By Catherine Hathaway
Sony Santana has a passion for traditional food made right. His eyes light up as he recalls detailed instructions for cooking meats at his restaurant, some taking 24 hours to prepare. He can name exactly what local farm or shop he purchased every single ingredient he uses in each dish.
The head chef at Taco Chelo is one third of the dream team that opened one of the newest restaurant on Roosevelt Row in March. Restaurateur Aaron Chamberlin and artist Gennaro Garcia collaborated with the passionate chef to mesh the traditional Mexican food with an urban and trendy experience
Named after the chef’s mother, Taco Chelo was inspired by a trip the three men took to San Diego to help another restaurant with a Taco Tuesday. The men discussed the idea of owning their own shop, and they couldn’t let the prospect slip their mind after the trip. They decided to funnel their unique talents into a trendy and tasty new restaurant in Downtown Phoenix.
“With the menu, it’s very simple, and a lot of people ask me what’s different on your menu that we can’t find at other places,” Santana says. “In taquerias in Mexico, and even here in Arizona, you’re always going to find carne asada, carnitas, el pescado. What I wanted to do was use nice ingredients and do it the right way.”
Santana’s menu features four appetizers or snacks, five different types of tacos, two salads and a flan. He values quality of ingredients above all else.
“We have a very good relationships with the farmers,” Santana says. “It helps both of us. We are representing their product, but for us, it shows we’re supporting local businesses, which I think is very important. Like we always say, we’re building community through food.”
Not only is supporting local resources good for the economy and the community, but it works for the menu. He has built trusting relationships with his suppliers. They guide him when choosing the best fish for his tacos and the very freshest ingredients.
“If you get some really nice stuff and fresh stuff, you really don’t have to do anything to it,” Santana explains. “A little oil, a little lime for acidity, and then you let the vegetables shine or the meats. As a chef, I take that very serious. I have a lot of pride. I respect every single product in the kitchen.”
Santana put meticulous work into developing the menu. He creates classic taqueria dishes to be the best they can. To achieve this, he spent months making and remaking menu items to find the perfect recipe. Barbarcoba is one of Santana’s favorite dishes.
“That type of meat, you usually cook it for 24 hours,” Santana says. “You have to be very gentle with it. Gentle cooking it. Low flame. Wait for it. Don’t rush it. Again, you have a very juicy and tender meat.”
Since the opening, Santana says feedback has been mostly positive, but he always monitors guests’ suggestions for improvement.
“To us as chefs, it’s cool when they compliment you on food or whatever you do,” Santana says. “It feels great, but we also want to hear the negative stuff that makes us better as chefs. When I go and read the reviews, I look for the negative stuff, so that’s something I can fix. If we have some negative reviews about, for example, the chips. The portion was too small. It’s an instant fix.”
Tacos range from $2.75 to $3.75 each. The restaurant is reasonably priced. They also have a bar for cocktails, beer and wine.
Santana admits the menu is small, but it is all done right. He is planning on implementing specials, so guests who come to Taco Chelo often have something different to try.
In addition to the food, guests will be able to experience the urban and spicy ambiance of the restaurant that Garcia designed. He is hoping to breathe more artistic life into the restaurant, where he says they can “collaborate with other artists that we admire, like for an art installation. That was the idea from the beginning.”
The restaurant is integrating its Mexican base with popular Roosevelt Point culture.
“From the beginning, we agreed it was going to be something very simple,” Santana says. “But the decor was going to be done by Gennaro, and the food was going to be done by me, and Aaron obviously as a businessman, he was going to help us out in whatever he needed. That’s how everything started. Everything started going on a trip to San Diego.”
Taco Chelo, 501 E. Roosevelt Street, Phoenix, 602.368.5316, tacochelo.com.
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