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Silvana Salcido Esparza

Every once in a while, an email exchange with chef Silvana Salcido Esparza might come back with one of those automatic, out-of-office replies. Her subject line? I’M AT THE BEACH, all caps.

The four-time James Beard Award-nominee deserves a break now and then, from a culinary trajectory that started with the 2002 opening of Barrio Café with its menu of marinated pork cochinita pibil and chiles en nogada (a poblano pepper stuffed with almond-cream sauce). She recently opened a second Barrio Café location at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport—and Esparza’s not done yet. “I’m looking for something on the west side of Phoenix,” she says, “right in the heart of the city’s immigrant community.”

Known for her exploration of regional Mexican cuisines, Esparza spent part of her adult career in banking before following her heart to culinary school. At the age of 40, she ditched corporate kitchens to spend “two years on a bus in Mexico, living out of a suitcase” to learn about the country’s cooking, from everyone from home cooks to street vendors, before opening her first restaurant.

“That shaped my personal agenda,” Esparza explains, “which is to teach people about the food and culture of Mexico. When I hear people say, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know Mexican food could taste that way,’ I know I’ve done my job.”


What do you always have in your refrigerator?

Half and half, olives, plus too many cheeses and salamis that I’m never home to eat.

Where do you go for breakfast?

Matt’s Big Breakfast. I like everything, but I love their potatoes!



What is your favorite restaurant for dessert?

I go for ice cream at Sweet Republic.

What restaurant has the best ambiance?

Any Mexican restaurant on the west side on a Saturday night. They’re packed. People are dancing to bandas. It’s like walking into Mexico.

What local chef do you admire and why?

Chris Bianco because he’s true to his craft. Christopher Gross because of his longevity and tenacity.

What is the best meal you’ve ever eaten locally?

Tacos from Taqueria Los Yaquis, a food truck.

Where do you go for culinary inspiration?

Mexico, definitely. It’s where I’ll find a simple ingredient or see a little old lady selling something great out of a bucket.

What restaurant typifies Southwest cuisine?

Kai at Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort

Kai Restaurant 600x400

Photo via Facebook


Who has the best late-night dining?


What is the best restaurant for a date?

Sochu House or any place by chef Johnny Chu.

What is the best family-friendly restaurant?

Pepe’s Taco Villa. It’s economical, they have great menudo, and it can feed a few carfuls of Salcidos.

Where do you go for great Mexican food?

Los Reyes de la Torta and the Mini Mercado Oaxaca. Their black molé tamales are to die for.

What would you say is the Greater Phoenix area’s best kept dining secret?

The west side. It has serious potential. It’s not trendy, and it’s ethnically diverse. This is the next place where Phoenix will flourish.

You can find Silvana at:

Barrio Café — 2814 N. 16th St., Phoenix, (602) 636-0240;
Barrio Urbano — 5632 N. 7th St, Phoenix, (Located inside “The Yard” complex), (602) 287-9000
Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva — 1301 W Grand Ave., Phoenix, (602) 525-2777
Barrio Cafe — Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, Terminal 4, Gate D

See the other chefs in this series: Justin Beckett, Mark Tarbell and Nobuo Fukuda.

By Nora Burba Trulsson. Originally printed in the 2015 Phoenix Official Travel Guide, published by Madden Media.