Anyone walking by the Arizona Center in the past year might have noticed some renovations going on at the 25-year-old development. Admittedly, most of the changes are minor cosmetic updates that fail to address the center’s major shortcoming: its inward focus and lack of street presence. Still, at least the new owners are investing in the complex and trying to give it a viable future with offices on the second floor and retail on the first. Likewise, one of the few survivors of the original tenant mix has done some recent renovations of its own.
Canyon Cafe, formerly known as Sam’s Cafe, is the only restaurant other than Hooter’s that has been around since opening day in 1989. It’s the Phoenix outpost of a small chain with only three other current locations: one each in Houston, San Antonio, and St. Louis. At the Arizona Center, Canyon Cafe is just a few blocks on foot from the Van Buren light rail stations or via bicycle from the Third Street stations. Look for the restaurant on the southeastern side of the building closest to the complex’s hidden gardens and water features.
The restaurant underwent changes to both its interior and its patio in late summer, and while the result is not a radical departure from the original Sam’s Cafe look, it is a refreshing update to a place that had maintained the same Southwestern theme for a quarter century. The combination of lighter paint and the removal of a fireplace and some tables near the host station has resulted in a more open feel. The old bar has been replaced with a new countertop, and there’s a new fire pit outside with some nearby community tables.
If the changes in the restaurant’s space are a welcome, albeit minor, update, the same can be said of recent changes to the menu. A few standbys were 86’d, most notably the verde enchiladas, which will be missed, in order to simplify the menu and make room for a new category of “street tacos.” Of course, once a taco is served in a restaurant, it’s already different than its street counterpart, but Canyon Cafe has put together a varied a la carte selection of tacos that can be mixed and matched to create a snack or meal.
Among those new tacos, all made with flour tortillas, there are carnitas, which are supple and satisfying, even if the presentation with pineapple comes across more as al pastor. The addition of pickled onions adds a nice bite to offset the sweetness of the fruit. Blackened fish is an expected blend of slightly spiced seafood with slaw, and the roasted vegetable tacos contain an assortment of earthy roasted produce. Crispy chicken, shrimp, bison picadillo, and chile relleno are additional taco types making their debut on the restaurant’s menu.
While the tacos are all new, most of the menu is familiar Southwestern-lite classics that have endured for over two decades. Tableside guacamole has become a cliche, but Canyon Cafe’s servers make an effective version with the customer’s choice of texture and add-ins such a garlic, onion, cilantro, tomatoes, and jalapenos. The spinach and portabello quesadilla offers the same mix of umami from big mushrooms and greenery from sauteed leaves as always. Other quesadillas are filled with steak and bleu cheese or chicken with red onion marmalade.
Soups and salads are the same as always at Canyon Cafe. The pueblo house salad is a straightforward plate of mesclun greens with julienne carrots, pickled onion, and tomato wedges. The Southwest Caesar salad is given a slight regional touch through the use of tortilla strips rather than croutons to add a bit of crunch to the greenery. Tortilla soup is thick, chunky, hearty, and satisfying. The poblano chicken chowder is even more substantial with a mild, creamy base punctuated with chunks of poultry, carrots, and potatoes.
The entrees include Panchos [sic] enchiladas with roasted chicken inside; a creamy, slightly peppered sauce on top; and a rice pilaf below. The pecan-crusted crab cake, the fire-grilled tuna, and the blackened tilapia and crawfish all demonstrate competence with seafood. On land, the bison meatloaf is two slices of a dish that is first baked then grilled, acquiring a bit of smoky flavor along the way. A meatless favorite is the fire-grilled vegetable pasta, which combines soy sauce with Southwestern perennial ingredients such as black beans.
Keep in mind that the generously portioned appetizers and entrees are always preceded by a bowl of mixed chips — some traditional corn chips, some sweet potato chips, and a few unknown objects that look almost like fried wontons — and a bowl of roasted salsa. That bounty may not leave much room for dessert, which is why many diners simply accept the small, complimentary white chocolate tamales offered at the end of the meal. Those who can find room, however, may want to explore desserts such as a banana burrito or cheesecake.
The Canyon Cafe bar continues its tradition of offering numerous variants on the margarita, ranging from a traditional “top shelf” model to fruity concoctions with mango or raspberry. There’s also draft beer, wine, sangria, mojitos, and other cocktails from a full bar. The non-alcoholic red rock lemonade is infused with strawberry syrup. After 25 years of the same look, both the Arizona Center and Canyon Cafe were due for an update. Thankfully, the restaurant played to its strengths, keeping themp intact during the quarter century makeover.
455 N. 3rd St., Phoenix AZ 85004
Van Buren / Central or Washington / 3rd Street stations (westbound)
Van Buren / 1st Avenue or Jefferson / 3rd Street stations (eastbound)