Anyone familiar with downtown Phoenix knows the presidential streets that run east-west within the city core. The northernmost is Roosevelt, well known for the arts district transformed into a corridor of new apartment buildings. The southernmost presidential street, however, is not as well known. It’s named for Ulysses Grant, the commander of Union forces during the Civil War and the nation’s 18th president. Just south of Downtown and the Warehouse District lies not only Grant Street, but also Grant Park, which is both a recreational facility and a neighborhood.
It’s at Grant Street and Second Avenue, right across the street from Grant Park, that El Portal, a Mexican restaurant with a long heritage in the neighborhood, can be found. The location is half a mile from the existing light rail platforms at Washington / Central (westbound) and Jefferson / First Avenue (eastbound). It’s much closer to the planned Lincoln / Central (northbound) and Lincoln / First Avenue (southbound) stations along the South Central Extension. Neither the restaurant nor the park have bike racks, so locking up against a sign post is the best option.
El Portal’s name might be inspired by its two big wooden doors, one facing Grant and one facing Second Avenue. Enter via either one and check in at the counter if needed, although staff are usually prompt to greet arriving customers. The dining room has a rustic, comfortable look with saltillo tile, wooden tables, and brick walls decorated with portraits of three civil rights icons: Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, and Robert Kennedy. On a smaller scale, various plaques in the corners document the public service careers of owners Mary Rose and Earl Wilcox.
Before devoting herself to the restaurant, Mary Rose Wilcox served many years on both the Phoenix City Council and the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, so a noticeable but not overbearing political theme is not surprising here. El Portal has had its peaks and valleys over the years and was even closed for a time. Now, it seems to have made a comeback, serving reliable and hearty Mexican food, most of it in the familiar Sonoran / Arizona style, for breakfast and lunch while also acting as a focal point and gathering place for the Grant Park community.
All meals begin with a basket of fresh chips and some red salsa that might be classified as on the border between medium and hot. The restaurant opens at 9 AM, so there’s an entire section devoted to Mexican-American breakfast favorites like huevos rancheros and chorizo with eggs. Eggs, potatoes, sausage, and chorizo in various combinations can also be found within breakfast burritos. Pancakes and even avocado toast add to the morning-oriented foods on El Portal’s menu, which is available throughout the day until the restaurant’s 2 PM closing time.
A larger section of the menu is devoted to items that seem more suited to lunch, most of them in the form of familiar and filling combination platters. A plate with two hard-shelled tacos stuffed with shredded beef or chicken, topped with cheese and iceberg, and paired with rice and refried beans might be the least adventurous item on the menu, but it’s also comfort food that spans generations and cultures. Enchiladas are another classic choice with two tortillas rolled around tender meat and everything melding into one under a topping of sauce and melted cheese.
The machaca plate is full of tender beef, and the red and green chili both excel in their own ways. The red is clearly the spicier choice, but the green has its own nuanced depth. If undecided, ask for an off-menu “half-and-half plate” and experience Christmas any time of year. The soups, offered on specific days of the week, are hearty meals in a bowl. On Monday, it’s chicken with plenty of vegetables; Tuesday features albondigas, meatballs made with rice and a touch of mint. Later in the week cocido (beef soup) and menudo come up in the rotation.
Not to be overlooked at the bottom of the menu are three specials named for specific people. Mary Rose’s special is calabacitas, a zucchini dish. It’s meatless on its own, but it can also be augmented with beef or chicken. Earl’s special is three crispy flautas with guacamole and beans. Last, Salvador’s special, presumably named for South Phoenix activist Salvador Reza, is a big bowl full of carne asada and whole pinto beans topped with a little pico de gallo. Like the soups, it comes with warm flour tortillas waiting to be folded or torn for scooping or dipping.
While the menu at El Portal is usually fixed throughout the year, there are some Lent specials that appear each spring. Expect seafood items like shrimp tacos and traditional items like capirotada, a Mexican bread pudding that is, during its brief seasonal appearance, the only dessert on the restaurant’s menu. Despite limited hours of business with service only during daylight, El Portal does maintain a liquor license and offers beer, wine, and margaritas in addition to non-alcoholic favorites like horchata, jamaica, and bottled sodas from Mexico.
Near the streets named for Ulysses Grant and Abraham Lincoln, both known for their vital roles in United States history, Grant Park is an enduring reminder of Phoenix’s own past, including the segregation that limited African-American and Latino populations to the city’s south side. The park itself was developed as a Depression public works project, and the El Portal restaurant, although not quite as old, adds to the fabric of the neighborhood. It’s worthwhile to visit just to learn some local history, and the satisfying Mexican food makes it easy to stay a while.
117 W. Grant St., Phoenix AZ 85003