“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 blocks north of the Central / Camelback light rail station in Uptown Phoenix. Joyride is first restaurant under the Upward umbrella and in the immediate area to serve Mexican, or at least Mexican-influenced, food.
When Joyride first started serving tacos on the west side of Central at Colter, this intersection was no joy ride at all for pedestrians and bicyclists, despite its proximity to light rail and several walkable historic districts. That 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 existence 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, on the south side of the parking lot. Inside, a U-shaped bar adorned with colorful glass art is at the center. Booths and tables fill the rest of the large dining room with natural light throughout.
At any seat, the 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.
For a lighter touch, the salads marry abundant greens with crunchy elements. The Ensalada Fila is Joyride’s own Mexican-inspired interpretation of the frequently imitated Stetson Chopped Salad. All over town, it’s possible to find rows of salad ingredients arranged in a colorful spectrum, and Joyride’s version is an impressive array of jicama, orange, tomato, avocado, beans, corn, and dried peas. The orange cucumber salad, on the other hand, is a simpler preparation that relies principally on the two named ingredients with pepitas adding texture.
Tacos are, not surprisingly, what Joyride does best. They’re moderately sized, served on either corn or flour tortilla matched to the filling inside, 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. For those who want it all, or maybe two people sharing an entree, the Bandit Taco Platter combines multiple fillings and tortillas in a DIY taco scenario.
Joyride currently offers eight distinct fillings. Pork appears twice on the menu, once in the form of spicy adobada and once again in carnitas. Fish is also offered in two formats: breaded and grilled, both of them paired with cilantro, cabbage, Joyride’s playfully named Pico Gringo, and its White Magic sauce. Carne asada is a classic preparation of beef on a griddle, and the Standard is a taco filled with slow-roasted chicken meat. There’s also a grilled shrimp taco and a vegetarian one that relies on mushrooms for earthy flavor and meaty texture.
Many of the non-taco portions of Joyride’s menu use the taco fillings and tortillas in other formats. 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, and chicken fillings. Any can be topped with enchilada sauce for a small charge. The Sidewalk Surfer Chilaquiles involve toppings layered with whole tortillas, rather than the usual pile of chips.
For dessert, customers can have anything they want as long as it is churros. Joyride offers four variants of the fried dough treat. The classic version is served dusted with cinnamon, cajeta, and flakes of maldon sea salt. The banana Nutella churros rely on small pieces of dried fruit that coat the pastry. The Flintstones churros are as much Bedrock as Baja with Fruity Pebbles cereal decorating the dough. There’s also a churro sundae with dulce de leche ice cream. For more frozen treats and a break from churros, take a 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 cucumber serrano and blood orange benefit from the use of real fruits and vegetables rather than just syrups. Additional options include the frescas, fresh fruit drinks in both virgin and spiked versions. At Central and Colter, crossing the street, riding a bike, or just walking around are all more pleasant than they were a decade ago. Those developments mean that the chips are no longer down, except where they should be — on each table inside Joyride Taco House.
5202 N. Central Ave., Phoenix AZ 85012
Central / Camelback Station