A Pizza Genius Is Behind One of the Best New Restaurants in Phoenix
Shortly after eleven o'clock in the morning on a summer weekday in Phoenix, the temperature had already coasted rather easily past the century mark, and the parking lot of Roland's Café, Market & Bar on East Van Buren Street, which felt a good deal hotter than 104 degrees Fahrenheit, was completely full.
Inside, things were vastly improved. The space—uncluttered, minimal, but still nicely warm—echoed with the sounds of a happy crowd that knew they were in the right place, and couldn't possibly help but feel good about their luck. Every table in the front dining room was full, all catered to by a small, spirited staff. They darted back and forth, between the open kitchen, where plates were being loaded up with whatever was being pulled from a giant wood oven, a coffee bar up by the doorway, and an actual bar toward the back of the room, presided over by a young man, chunky eyeglasses pushed up on his head, and sporting a black bowtie.
Everything felt amusingly correct, familiar; most anybody could get comfortable here without much effort at all, and perhaps stick around for a good while—not a bad idea on a day where you might barely be able to stand outside for more than a minute or two, not at least without being very uncomfortable. If the wood oven wasn't a dead giveaway that you had entered a Chris Bianco establishment, or at the very least, an establishment that Bianco, one of Arizona's most celebrated chefs, had a hand in creating, there were other touches to remind you—cans of his famous Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes, industrial-size jugs of olive oil.
There are certainly other cities in the Southwest with longer, more impressive histories, but Phoenix wasn't born yesterday, either; there has long been more than meets the eye here, in this petri dish of prototypical Sunbelt culture, hidden among the seemingly limitless supply of dirt-colored tract housing. Still, and not even that very long ago, were a visitor to seek advice on where to eat extremely well in Phoenix, there might have been just a handful of things to suggest as a matter of great urgency, and one of them would have been to locate the very best Mexican food available. Another would be to go for a pizza, or perhaps the best sandwich you might try all year, at one of Chris Bianco's establishments.
Bianco and Phoenix go way back. A native New Yorker who began working in pizzerias at a relatively young age, Bianco won a contest in the 1980s, where the prize was plane tickets, to anywhere he wanted to go in the United States. He chose Phoenix, and even he wasn't entirely sure why, he just did, but then he got here, something felt right, he stayed, and within a few years, he was making pizzas inside a local grocery store.
After a fair bit of tinkering and learning, Bianco opened one of the country's most forward-thinking pizzerias, back in the early-to-mid 1990s. For what felt like the longest time, Bianco was Arizona's happy little secret—here, you came for some of the most beautiful, most technically impressive pizzas in the country, being served to an audience that didn't always quite register just how lucky they were. Word got out, Bianco received a Best New Chef nod at the James Beard Foundation Awards in 2003, and now there is good pizza absolutely everywhere, but Bianco's remains still some of the best in the land.
For the longest time, you could find Armando Hernandez working at Bianco's iconic sandwich shop, Pane Bianco, on Central Avenue in Phoenix—Hernandez is one in a handful of family members that has worked for Bianco, going back twenty-five years. Hernandez always had designs on a place of his own, and just a couple of years ago, that dream came true when he and Nadia Holguin (they're married) opened Tacos Chiwas, a modest-looking taqueria on a modest stretch of McDowell Road, just a couple of doors down from a thundering freeway overpass.
With a simple, but well-executed (and well sourced) menu that reflected the couple's shared roots in Mexico's Chihuahua state, Chiwas became an instant favorite with both crowd and critic. One could easily see why, when the news broke that Holguin and Hernandez and Bianco would be partnering to create something entirely new and different for the three of them, a whole lot of people were paying close attention, even if initial details were somewhat vague.
Everything's crystal clear, now—Roland's opened in April, bringing a century-old building back to life in a section of Phoenix, quite near the airport, that looks exactly like an outsider might expect Phoenix to look. The restaurant is surrounded by used car dealerships, the kind that you see in movies and television where various colorful and bad characters hold down jobs at used car dealerships. The name is a straightforward tribute—Roland's was an actual historic market, established in the 1940s by Chinese immigrants Roland and Jean Ong; the building is quite easily the most appealing thing about the block, and has been for the longest time, even during the years when it sat empty, waiting for someone to come along and do something exciting.
And so they have. Roland's serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, from a menu where the talented Holguin, who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale, has taken the lead, aided by Bianco's mighty bread genius. While your experience here can be whatever you want it to be, really, thanks to a nicely varied menu at all three meals, there are a few constants, one of them the quesadilla, served open face and piled high with asadero cheese and various toppings, like crumbles of local chorizo, soft cubes of mortadella, and the like.
These quesadillas come out looking something like a tlayuda, or perhaps a very thin-crusted pizza, but they are neither of those things—they travel on supersized, pillowy, flour tortillas, each bearing the beautiful mark of that bread oven, both underneath and around just-crispy-enough edges. You fold the thing yourself, you don't offer to share unless you're feeling extremely generous. (Then again, you could always order more—the quesadillas, and everything else on the menu, are modestly priced.)
Mostly because they are typically not nearly as good, north of the border, the quesadilla might be dismissed as children's menu material by some Americans, or perhaps a lazy, high-margin appetizer at some forgettable chain restaurant. Here, with the combined expertise of the partners, the quesadilla approaches art form. Nobody would look askance if you did, but don't get stuck on this particular section of the menu—there is simply too much else to explore. Tortas get the grand treatment here as well, served on Bianco-fied bolillos; there are also burritos overstuffed with Niman Ranch meats to consider.
At all three meals, not to mention weekend brunch, which is off in an impressive world of its own, you are offered a modest selection of more substantial plates to choose from, just in case a burrito were not substantial enough. If you can, come in first for breakfast, and begin with salad, yes, salad, made with spinach, arugula, sliced avocado, cherry tomatoes, fat cannellini beans and farro, dressed in a lime vinaigrette and topped with a sunny side-up egg. Follow that up with pork Chile Colorado, served with beans and eggs, or a pork chop plate, or enchiladas bathed in salsa roja; there is also menudo, deeply red, with liberal amounts of hominy. As you'd hope to find in an self-styled all-day cafe, there is an entire menu of beer, wine and cocktails, not to mention coffee drinks—the cajeta latte, from locally roasted espresso and an abundance of goat's milk caramel, is dessert with a jolt, before you even begin your meal.
Naturally, there are tacos, at most times of the day—delicious and uncomplicated tacos, chicken, steak, or pork, which end up needing little adornment. One bite of the carnitas, a healthy pile of tender pork on a corn tortilla, spritzed with lime and drowning in rivers of salsa verde, or whatever salsa you might wish for, and you see why everyone is here, and why they're here well before the lunch hour. Shortly after the stroke of noon, a line begins to form, first inside and then out the door, and people are standing in the hot sun, waiting for their turn to sit down, for their turn to eat some of the most talked-about (and the best) new food in town. Beat the rush, if you can, but come.