Taco Chelo vs. Paz Cantina: Battle of the crunchy munchies

The interior of Taco Chelo features a number of murals of Frida Kahlo, shown Sept. 17, 2018. To order food, go to the counter at the back, where you’ll also find a view of the kitchen and how the tacos are made. (Nikiana Medansky/DD)

Roosevelt Row may be popular for its famous First Fridays, but it’s slowly gaining a new reputation as a taco Tuesday destination. If you’re looking for a place to get your taco fix, let the classic Mexican tunes lead you to some modern twists on incredible traditional flavors.

On the corner of Fifth street, Taco Chelo’s fast and casual taco joint serves up simple dishes and stellar drinks, an instant crowd pleaser after their March opening. On the other end, the restaurant-turned-food-truck-turned-restaurant, Paz Cantina, presents customers with generous helpings of tacos and more importantly — tequila.

So which one should you recommend to your friends?

Taco Chelo

At Taco Chelo, freshness is the name of the game.

“We try to bring everything that we can from local farms,” assistant chef Francisco Cruz explains. “We try not to go out of Phoenix. We want to have everything here locally.”

Taco Chelo focuses on simplicity. The menu is short and sweet but the flavors cannot be tamed. One can choose from appetizers like chips and salsa or quesadillas. There are also a few salads to choose from, but the stars are the tacos. With five basic taco styles and plenty of meat options ranging from fish to carne asada, there is something for everyone —vegetarians included.

Taco Chelo brings all of its tacos out in a tray with slices of cucumbers, wedges of lime, and salsa. All of the tacos cost $3.75 or less. (Nikiana Medansky/DD)

Taco Chelo doesn’t have a student discount, which is unfortunate for a restaurant so close to the downtown ASU campus. However, one could argue their prices are low as is, with every taco only setting you back around $3.50.

I ordered a carne asada taco and a vegetable taco ($7.00 total) with a Mezcal Paloma ($8.00) and cozied up in a window seat with my number, eagerly awaiting the food coma to come.

It did not take long to receive my drink, a mix of Agave de Cortes Mezcal, lime, ginger, Peychaud’s Bitters and grapefruit soda. Topped off with a ring of salt and a lime wedge, it was my first time having a Paloma, and its tangy and refreshing taste was a great way to cool off.

I did attempt to drink the Paloma with the salt from the rim and, to be honest, I was not a huge fan. I thought the salt was a bit much and it overpowered the sweet-sour taste of the drink. I see the appeal, though, with the mix of sweet and sour and salty, but to each their own. I’ll have to try it out with their traditional Margarita next time.

A few minutes later, the goodies arrived. Two tacos sat in a tray with sliced cucumbers, a couple of lime wedges and salsa. The vegetable taco featured seasonal veggies – they had eggplant!– as well as mushroom, adobo, black beans, arugula and queso fresco. The carne asada taco featured fresh-off-the grill carne asada, tomatillo salsa, avocado salsa, onion and cilantro. After a few obligatory Instagram photos, I dug in to the Vegetable Taco first.

While I am not a huge fan of eggplant, this taco was changing my mind. It was well-seasoned and a lot more filling than I had expected. Adding the lime and the salsa accented the flavors, making it even better.

Next up was the carne asada. The onion and cilantro really balanced out the savory taste of the meat without overpowering it. Of course, I added the lime and salsa and it was wonderful — honestly, I think most things taste better with lime and salsa.

Long-time customer DeAnna Alvarez said that Taco Chelo had everything she was looking for in a taco shop.

“You get good food and good drinks and an adorable space,” Alvarez said. “It’s just really fresh and they’re like good sized tacos and they’re satisfying, so it kind of hits all the points.”

But the food is not the only thing drawing people in, according to server Alicia Cassey. As she explained, the restaurant’s focus on creating a community keeps customers coming. In her eyes, even though there are two taco places on the street, there’s no competition at all.

“I think that if you’re on Roosevelt … we have a really good sense of community with the other businesses and we’re really good at supporting one another,” Cassey said.

Paz Cantina

Paz Cantina’s dining room is decorated with art and murals from local artists in the Valley. The dining room includes plenty of booth seating and a bar in the corner. Paz Cantina opened on Monday, Sept. 17 and is located in the ground floor of the Broadstone Roosevelt Row Apartments on Third Street and Roosevelt. (Nikiana Medansky/DD)

The other taco shop on the block is Paz Cantina, a business with a long history on Roosevelt Row.

It opened in 2014 only to close down to make way for a new apartment complex. For the next few years, it traveled across the Valley on wheels as a taco truck. On Monday, it reopened on the ground floor of the Broadstone Roosevelt Row Apartments, featuring a café space, a dining space, a bar, and a live music venue.

At Paz, I also had a Paloma ($10.00). This version featured a mix of Don Julio Blanco Tequila, lime, sugar, and Q grapefruit soda with a Tajin ring and an orange wedge. It was a bit subtler than Taco Chelo’s, and, in my opinion, better. I also tried the drink with the Tajin rim and, again, the saltiness just didn’t do it for me.

With each order, Paz Cantina gives diners a free basket of chips and salsa. However, if you want a refill, you’ll need to pay (good motivation to save some room for the tacos?). They also have a 10 percent student discount (you’ll need your ID) as well as “student night” on Thursdays that gets you 20 percent off.

As for the tacos, Paz Cantina is a little different from Taco Chelo. With each order, you get three to a plate, not just one. You can also add beans and rice for three dollars more.

Paz Cantina’s Veggie Tacos ($10.00) feature kale, brussels sprouts, house frijoles, cotija, pickled onion and avocado. With each order, diners get a free basket of chips and salsa. (Nikiana Medansky/DD)

I ordered a plate of carne asada tacos ($10.00) with beans and rice ($3.00) and a plate of veggie tacos ($10.00). Like Taco Chelo, each plate also included a lime wedge and salsa.

Full disclosure: I went to Paz Cantina two days in a row because I did not have the time or stomach to eat six tacos in one sitting. The first day, I had the veggie tacos, which featured kale, brussels sprouts, house frijoles, cotija, pickled onion and avocado.

I’m a little hesitant around brussels sprouts, but that might be because I never had them roasted and nestled in a taco like Paz Cantina served them. The brussels sprouts were crispy and the kale added a nice crunch to the taco – I never thought I would compliment kale in my life. The lime and salsa cut through the cotija and frijoles nicely and balanced the flavors out to create just a really good taco.

On the second day, I took on the carne asada tacos, which were kept simple with just meat, cilantro and onion. The meat was cooked perfectly and seasoned well. Though I usually do not ask for beans and rice, I decided to order them this time because I wanted to try a bit of everything. The beans were nicely cooked and the rice was well-seasoned; they were nice complements to the taco and really made it a meal that would leave you satisfied.

I got to sit down in both the dining space and in the café section of the restaurant and they each had their own merits.

The café was quiet and relaxing, with music playing softly in the background and the sun streaming in through the window, while the dining room is decorated from floor to ceiling in art and murals with music on the verge of being too loud.

General manager Majdi Kayyali explained that Paz’s multiple spaces mean that it has something for everybody.

“We have a café where you can come in and just chill and relax. We’ve got the dining room where you can take in the murals and the art and have great Mexican food, but also have craft drinks,” he said. “Then you go to the venue side and you have live music, DJs, live band, karaoke, trivia night, football, all that stuff.”

The feeling of catering to everyone goes beyond the venue itself, as Kayyali and his staff, like Taco Chelo, focus on creating a community for everyone who visits.

“We want to welcome everybody from the entire community and when we say community we mean like all of Phoenix, Scottsdale, everybody,” he said.

With the addition of Paz Cantina, people should not think of a visit to either taco shop as choosing Paz or Taco Chelo. Kayyali expressed the two restaurants have different styles and that Roosevelt is more of a community than anything else.

“We don’t like to see our neighbors as rivals. If they were to need something, we would help them and vice versa, I’m sure.”

So if you stumble onto Roosevelt Row, count yourself lucky. Whether you are in the mood for a night out or a quick bite to eat, you can’t go wrong between Paz Cantina and Taco Chelo.

Contact the reporter at [email protected].