In Spanish, a zaguan is a passage that typically leads from a building’s entrance to an interior courtyard or central patio. On Adams Street in the downtown Phoenix business district, the small storefronts lack that architectural feature, but that has not stopped one new restaurant there from using the word to create the sort of welcoming atmosphere that might be associated with walking through an actual zaguan. El Zaguan has joined the small restaurant row on Adams, catering to populations of workers returning to offices, as well as those who never left.
El Zaguan’s full name is El Zaguan Bistro, but that word has been bandied about with such abandon so as to become nearly meaningless. The restaurant is best understood as a taqueria with counter service operations and a short menu offering different Mexican meats, as well as jackfruit as a vegan alternative, in formats such as tacos, burritos, and quesadillas. The location is just a block or two from the light rail platforms at Washington/Central (westbound) and First Avenue/Jefferson (eastbound), as well as the new downtown hub currently under construction.
The restaurant represents a progression from the owner’s original food truck operation to a fixed location, and the space has been redecorated after the departure of the previous tenant, Detroit Coney Grill. Natural wood tables provide seating for about 12 persons, with additional options at a tiny bar and at counters looking outwards at Adams Street. There’s another counter lining a narrow passage in back, somewhat like an actual zaguan inside the restaurant. At the end of that space, there’s a colorful map of Mexico that has replaced a previous map of Metro Detroit.
Elsewhere, there are vibrant posters and art prints that reiterate a modern Mexican theme. Printed menus are available at the counter with specials indicated on a chalkboard. The food is prepared in a compact kitchen in the corner and brought to the customer’s table upon completion. A self-service station provides red and green salsas, with the green being the more incendiary of the two, as well as plenty of water to extinguish the fire. Bike racks are found outside, both freestanding and embedded in some of the parking meters along Adams Street.
Tacos are the easiest place to start on El Zaguan’s menu. They’re served street-size on small corn tortillas with fillings of carne asada, pollo asado, pork al pastor, beef birria, and jackfruit as the vegetarian option. Cochinita pibil, a preparation of shredded, slow-cooked seasoned pork, is an occasional special that finds its way not only into tacos, but also the option of a torta, built upon a base of ciabatta rather than the usual bolillo or telera. The use of an Italian roll with Mexican meats is entirely successful here, resulting in a sandwich as sturdy as it is flavorful.
While these tacos are generally simple presentations with toppings of diced white onions and minced cilantro, but the baja shrimp tacos follow a different format with larger tortillas and garnishes of cotija cheese, chopped cabbage, pico de gallo, and aioli with cilantro and chipotle notes. Another alternative version of the standard taco is the quesabirria with tender shredded beef sandwiched inside a folded tortilla with melted cheese. When ordered in a combo plate of two tacos, accompaniments include rice, refried beans, and some consommé for dipping.
All taco fillings can also be put inside a much larger flour tortilla to create a burrito that is then finished on a griddle to give it a bit of char and firmness. Quesadillas use the same big tortillas in a flat, folded format with plenty of cheese inside with the chosen meat. For those who wish to avoid the tortilla entirely, a salad bowl begins with a base of greens and then continues with scoops of rice and beans, a heap of any of the taco meats, and finally a top layer of cotija, crema, and dressing. It’s heartier and more interesting than a typical taco salad.
The dessert option is a case of pan dulce at the counter. Little cochinita cookies are often featured there. Drinks include bottled Jarritos fruit sodas, horchata, jamaica, and sometimes a sweetened cinnamon tea. Margaritas are promised as a future addition once a liquor license is granted. At this time, El Zaguan is following the pattern of some of its neighbors on this block of Adams Street by operating only during weekdays lunchtime, but perhaps the addition of adult beverages will bring some extended hours in the future to make this zaguan worth exploring.
16 W. Adams St., Phoenix AZ 85003