It took 28 years, but in 2021, the Phoenix Suns made it to the National Basketball Association finals for the second time. When the Suns did this the first time in 1993, they had just enjoyed their first season in their then-new arena. The surrounding blocks of downtown were still pretty bleak, however. A lot has changed in nearly three decades, and the city’s core now has even more restaurants than it did before the pandemic. Among many new arrivals is Pa’La, an upgraded version of a chef-driven restaurant with an original location on 24th Street.
Pa’La’s new downtown outpost occupies a space along Washington Street between Second and First streets. Although it’s across the street from the brand new Block 23 development, the restaurant’s downtown home is an older two-story structure in a block full of vintage buildings. The Third Street light rail stations are just a block or two to the east, and the platforms at Washington/Central and First Avenue / Jefferson are equally close in the blocks west of the restaurant. Bike racks are found around the corner on both First and Second streets.
Pa’La is the latest venture involving Claudio Urcioli, a chef who has had stints at the Montelucia resort, Noca, Noble Eatery, and the Chris Bianco empire. For the past few years, the chef has pursued his own vision from a modest east side location adjacent to the headquarters of his corporate partner TPQ foods, the organization behind the Tortas Paquime chain of sandwich shops. If that pairing seems unlikely, it’s no more so than the decision to involve a second chef, Jason Alford, whose experience at Roka Akor brings an Asian influence to the kitchen.
With these disparate international elements merging on the menu, one might expect a certain level of eclecticism in the decor. Instead, Pa’La keeps it simple with design elements incorporating wood, tile, and brick that respect the building’s origins. Edison bulbs with their yellow hue make the place a little less Instagram-friendly, but there’s plenty of natural light on a small patio. While the main dining room is downstairs, a separate lounge upstairs is used for tapas and drinks on busy nights, including evenings when the Suns have a home game.
The most prominent item on the restaurant’s wall is a large chalkboard where the day’s specials are displayed. It’s well worth the time to peruse it on the way to a table or even to take a photograph because it usually lists nearly as many choices as the printed menu, which is itself fairly compact. The common theme is relatively simple dishes that rely on ingredient quality as a foundation before any flourishes are applied in the kitchen. For the most part, vegetables, meats, pastas, and seafood are allowed to speak for themselves with subtle preparations.
Another defining element of the restaurant’s approach is wood-fired cooking, and that’s evident after one look at the beehive oven in the open kitchen in the back of the room. It’s used to produce pizzas with a crust that is both chewy and slightly charred, but never brittle. Pizza toppings change regularly but can feature options as familiar as spicy sausage from Arcadia Meat Market or as uncommon as octopus. The oven also produces slices of airy, pliant focaccia that are the basis of both a ham sandwich and a vegetarian one full of avocado and red onion.
Seafood places a prominent role here. Usually, it’s a gently roasted piece of fish like halibut minimally seasoned and then paired with vegetables or a grain such as fregola, a chewy, nutty pasta similar in shape and size to Israeli couscous. In other cases, Sea of Cortez shrimp might be tossed with noodles or served in a salad. Fans of the 24th Street Pa’La might recall the restaurant’s signature Navarro bowl of grains. It’s not available downtown, but something similar is on the board: a brown rice bowl with toppings such as seared tuna, vegetables, and furikake.
Produce, much of it sourced from local producers, is also a theme here. It’s often included on plated entrees or the rice bowl, but several vegetable dishes are offered a la carte to be shared as either tapas or side dishes. Japanese sweet potatoes are an ideal ingredient for roasting, which softens the texture while accentuating their gentle flavor. Flecks of cilantro and Aleppo chili add a little heat and complexity to the dish. Broccolini also benefits from the wood-fueled flame and is often topped with a little furikake and wafu and plated with more pearls of fregola.
Portion sizes can vary at Pa’La, with some items seeming like snacks and others more like hearty entrees. It’s best to ask the helpful staff for guidance, especially since the desserts here are worth making an allowance for. A chocolate pot de creme with biscotti on the side and a small tiramisu served in a glass vessel have been consistent offerings since the restaurant’s opening. Among the dessert specials, a peach crumble and a stone fruit panna cotta replete with bits of plums and cherries have showcased some of summer’s seasonal bounty.
Pa’La’s small bar near the front pours a selection of wines and local craft beers that are featured on the chalkboard. There are also cocktail specials such as a recent peach margarita. A much larger bar is found upstairs in the lounge for special events and overflow dining. With its larger space and full-service model, Pa’La aims higher than at its original location, but the humble essence of 24th Street has been retained in the simplicity of the approach and menu. No matter what happens with the Suns in future seasons, Pa’La’a presence is a win for downtown.
October 14, 2022 Update: Claudio Urcioli has left Pa’la. Chef Jason Alford remains at the restaurant.
132 E. Washington St., Phoenix AZ 85004