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May 04, 2011

Gallo Blanco

Elote Callejero Dominic Armato

Sometimes you can get a hint that you're in for something good without taking a bite.

If you approach Gallo Blanco via the back door, along Clarendon, you're assaulted by the restaurant's exhaust vent, an overpowering, smoky blast of charred meat... not lightly griddled, but full-on carbonized. You haven't even walked in the door yet, but already you know they're doing something right.

Chicharrón de QuesoDominic Armato

If you enter via the front, Gallo Blanco is a little more coy. It's a hotel restaurant, even if that hotel is The Clarendon, a hipster hideaway where the walls are covered with paintings of rail-thin women sporting bikinis, tattoos and aviators. The restaurant itself isn't quite so overtly trendy, but it's definitely modern and lively, concrete floors, colorful walls and a menu that matches the vibe but, very importantly, stays grounded, though that probably shouldn't have come as a surprise. The kitchen's run by chef Doug Robson, best known around these parts as the fellow who launched the menu(s) at La Grande Orange... or perhaps no longer, what with the success of Gallo Blanco, which takes the Papa Bayless approach of honoring the traditions and spirit of Mexican food without being totally constrained by them. Robson takes his liberties -- as do many contemporary chefs down in Mexico City, where Robson was born -- but when he does, they're mostly smart and tasty and respectful of their roots.

GuacamoleDominic Armato

Roots are pretty much all there is to the elote callajero, a straight-up traditional rendition of one of the humblest of Mexican street foods, corn on the cob grilled to a sweet char all the way around, slathered with a lime mayonnaise, rolled in cotija cheese and sprinkled with smoked paprika. It's a reminder that sometimes the best preparations are the simplest. Done perfectly and served too hot to eat, I didn't have the good sense to give it a minute or two to cool. Three days worth of a burned mouth to get at it 90 seconds sooner? Fair trade. On the opposite end of the traditional spectrum is the chicharrón de queso, which could best be described as chef's spoils converted into a dish. Ever broiled something that was topped with shredded hard cheese and feasted on the bits that melted over the side and crisped on the bottom of the pan? That's what this is, except it's the entire pan, melted and crisped, rolled into a tower while still supple, and served with a tart aioli spiked with aji amarillo. "Chicharrón" is used in a rather loose and poetic fashion, and aji amarillo is probably more closely identified with Peruvian than Mexican, but who cares when the results taste good?

Ceviche de CamaronesDominic Armato

The pendulum swings back towards traditional a bit when it comes to the guacamole, which is a step above the baseline without getting too cute. It doesn't need anything else, but the two house salsas, a sharply tart tomatillo and smoky chile-based red, make for fine accents. The ceviche de camarones is similarly ungussied, served as it is in many a mariscos joint, almost a little plain with just a light tomato and lime base, avocado and cilantro, the idea being that you can adjust it to your tastes. For me, a squeeze of lime, a shake of salt and a squirt from the red salsa bottle and it was right on. My only complaint would be that while I could be wrong, I'm left with the impression that the shrimp were lightly poached before going into the cure. Safer? Sure. But if a bout or two of food poisoning over my lifetime is all that separates me from that still almost vaguely raw flavor that's lost when it's done this way, I'll gladly accept that tradeoff.

Farm SaladDominic Armato

I'm glad my ladylove ordered the farm salad, because it's something I probably never would have chosen for myself, and it's surprisingly good. Though it varies somewhat with the season (hence the name), arugula was the base for hers, accented with toasted walnuts, pomegranate seeds, diced roasted squash and miniscule crumbles of bleu cheese (a simple and great choice as larger chunks routinely overpower salads like these). We've all had this salad before. Many times over, probably. Which is why it's such a pleasant surprise to have one so good, perfectly balanced and composed, beautifully presented, not the slightest bit under or overdressed, and yet with the squash and pomegranate and herb dressing, still reminiscent of the flavors of Mexico. This dish has no business being anything other than an afterthought, but executed perfectly, it stands out.

Tacos de PescadoDominic Armato

A variety of tacos are offered, and though they won't compete with the corner taqueria in terms of cost at two to three dollars apiece, they certainly leave you with the sense that the extra cash isn't simply going towards overhead. Tortillas are delicious and steamy, proteins are full of flavor and toppings are fresh and vibrant. Shrimp are plump and delicious and paired with smoky chiles de arbol and soothing guacamole. Carne asada gets... well, I hesitate to call it an upgrade, but the use of shredded ribeye is certainly a refinement, and the smoke of the grill shines through. Perhaps my favorite was the cochinita, somewhat divorced from its banana leaf roots, but porky and powerful, with orange, garlic and achiote all distinct, bold and delicious. On Tuesdays, you can even get three for the price of two, netting you three tacos for four to six bucks. In terms of taco price performance, that's tough to beat (though the fish tacos at Tacos Atoyac spring to mind).

Chilaquiles VerdesDominic Armato

Being a hotel restaurant, Gallo Blanco runs the full slate from breakfast through dinner, and while I didn't sample much off the breakfast menu (available all day), I have a soft spot for chilaquiles. I went with the chicken option, but given how well the kitchen handles vegetables, it was probably the wrong call. But I mean this (in speculative fashion) only on a relative basis, as I totally dug these. Crisp tortilla chips, layered and cooked in green salsa with shredded pollo al carbon, Oaxaca cheese and smothered in two fried eggs, what I really enjoyed -- even beyond the vibrant flavors -- was the range of texture on the chips, going from toothsome but yielding in the center to still crisp on the edges. The dish's chaotic look betrayed some rather careful composition. And if the chilaquiles are really good on a weekday, I have a hunch they're otherworldly after a night of binge drinking. Almost makes me wish I were a binge drinker. (Almost.)

(Half) Naco TortaDominic Armato

The only thing I tasted that didn't quite get my juices flowing was the much-beloved (in foodnik circles, anyway) naco torta. It's a slight variation on the carne asada torta, I believe the only difference being the addition of two fried eggs. But even a glorious runny egg can't keep me from not quite feeling the value at $10, which isn't to say that I think it's overpriced. It's just that I've gotten the same charge out of $5 tortas in more downscale joints, and recently. Part of it may stem from the fact that this one just felt overly sweet to me. Which is strange, because the tacos, made with (I think) the same meat, didn't. But I still might even get it again. This definitely falls into the "if this is your weak link, you're doing pretty damn well" category. And it was assembled with enough care that I'm willing to wager the other tortas will hit big.

Pollo AsadoDominic Armato

There are some more substantial plates as well, and after walking the smoky gauntlet out back, you'd better believe the pollo asado was going to be my choice. It's half a chicken, citrus-marinated, grilled to a deep golden color, charred on the edges, and served with fresh tortillas and a seasonable vegetable, grilled chayote with cotija and whole cloves of roasted garlic, in my case. There's just a tiny touch of a sweet sauce on the chicken that I couldn't quite place owing to its judicious use, and it's also served with the same aji amarillo aioli used for the chicharrón, which takes a dish already somewhat reminiscent of Peruvian pollo a la brasa and makes it even more so. But whatever influences are at play here, it's a simple dish, really well done. I found myself shredding up the breast to make impromptu tacos with some of the house salsa, dipping the wing and leg into the aji amarillo, and sucking the thigh meat off the bone as-is, because you really don't improve on that by dressing it up.

In our zeal to champion the little guy, the authentic strip mall joint, the unearthed gem, we food nerds on occasion could be accused of practicing a form of culinary reverse prejudice, particularly when it comes to ethnic cuisine. A stylish Mexican joint? With creative twists? In a trendy hotel? I make it my credo not to discriminate against deliciousness, whatever form it may take. But I like when a place like Gallo Blanco makes it easy to root for the big(ger) guy. No matter where you put it, Gallo Blanco's food is really, really good. And why not at The Clarendon? Hipsters have to eat too (even if those paintings on the wall might lead you to believe otherwise). And the ones who fall into Gallo Blanco after sunning at the pool or boozing at the bar eat pretty damn well. As for me, whatever hipness I may have once possessed died long ago. But I don't intend to let that keep me away.

Gallo Blanco
401 W. Clarendon Avenue
Phoenix, AZ 85013
Sun - Thu8:00 AM - 10:00 PM
Fri - Sat8:00 AM - 11:00 PM


I'm glad to see that you like Gallo Blanco as much as I do. I admit that I half expected you to rake it over the coals for leaning too far in the Modern Mex direction and not hewing closely enough to tradition. As you note, Doug has done a good job at staying focused on Mexican standards and of limiting himself to tweaks like ingredient choices and non-traditional presentation (rather than going off into the deep end of muddled fusion-y contrivances).

Those interested in replicating the pollo asado dish at home can use the marinade recipe that Doug shared here:


I've riffed on Doug's riff on this traditional dish and have had great success. One key here is to use the smallest bird(s) you can find (usually ~3 lbs).

Thanks for shining your always bright light on my neighborhood favorite.

Mike... I know I blast the non-traditional from time to time, but it isn't because I value it any less. I *love* places that can successfully pull of modern or creative takes on ethnic cuisine. I do get frustrated sometimes when there are dozens of "contemporary" places and nowhere to go to get the cuisine upon which they're based, but I'd never hold that against an individual restaurant if they make great food. It just drives me crazy when restaurants stray from tradition and it's a detriment to the food, which is often if not usually. If you can be wildly creative while honoring the spirit of the cuisine, go crazy. But to call your restaurant Chinese because you use a wok and lots of hoisin sauce isn't going to cut it. By all means, contemporize. Just do so with thought and purpose.

Thanks for the marinade link! (I love the insistence upon real, fresh oranges :-)

I'm a huge proponent of the Naco Torta. Next time I'm at Gallo Blanco in the mood for rapid protein delivery, I may dab on just a few drops of the aforementioned red salsa to negate the haunting hints of sweetness you mention.

I'd also like to point out that the burger served at Gallo Blanco is also far better than it has any right to be.


Thank you for validating my love for the burger at Gallo Blanco. I feel like nearly every time I recommend it to someone, I'm getting a mental eye roll ("Yeah. Right. A burger at a Mexican restaurant? I don't think so.").

I've also heard the burger is great, and not just from you guys. I definitely mean to try it one of these visits.

I just scheduled a business trip to Arizona, and will have one night in Phoenix before flying out on a very early flight. So I was pleased to see this isn't too far from the airport. We will be staying at the Clarendon and having dinner here, thtanks to this post.

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