Chico Malo is a quasi-Mexican/South American restaurant that aims to bring tacos and other funky fare to downtown. I’ll confess, I wasn’t exactly enamored when I heard the backstory. Evidently, the restaurant was created by a billionaire playboy and left to his son when the billionaire died, and we’re supposed to eat the end results.
I’m all for creative backstories because they can give context and wings to a fully fleshed-out idea. And while I like plenty of things about Chico Malo (yes, that does translate loosely to “bad boy”), almost nothing ties in to their origin story. But let’s start with what Chico Malo gets (mostly) right.
Housed in a choice corner spot at CityScape, underneath Copper Blues, Chico Malo makes ample use of the billionaire tie-in with the obvious coin they dropped on the interior. Near the hostess station, you’ll find an elbow-high bar that looks like it was lifted off the set of “Westworld”—an Old West leanin’ station that separates the bar and restaurant from the waiting area, loaded with couches and chairs, isolated enough from the rest of the bar so that any wait will fly by. This section is no mere afterthought and it makes me wish other potentially crowded spots had this much consideration for waiting guests.
From here, interested guests can peek into the quasi-open kitchen. Although it’s clearly not a center point, the kitchen isn’t viewable by at least 75% of the restaurant. Tucked in nearby is the Casa de Tortilla, where house-made tortillas are created. Unfortunately, this little spot is even less viewable than the kitchen, and unless you literally walk by en route to the bathrooms, you’ll miss watching the tortillas being created.
Great artwork abounds, like the newly enclosed back windows that once peered into downtown, providing one of the few truly urban views in the city. In its place you’ll see a giant Frida Kahlo mural painted over books stacked like a library. Unfortunately, none of our staff was able to relate any of the names of the artists to us.
Fans of happy hour will find a curated menu of drinks and food. Fair warning—the deals extend only to drinks and not food. My favorites were the Chicharrones ($5). House-made and popping when they come to the table, they benefit from a side of salsa. Pick the verde ($1.50), my favorite of their three salsas. The Ceviche Tostada ($9) comes atop three freshly made silver dollar–sized corn tostadas. Kicky, fresh and refreshing—this was probably one of my favorite menu items, and it’s only available during happy hour.
Fans of tacos will love them all, but this is where it got controversial for my guests and me. You won’t find a taco for under $5, and some of the fancier options are $6—for a single taco. That means Chico Malo has just about the most expensive tacos in town. I loved the Al Pastor ($5): marinated pork and tiny cubes of fermented pineapple create the sweet and savory mix that you’d expect.
The Duck Carnitas ($6) comes with an almost imperceptible pecan cherry mole, candied pecans, perfect pickled red onions and black garlic crema to create a couple of bites that will turn duck haters into fans. Gone is the near-gamey taste, and the slightly crispy edges give a nod to carnitas. My guests all loved the Pollo Tinga ($5), a kicky and crispy chicken treat with cola braised onions and chorizo. Not quite as kicky as I would like, but a well-made and tasty taco.
Interestingly, the favorite taco on every visit was the Crispy Avocado ($5). This deep-fried wedge of avocado is so crazy good you almost forget it’s vegetarian. Corn fondue and curry sultanas (golden raisins) feel like gilding the lily, almost. Seriously, whoever figured out that fried avocado tastes this great should get a medal.
Side dishes are truly sides here. Order their fantastic Puerco Beans ($5), a bowl of beans with pork belly, bacon and smattering of fresh cheese on top, and there are more than enough to share, as with the aforementioned Chicharrones ($5).
On the appetizer side of things, I absolutely loved the flavor of the Anticuchos ($8), skewered skirt steak with a delectable salsa criolla and chimichurri. Perfectly cooked nuggets of steak were swooped up in no time. Sadly, this happened partly because you only get a single skewer, and not the shareable appetizer we were hoping for.
While every guest on every visit loved the flavor of the food, it was never without comment (“a $6 TACO?”). It took a while for one of us to order an entrée and we debated what the portion might be like. We were pleasantly surprised with the Pork Verde ($23). Two giant hunks of well-cooked braised pork shoulder came alongside a well-seasoned herb salad and an excellent green chile tomatillo sauce. This is the kind of succulent, perfectly cooked pork verde you dream about. And thankfully, it’s large enough for potential leftovers.
Chico Malo has been open less than a month. For the short amount of time they’ve been around, they’re doing a lot of things right. Service is friendly and affable. If there’s a question, they’ll try to answer it for you. In fact, one very helpful server gave me a rundown of what was required to create her perfect eyebrows. The food is well prepared, and the place is gorgeous.
My concerns with Chico Malo are the cheesy backstory (ditch it) and the pricing model. I’ll be back; I don’t doubt that. That Pork Verde is a legend in the making. But for the tacos, I’m going to have to think about it. They are good; don’t get me wrong. But are they $6-taco good? Since this is the type of question that can only be answered after eating more tacos, I’m committed to more research.
50 W. Jefferson, Phoenix
Monday through Thursday, 11:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m.
Friday and Saturday, 11:00 a.m. – 12:00 a.m.
Sunday, 4:00 – 10:00 p.m.