There are few streets in Phoenix that have undergone as rapid a transformation as Fifth Street, specifically the block between Roosevelt and Garfield. The changes aren’t necessarily physical. None of the historic houses has been torn down, but there has been a change in character from a Bohemian block with a DIY feel to a new status that has yet to be fully defined. Where Fifth Street meets Roosevelt, five blocks east of the Roosevelt / Central light rail station, one of the first of the new arrivals is Taco Chelo, part of the Blocks of Roosevelt Row development.
When renderings were first shared for the Blocks of Roosevelt Row project, social media reaction included some cynical comments about an “authentic taco shop” sign above a storefront. That generic wording may have been a placeholder for Taco Chelo, but the phrase isn’t off the mark. The new restaurant is not among the chains envisioned in a dystopian image circulated by opponents of Roosevelt Row’s changing character, and it’s not an attempt at a full-service Mexican restaurant. Instead, it’s a taqueria with a focused and successful mission.
Taco Chelo occupies the west end of a row of recently renovated storefronts at Fifth and Roosevelt. The restaurant is most easily identified by a painted “Flowers” sign visible above the patio on Fifth Street. That sign is a remnant not only of the storefront’s historic use as floral shop, but also its more recent incarnation as Flowers, a craft beer shop and deli. While that detail reflects the space’s prior uses, smaller signs seen from Roosevelt clearly identify the restaurant as Taco Chelo. The only bike rack is found a bit to the south along Fifth Street.
Inside, the small dining room has been given a sunny, rustic look with hexagonal floor tiles, brick walls, wooden furnishings, and plenty of natural light. An image of Frida Kahlo dominates the wall next to the small bar, and a rotating selection of work from other artists fills the space above the tables on the other side. There’s an even balance of indoor and outdoor seating, as well as a counter where customers can presumably eat or drink while standing when the taqueria is at peak occupancy. Customers order at a small counter, unless they are seated at the bar.
The menu is as compact as the kitchen, explaining the limited array of well-executed choices rather than an expansive approach of trying to be all things to all people. There are two starters suitable for sharing. A basket of chips is presented with two red salsas and guacamole. Visually, they’re almost indistinguishable with the main difference in terms of heat level. One is mild, and other is on the hotter side of medium. The other appetizer, also served with salsa and guacamole, is chicharrones, essentially pork rinds dusted with cotija cheese and ground chile.
Tacos are, as expected, the largest category on the menu, but even with the tacos there is a less-is-more ethic at work in terms of doing a few dishes really well rather than trying to serve every type of filling imaginable. Currently, Taco Chelo offers five varieties: vegetable, fish, carne asada, carnitas, and barbacoa. The meatless taco draws substance and umami from mushrooms, which are mixed with seasonal vegetables and topped with queso fresco and arugula leaves. It’s one of the more complex and rewarding vegetarian tacos around.
The fish tacos featured breaded white seafood paired with cabbage, crema, pickled onions, and pico de gallo. The three meat-based tacos are more simple in their presentation with only cilantro and onion as accompaniments in the tortilla. The carne asada has a pleasing smoky char, the carnitas have robust flavor and bits of crispness intermingled with the soft meat, and the barbacoa has a depth all its own. These tacos, which are ordered a la carte, are accessorized with just a few wedges of lime and radishes, along with a bit of salsa on the side.
While the tacos for the most part omit cheese, those who seek some dairy can find it in the quesadillas, which are the same size as the tacos but full of a melted cheese blend and added fillings like carnitas or carne asada. Three tacos or two quesadillas should make a meal for most customers, but another option is to pair either or both items with a side of beans. These are not mushy refried beans, as delightful as those can be, but instead frijoles a la charra, pinto beans stewed whole with a bit bacon and seasonings. The result is a somewhat smoky bean soup.
Taco Chelo offers two salads, and neither feels like an afterthought. The namesake Taco Chelo salad builds upon a base of romaine lettuce and then adds the crisp textures of cucumber and jicama, the crunch of pepitas, and vibrant flavors from oranges and mint. The El Jardin salad mixes romaine with equally ubiquitous kale, but the result is more original than the typical kale Caesar due to the inclusion of a gently spiced dressing, tortillas strips, avocado, and pepitas. Both salads are light meals on their own or a good match with a taco, a quesadilla, or both.
There’s one featured dessert on the menu at any time. Recent selections have included a coconut flan and a tres leches cake with almonds and oranges. Drinks include cocktails, draft beers, and beverages like the michelada, which combines both. Whether Taco Chelo meets the definition of an “authentic taco shop” is subjective, but the taqueria seems more genuine than any of the chain restaurants that were feared. Both Fifth Street and Roosevelt Row are rapidly changing, and Taco Chelo is reassurance that at least some of that change can be good.
501 E. Roosevelt St., Phoenix AZ 85004