It’s hard to believe, but as recently as a few years ago, it was hard to find a good taco, or any taco at all, in the core downtown business district of Phoenix. Business travelers and convention attendees expected the Southwest’s largest city to offer at least somewhat authentic Mexican food within walking distance of their hotels. Instead, they were directed to options that might be near downtown but not within the walkable core of the city. That sorry state of affairs has begun to change with the recent opening of several new Mexican restaurants, including Centrico.
Centrico is the latest occupant of a space that has seen frequent turnover in recent years. The last tenant, a Vietnamese restaurant, actually stuck around for a few years. Many prior ones closed after only a few months or even closed before they opened. From a customer’s point of view, it’s an attractive and convenient space, strategically placed at the corner of Central and Monroe in the ground floor of the San Carlos Hotel, just a block south of the Van Buren / Central (westbound) and Van Buren / First Avenue (eastbound) light rail stations.
Centrico has maintained the minimalist look of the previous tenant, along with some of the furnishings. There has been some customization with new polyhedral light fixtures, one of several touches that create an urbane feel, but there’s nothing that clashes with the historic character of the hotel. The small dining room inside is augmented by a wraparound patio with tables facing both to the east and the south. Bike racks are built into parking meters along the south side of Monroe, and some larger racks are found outside nearby businesses.
One factor that may complicate restaurant operations at this location is the small kitchen, a tight space situated behind an equally small bar. That’s definitely a constraint that prevents an expansive menu, but it’s also an opportunity for any restaurant operating with a focused mission of doing a few things and doing them really well. Centrico does that by defining a relatively narrow niche of tacos and a few other Mexican and American favorites, executing them generally quite well, but not trying to offer an endless parade of large-format combo platters.
Centrico’s menu starts with a section of antojitos, or appetizers, generally designed to be shared. The Guacamole al Momento is mixed tableside and is as much about the pockets of flavor and heat from the added serrano chiles, onion, tomato, and cilantro as it is about the avocado and accompanying basket of chips. The chile verde, which can easily function as an entree, is a stew of tender meat enlivened with Oaxaca cheese and salsa verde. Soft, warm tortillas provided on the side are ideal for scooping, dipping, or something in between the two.
One appetizer, the shrimp empanadas, seems like just about the only dish that is not entirely successful. The outer pastry is light and flaky, but the interior is dominated more by mashed potatoes than discernible prawns. The accompanying sauce, described as “habanero aoili” is unexpectedly and excessively sweet. Thankfully, it’s served on the side. On the dinner menu, a starter of flautas de papas is an entirely welcome use of mashed potatoes, this time stuffed inside crisp, rolled tortillas artfully adorned with cotija cheese, crema, and pickled onions.
At Centrico, the distinction between appetizers and entrees seems somewhat arbitrary since nearly everything is easily shared and of about the same portion size. The tacos are four to an order, but they are far from overwhelming in their size and well-suited to being paired with other dishes. Among the choices of fillings, the Gobernador tacos feature shrimp in a spicy sauce, tamed by Oaxacan cheese, crema, and shredded cabbage. The tinga tacos contain tender shredded chicken, pickled onions, queso fresco, and avocado crema inside flour tortillas.
In the evening, the same tinga is served inside rolled flour tortillas as enchiladas, topped Christmas-style with a mix of fiery red and tangy green salsas. Chilaquiles, a breakfast favorite also available during lunch hours, offers the option of chips covered with red salsa and added chicken, but in this case, the poultry is a sliced achiote-coated breast rather than shredded meat. The Centrico Chop Salad is a hearty choice as an entree with its base of greens topped with avocado, pinto beans, dried corn, tortilla strips, crumbled chorizo, and pepitas.
Throughout the menu, Centrico adds little touches such as sliced radishes that are sometimes left off the plate in tamer, more Americanized presentations found elsewhere. The kitchen is unafraid to put plenty of spice into its Mexican cooking, but there are also some well-crafted but less threatening options such as a bacon double cheeseburger, a chicken club sandwich, and hot cakes available for hotel guests and downtown workers who might prefer less heat. Due to the small kitchen size, there is currently no dessert on the menu.
Despite its small space, Centrio has a full bar with an emphasis on tequila and mezcal, Mexico’s two spirits derived from the agave plant. As expected, there is a list of margaritas — not syrupy concoctions in oversized glasses, but carefully crafted cocktails such as a sandia (watermelon) margarita accented with a bit of lime. In just a few years, Downtown Phoenix has gone from zero to a handful in terms of Mexican food options. Now that Mexican cuisine is finally emerging in the central business district, Centrico has an approach well suited to its city location.
202 N. Central Ave., Phoenix AZ 85004
Van Buren / Central (westbound) and Van Buren / 1st Avenue (eastbound) stations