Remember that annoying hipster friend you had in high school or college — the one who when asked about any band or recording artist would always have the same response: “I liked their early stuff. You know, before they sold out.” If your erstwhile friend felt the same way about restaurants, he or she would probably have a field day complaining about the recent agreement between America’s Taco Shop (ATS), a restaurant best known for its carne asada, and Kahala, a franchising organization best known for making Cold Stone Creamery into a global brand.
If you’re not thrilled about the new “chaining” of ATS, there should be some consolation that the chain’s first four restaurants remain under the same family ownership as always. These are the restaurants in established walkable neighborhoods rather than food courts and strip malls. There are two in Central Phoenix, one in Old Town Scottsdale, and one near the ASU campus in Tempe. The last is the location closest to light rail. It’s clearly visible from the University / Rural station, although the path from the platform to the restaurant’s door is not obvious.
A straight line route might involve walking along the tracks, crossing a ditch full of water, or maybe both. Play it safe and walk east to Rural Road, turn left and walk north along Rural, and then turn left again onto the pedestrian and bicycle path that ASU students use to commute to and from class. The path meets University Drive near America’s front door. Don’t worry if the route sounds convoluted; it takes only a minute or two and involves no crossings of busy streets. Two bike racks are available along the edge of the parking lot nearest the street
While the original ATS in Phoenix’s Coronado neighborhood occupies a restored bungalow, the site near ASU previously housed a pizza place. The seating inside is tight because half the room is taken up by the open kitchen and the counter. There’s more room outside. The front patio is sunny and faces University Drive. The side patio is more shaded and offers views of trains passing in both directions. Back inside, customers are greeted by aromas of grilled meat and the sight of beef cooking over an open flame and pork al pastor on a trompo, or vertical rotisserie.
The carne asada, the restaurant’s signature dish, and the al pastor, a later but equally vital addition, can be served in all sorts of ways: quesadillas, burritos, tortas, and, of course, tacos. The beef is chopped after grilling, allowing it to blend evenly with caramelized onions, lettuce, and cilantro when served. The tacos are street style — served in soft corn tortillas, but another dish called the “Vampiro” places everything on a grilled tortilla to produce something closer to a tostada. Everything comes with a wedge of lime, a slice of cucumber, and half a trimmed radish.
The pork has a slight fruitiness that comes from the pineapple used in the al pastor preparation. The tropical fruit is there mainly for the tenderizing effect of the juice on the meat, but In the al pastor burrito, there are actually a few bits of pineapple sliced off the top of the trompo to add to the filling inside the tortilla. The meat has a reddish char on the outside and a tender interior. Each of the restaurant’s two key meats are paired with appropriate salsas. All beef dishes come with a finely minced red version, and all the pork comes with a tomatillo-based salsa verde.
With all the talk of beef and pork, ATS does a surprisingly good job with alternatives to red meat. Chicken, a recent addition to the menu, is not emphasized the way the beef and pork are, but presents a serviceable alternative. Even better, though, is ATS’ excellent bean burrito. Smooth refritos made without lard but with plenty of flavor are combined with a bit of jack cheese inside a flour tortilla. Like all ATS burritos, it’s a moderately-sized creation rather than a mission-style stuffed behemoth. Pair it with an order of the elote, or grilled corn, for a filling meatless meal.
On Fridays and Saturdays, ATS also serves a shrimp ceviche with minced, marinated crustaceans tossed with chopped onions, tomato, cucumber, and cilantro. It comes with a basket of chips and some of the same slightly tart red sauce as the corn. It’s not unheard of for the restaurant to run out of ceviche by Saturday afternoon, so come early in the weekend to assure a supply. There’s also really good guacamole here in a thick, almost oatmeal-like texture. It’s dense enough to test the strength of the accompanying chips.
For dessert, there’s only one choice at America’s. It’s a flan about the size and shape of a hockey puck but with a considerably more appealing taste and texture. To drink, America’s serves Mexican Coke, horchata, tamarindo, jamaica, lemonade, and iced tea. One innovation is the “corchata,” a blend of coffee and horchata not too far removed in taste and texture from Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk. This location of ATS was also the first to obtain a liquor license, so bottled beer and margaritas are also among the beverage choices.
Even with all this to like about ATS, there’s still going to be some hand wringing about those franchised locations. A quick visit to the ATS at Arizona Mills revealed the same menu and food quality as at the original sites, but the atmosphere of the outlet mall’s food court can’t compare to the comfortable patio near ASU a few miles to the north. How much territory ATS and Kahala conquer in their franchising ambitions remains to be seen, but in the heart of Tempe, it’s still possible to enjoy the hipster’s sacred “early stuff” version of the restaurant without “selling out.”
735 E. University Dr., Tempe AZ 85281