Vitals: Silvana Salcido Esparza was born in Los Angeles, California and grew up in the San Joaquin Valley. Raised in a family whose ancestors were once appointed the official pastry chefs to Spain’s royal family, Esparza’s family emigrated to Mexico in the 1600’s. Once in California, her family established a legacy as the most prominent bakers in the Los Angeles area, who supplied jelly donuts to their American neighbors and freshly baked pan de manteca to the agricultural migrant workers. Esparza now owns and operates Barrio Café in Phoenix and Barrio Queen in Scottsdale, Arizona which offers up funky, innovative Mexican cooking with a flair that’s all her own.
Awards: Esparza was named a semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Award for Best Chef Southwest earlier this year. It’s her third nomination for the prestigious culinary award and is the latest nod to her food at Barrio Café, which is perennially named the best Mexican restaurant in Phoenix. The 51-year-old chef was also named to the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame in 2004 – in short, doing her part to make sure Phoenix is on the map as a culinary destination with a flavor all its own.
Experience: Esparza grew up in her parent’s bakery, where she says “I was always pushing my dad and mom to sell carnitas at the bakery, since I always loved them.” They said no, but the teenaged Esparza learned how to cook up the dish and sold carnitas on the weekend. The result? “I had more money from carnitas than I almost knew what to do with,” recalls Esparza. So with cash in hand, Esparza invested in a tacqueria of her very own, which she opened inside her parent’s bakery. Shortly thereafter, tired of being in the “smelly, dirty bakery,” Esparza traveled to Miami for school and studied international banking. Within five years of counting “bags with wads of cash,” Esparza realized that it was time to return to cooking and later enrolled in the Arizona Culinary Institute. She dedicated her career to her family’s culinary legacy and spent two years traveling by bus to each state within Mexico, developing recipes under the direction of home cooks and villagers – recipes she would later place on the menu at Barrio Café.
Her love of Mexican cuisine: “It’s comida chingona, just bad ass food. My personality is reflected in my cuisine and being an ‘I don’t care’ kind of person liberates me from the things that paralyze people. I push the envelope and it’s reflected on the plate. It’s familiar and delicious, but me. My sense of urgency about food and my career is so much that — just my love of Mexican food. The things that I do are in the name of representing my culture and food in a way that Mexican cuisine hasn’t achieved. It doesn’t stop with the food – it’s the entire experience of representing Mexican food for Mexicans, period.”
Her inspiration: “My inspiration is my family, all my uncles, aunts, my grandparents, everybody who ever had their hand in dough, putting the bread up. We’ve had our hands in bread for generations and were pioneers in Mexican bakeries, major manufacturers of bread. Bread is the beginning of everything.”
Current passion project: “I’d have to say Barrio Queen, which we just opened in December. I’m also opening a restaurant in Phoenix International Airport, which will open this May. It’s a project that I’ve devoted a lot of my time to and is something very special. I demanded 30 brands of tequila at the bar, so it will be first of its kind in the country to offer such a wide variety and is something I know I want to see when I travel. Furthermore, I told developers I wouldn’t open a place there unless they let me paint a mural in the airport. So right now I’m working with an artist to represent Phoenix and its unique climate.”
Five ingredients she can’t live without: “Lard. I don’t use it at the restaurant except for tamales, but at home, using lard occasionally is just incredible. It’s an essential mainstay in Mexican cuisine. I’d also say salt, not table salt with iodine but all different types of salt with their unique flavor profiles. I also love peppercorns and what they do for food. Chiles, of course, from a Serrano to a jalapeño to a dried casacabel chiles. Lastly, and very important, any type of liqueur, whether it’s wine or tequila. I use a lot of tequila in my reductions, which with just a little splash, can change and enhance the profile of a dish. Like my menu says, “Water upon request. Conserve water, drink tequila.”
Favorite American and Latino foods: “A good fried chicken, any day of the week. I like it spicy and crispy. And my favorite Latin food is definitely a good, stewed pork con chile verde. I’m a big fan of pork, but the flavors and complexity of slow roasted poblano peppers with Serrano, jalapeños, tomatillos and other green peppers, cooked for hours is incredible. That’s the stuff. I serve that at Barrio Queen over enchiladas topped with fried eggs. It’s amazing – now I’m getting hungry!”