark — due to the minimalist fixtures in the rough-hewn ceiling.

Because this isn’t a typical Phoenix Mexican restaurant, don’t expect chips and salsa to arrive automatically at the table. Instead, order a serving of the chunky, freshly made guacamole with chips. Want something to grip rather than dip? In that case, the elote callajero ┬áis a good choice. It’s an ear of grilled corn topped with paprika and crumbly cotija cheese. For those looking to start with greenery, two salads are regulars on the menu with a market salad sometimes available as a special. The salads are especially welcome since vegetables are abundant in Mexican cooking but often scarce in Mexican restaurants in the United States.The most offbeat starter is the chicharron de queso, essentially a fried sheet of cheese with aioli on the side. As the menu warns, “…this is not a quesadilla.” With apologies to all readers from Wisconsin, it’s for serious cheeseheads.

The entree selection is small and focused with an emphasis on simple preparations and local ingredients when feasible. Pork, beef, fish, and vegetables are available in both soft-shell tacos and tortas. The tacos, which feature house-made corn tortillas, are a bargain at two dollars each, and it’s fine to mix and match different types in an assortment to be shared. Paired with optional sides like refried beans or jasmine rice, a few tacos add up to a reasonably priced meal. The tortas are much heftier with a slab of telera enclosing the chosen filling. In an unusual move, chicken appears only as a grilled half-bird and not as a taco or torta filling. The fish varies depending on what is available. Most recently, it has been halibut.

Be thankful for the moderate portions at Gallo Blanco when the time comes for dessert. The postre de chocolate is sinful in all the best ways. The crepes, on the other hand, are nicely restrained in their sweetness. They’re fine as a closer after dinner, but they also work well as a breakfast entree. Drinks at Gallo Blanco are generally light and refreshing in keeping with the food. On a hot summer day, a watermelon fresca or a michelada, essentially a spiced beer, breaks the heat. Despite the Clarendon’s hip image, Gallo Blanco is accommodating of families with children.There are plenty of high chairs available, and kids are not an unusual sight in the dining room. With both business and leisure travel down, the Clarendon may still be challenged to fill all its rooms, but at least the hotel can now boast a worthwhile restaurant in Gallo Blanco.

401 W. Clarendon Ave., Phoenix, AZ 85013
(602) 274-4774
http://www.galloblancocafe.com

Gallo Blanco Cafe on Urbanspoon

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