It’s hard to believe it today, but McDowell Road was once known as Phoenix’s “Miracle Mile.” The arterial street was home to the first major shopping district outside of Downtown Phoenix. Of course, many contemporary observers might actually think McDowell is within Downtown. It’s not, and it’s late to some of the revitalization that has taken place a mile to the south. Nevertheless, McDowell is seeing a bit of a resurgence with a variety of international restaurants along its length and some new apartment buildings under construction around the Phoenix Art Museum.
Across the street from the museum itself, one recent arrival is Guacamole’s Fresh Mexican Grill. If the restaurant’s name sounds like it could have come straight out of central casting or a corporate office, any suggestion of a well-capitalized chain operation is belied by the decor. The plain building, which has previously been home to a diner and a Thai restaurant, has been only minimally enhanced by its new tenant. It’s still a basic box in an area defined by a mix of major cultural institutions like the Burton Barr Library and vacant lots awaiting redevelopment.
Guacamole’s is just one block east of the McDowell / Central light rail station, just beyond the Richard and Annette Bloch Cancer Survivors Park on First Street. Guacamole’s has no bike rack of its own, but a long rack just around the corner outside the Bunky Boutique and Giant Coffee on First Street always has room to spare. Inside, there’s a diner-style counter with a view of the kitchen and booths and tables near the windows. A separate overflow dining room is situated on the eastern side of the restaurant.
Guacamole’s lives up to its name with a complimentary small container of the avocado dip served alongside a basket of fresh chips for every table. There are also three salsas available upon request: a mild, standard model; a medium spicy salsa made with avocado; and a fiery red one. If chips and dip seem right out of the Mexican restaurant playbook, rest assured that Guacamole’s, despite its seemingly generic name, has its own regional focus and distinctive niche. The food is not Sonoran, but instead from a more southern part of Mexico near Acapulco.
There’s one menu for the entire day with separate sections for breakfast and lunch specials, but just about everything listed is available at any time. Morning favorites include chilaquiles, huevos any number of ways, and a build-your-own burrito option. Under lunch specialties, look for familiar favorites: enchiladas, chimichangas, tamales, tortas, quesadillas, flautas, and fajitas. Elsewhere, the menu is more expansive with sopes, tacos, and platters with a variety of meat options, including carne asada, barbacoa, pork al pastor, carnitas, and shredded chicken.
Guacamole’s enchiladas are not as “gloppy” as many versions served around town. They’re a bit more like rolled soft tacos filled with a mix of shredded chicken and mashed potato and topped with cotija cheese and shredded lettuce. The tortas are massive and somewhat messy sandwiches with meat fillings, as well as slices of guacamole and white cheese, Most of these items include rice and beans — not refried, but instead whole pinto or black beans, both tender and well-seasoned. The tortas usually come with fries instead.
With everything from mole to menudo on the menu, Guacamole’s shows competence in all areas of the menu, and particular excellence in a few specialties. The caldo de res is a simple but hearty bowl of soup robust enough to be a meal by itself, especially with the accompanying corn or flour tortillas. Hunks of beef chuck float in an assertive tomato tinged broth with equally sizable pieces of corn on cob, carrots, cabbage, and potatoes. Condiments include diced white onions, minced cilantro, flakes of chile, and a wedge of lemon.
Tacos come in either a traditional size (three to a platter) or a street size (five to a platter) and can be mixed and matched with different meats inside. Either way, they’re attractively presented on a large plate with grilled onions and jalapeno on the side. The tacos del mar, filled with a choice of either breaded shrimp or breaded tilapia, show a deft touch with seafood, which is unsurprising given Acapulco’s seaside location. Likewise, the burrito de camaron is a large flour tortilla stuffed with plump prawns, rice, and a chipotle cream sauce that adds a subtle, delayed heat.
Guacamole’s has a bar equipped for simple cocktails, a selection of well-known Mexican beers, and some bottled sodas, but the most impressive beverages here are the aquas frescas. Each day three or four drinks from a rotating selection made on site are offered. Some, like a silky horchata or a summery sandia (watermelon), are frequently encountered in local restaurants. Others such as papaya or orange with lemon and chia seeds, are not only more distinctive but also less sweet than typical drinks in this category.
The sole dessert on the menu is an indulgent assemblage of churros with vanilla ice cream. Thankfully, it comes in two sizes to keep the portion manageable. At this point, Guacamole’s doesn’t offer much in terms of decor or atmosphere, but the staff of this family-run restaurant are exceedingly friendly and quick to recognize repeat customers. McDowell has a long way to go before it can be seen as anything near miraculous, but in between the large apartment complexes now being built, Guacamole’s represents the type of fine-grained development the street needs.
101 E. McDowell Rd., Phoenix AZ 85004
McDowell / Central Station