“When your chips are down / When your highs are low / Joy ride.” Those words are the refrain of a Killers song from the last decade. The lyrics might refer to chips in terms of a poker metaphor, but there are plenty of chips of another kind to be found at Joyride Taco House, one of a cluster of Upward Projects restaurants located three or four blocks north of the Central / Camelback light rail station in Uptown Phoenix. Joyride is the latest addition to the family at this key corner, and it’s the first restaurant in the immediate area to serve Mexican, or at least Mexican-influenced, food.
Joyride occupies the former home of Aiello’s Italian restaurant on the west side of Central at Colter. Until recently, this intersection was no joy ride at all for pedestrians and bicyclists, despite its proximity to a transit center. That has changed, however, with the 2012 addition of buffered bike lanes and the 2014 construction of a pedestrian-activated traffic signal (aka “HAWK”) to ease crossing Central Avenue, which remains a busy arterial street despite, or maybe in part because of, the addition of several popular restaurants with patio dining in this part of town.
Patios are always part of the formula with Upward Projects, and Joyride directly addresses Central Avenue with a comfortable outdoor dining area. A bike rack is located under the shade of a venerable tree that kids will most likely want to climb before or after consuming tacos or burritos from their own menu. The main entrance and host station are located toward the back, off to the side of the parking lot. Inside, the renovations to the building have resulted in more natural light. A big U-shaped bar is at the center of the room with booths and tables around the rest of the space.
At any seat, those chips come out quickly, along with some fire-roasted salsa, a mild condiment that will please almost everyone. A variety of additional salsas are available for a charge, but the best add-on is probably the chunky guacamole dappled with tomatillo, tomato, onions, cilantro, and fiery serrano chiles. The quesadilla has a sophisticated, nuanced cheese blend that is as much Spanish as Mexican. The street corn, whether ordered as an appetizer or a side, is a good version of elote with crumbly cheese and plenty of spice sprinkled on top of a grilled ear of corn.
For a lighter touch, the salads all marry abundant greens with crunchy elements. The Ensalada Fila tops a base of kale with jicama, orange, tomato, avocado, beans, and corn. The Lola Grain salad aligns with current nutritional trends by combining quinoa and bulghur wheat with greens and chopped vegetables. The menu advertises a “chef’s soup,” but to date it has always been chicken tortilla.The soup always has a richly flavored broth, but is otherwise inconsistent, sometimes lacking discernible chunks of chicken and other times missing noticeable pieces of tortilla.
The menu at Joyride has recently been streamlined with tortas and tamales nixed in favor of a tighter focus on tacos. That’s probably a smart decision since tacos are, not surprisingly, what Joyride does best. They’re moderately sized, mostly on corn tortillas with the exception of the crispy fish on a flour one, and priced a la carte. There is value, however, in ordering more than one. Order any three tacos and add a side dish such as rice, beans, or Mexican slaw at no charge. At lunch, the “Shotgun Special” is any two tacos plus a half serving of any salad for one price.
Joyride offers just under a dozen taco fillings, beginning with a roast chicken taco known as the Standard. Below it are another chicken filling, tinga, which is spicier shredded poultry, and two fillings each based on beef, pork, and fish. For the two kinds of fish tacos, the menu indulges in hyperbole with words like “insanely” and “ridiculously” prefacing more neutral descriptions of the fillings, but both the grilled Baja and crispy fish tacos are easy to enjoy. There’s also a grilled shrimp taco and a vegetarian one that relies on mushrooms for earthy flavor and meaty texture.
While the non-taco portions of Joyride’s menu have been trimmed, there are still some other items on the menu. The enchiladas, filled with a vegetable mix, chicken, or beef, are served in a pair with rice and beans as included sides with a generous application of a tomato-based guajillo chile sauce and crumbled cheese. Burritos are available with carne asada , vegetarian, machaca, and chicken fillings. Any can be fried at no extra cost to yield a chimichanga or topped with enchilada sauce for a small charge.
Desserts at Joyride have a slight Mexican touch and are all copiously sized for sharing. Better than Betty’s (presumably Crocker?) is a chewy brownie topped with cajeta, dulce de leche ice cream, and spicy walnuts. Mo’s Definitely is a serving of vanilla pudding in a jar with bananas, cajeta, pecans, and a cookie crust. The churros with a dusting of cinnamon and a side of chocolate dipping sauce are the most straightforward and easily shared dessert. If none of these sound good, the new HAWK traffic signal allows a quick joy walk across the street to Churn.
Joyride has a full bar with craft beer, some wine, and a whole lot of margaritas. Variants such as mango-mandarin and blood orange benefit from the use of real fruit rather than just syrups. Additional options include the frescas, fresh fruit drinks that are available in both virgin and spiked versions. At Central and Colter, crossing the street, riding a bike, or just walking around are all a lot more pleasant than they were just a few years ago. Those developments mean that the chips are no longer down, except where they should be — at each table inside Joyride Taco House.
5202 N. Central Ave., Phoenix AZ 85012
Central / Camelback Station