Meet Thrillist Phoenix's Chef of the Year: Silvana Salcido Esparza

Silvana Salcido Esparza best chef phx
Jill Richards Photography
Jill Richards Photography
Editor’s Note: This article is part two of Thrillist Phoenix's year-end look at the best of our city’s local food and drink scene in 2016. In addition to our annual Best New Restaurants award, this year, we took a closer look at the men and women behind the dishes we love to tell you to eat. Our chef of the year has been redefining one of Phoenix's quintessential cuisines for years and, in 2016, she reclaimed an old factory to open her third restaurant and continue that culinary mission. You can also check out our picks for the rest of America’s 2016 Best Chefs, and then catch up on Best New Restaurants

Orale. Phoenix has amazing chefs who are working hard to bring you fantastic new restaurants, and it’s hard to pick just one to showcase everything The Valley has to offer. Yet one chef has not only been lauded for her culinary skills, but for her business prowess and commitment to community. Thrillist Phoenix’s chef of the year is a boss both in and outside of the kitchen.

Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza, whose favorite ingredient to cook with is “anything Mexican,” has been redefining Mexican food in The Valley since 2002, when she first opened Barrio Café on 16th St. Chef Silvana is responsible for three Barrio-brand restaurants, Barrio Urbano, Barrio Avion, and her newest, Barrio Café Gran Reserva, and has even been inducted into the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame.

Esparza has won dozens of awards and honors including several semi-finalist nominations for the James Beard Award, and has appeared on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. This year alone she’s received half-a-dozen nods, including best new restaurant as well as being named an Arizona business leader by Az Business Magazine. But she’s not just getting love here at home -- Chef Silvana’s restaurants have received a deluge of national praise.

In Summer 2016 Chef Silvana eagerly swung open the doors to Barrio Café Gran Reserva. Her newest endeavor, which is housed in the old Bragg’s Pie Factory on the corner of Grand Ave and McKinley, serves upscale Mexican cuisine and seats just 27 guests. As a baker's daughter, Barrio Cafe’s location in a former bakery is near-and-dear to Chef’s heart. She turns out a mean tres leches, too.

Recently, Barrio Café Gran Reserva was named one of Opentable's 100 Best Restaurants in America for 2016, alongside two other Phoenix-area restaurants.

salcido and her staff
Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva

Late in the game, Chef Silvana was a wunderkind

Even at the beginning of her culinary career Chef wowed. “Early in culinary school, chef instructor Warren Blim came up to me and said that they had a chefs meeting and that they all thought that I was going to be a star.  I laughed and didn’t think much of it. I was, after all, a little old to be in school – at 35 I wasn’t the oldest in my class, but I was definitely late to the game.”

Esparza cut her teeth in Tempe working at Sun Devil Stadium and Super Bowl (XXX)., where she was in charge of all of the food for VIPs. “Eventually I was running the show at Sun Devil Stadium, the University Club, and all of ASU (except student dining). It involved lots of creative and administrative focus.” But something was missing.

“I didn’t imagine I could really be good, unless I accomplished my longstanding goal of learning to cook in Mexico,” Esparza said, noting that she spent the the greater part of 2000 and 2001 backpacking across Mexico and learning from women who cooked for a living. “When I returned to Phoenix, I believe I was finally prepared to be good. I had knowledge and most importantly, passion and love.”

Her commitment to changing the “erroneous perception of Mexican food by most North Americans” became The Barrio Café. Here, you’re not going to find nuclear-yellow cheese spread over every dish. And you’re definitely not getting chips and salsa, instead you’ll be served a basket of sharable soft bread. Chef delivers a true take on Mexican cuisine and uses ingredients that are spotted in real Mexican fare.

One of her most lauded dishes is the Chiles en Nogada. The dish is comprised of a roasted poblano pepper that is filled with chicken, apple, pear, pecans and dried apricots. A delicate almond cream sauce is layered on top of the stuff chile and it is finished with the colors of the Mexican flag: cilantro, queso fresco and pomegranate seeds.

tres leches cake
Lauren Topor/Thrillist

Changing the way we think about food

Since The Barrio Café opened there has been a shift in how people relate to food, who prepares it, how available it is, and where it comes from. The Phoenix culinary scene has expanded dramatically in the past 20 years -- where good food from a diverse range of cultures could only be found by the university in Tempe, you can now eat globally all across the metropolitan area.

Chef Silvana expects that Phoenix will continue to grow and evolve as a multi-cultural food destination.

“I live in a neighborhood where 27 different languages are represented by our population. That’s 27 different kinds of food,” she said. “When the second generation of these immigrant families hit the kitchens of Phoenix, it will change the profile of our dining options. Yes, phoenix is going to get some really good flavor down the road. I can smell it happening already.”

Chef Silvana earned our pick for Phoenix’s chef of the year for her culinary game and her impact extends beyond the kitchen. Not only is Chef an advocate for civil rights (she’s worked with Calle16 in its mission to bring community leaders and artists together to elevate the perceptions of Mexican-American culture through food and local art), but she mentors young chefs-in-training, too.

“I have been doing this since a child -- I had my own bread route before I was old enough to drive. Now, I am training the next generation. We are determined to carry on with our family culinary legacy,” she said.

Sign up here for our daily Phoenix email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.

Lauren Topor is a Thrillist writer who always up for real Mexican food, especially when Chef Silvana is doing the cooking. Follow Lauren to the tres leches @hungryinphoenix.