Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza brings together Mexican cuisine, art and culture


PHOENIX — Pristine white plates frame the Mexican cuisine created by chef Silvana Salcido Esparza, whose dishes infused with pops of color echo the artwork that fills the walls of her Barrio Café. Opened northeast of downtown Phoenix in 2002, it’s a hub for arts and activism, where Esparza counters colonizer narratives through cuisine, culture and community.

For years, she has primarily commissioned Phoenix-based artists to paint indoor and outdoor murals that often center her Mexican heritage and creative interests beyond food. Behind the cafe, artist Lalo Cota paired images of tacos with lowriders, paying homage to the chef’s immersion in local lowrider culture and his collection of cars – including one bearing the airbrushed image of Cota of the deceased chief’s beloved nephew, his head adorned with a golden crown.

A collaborative mural at the Barrio Café featuring lowriders painted by Lalo Cota (photo Lynn Trimble/Hyperallergic)

For Esparza, who moved to Phoenix in 1995, lowriders represent Chicano culture and community. But she is also attracted by their aesthetics. “Lowriders are pure art,” she says. “And art is part of everything I do.”

Small paintings and drawings by artists whose subjects range from lucha libre wrestlers to mariachi skeletons lend warmth and charm to the cafe. Inside an office space the chef shares with Barrio Café co-founder and business partner Wendy Gruber, there’s an area called the WalkBy Gallery, where rotating exhibits are visible through large windows flanking the sidewalk. For a time, a trio of artists operated the Por Vida Gallery in an adjacent space; today it is home to Frida’s Garden, another business spun off from the chef’s creative family.

One of many lowriders in chef Silvana Salcido Esparza’s car collection (photo courtesy of the chef)

Barrio Café anchors a part of town nicknamed Calle 16, a name referring to one of Esparza’s most significant contributions to the region. In 2010, she collaborated with local artists to start the Calle 16 Mural Project as a protest against Arizona’s SB 1070. promote racial profiling and anti-immigrant sentiment.

Angel Diaz’s anti-SB 1070 mural in an alley behind the cafe critiques American history, from chattel slavery and Indian reservations to military culture and the prison pipeline. More recently, Diaz updated the piece to include visual iconography of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement, with figures in white KKK balaclavas and red MAGA caps.

Portrait of Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza by Tato Caraveo for Phoenix Light Rail Station (photo courtesy of Valley Metro)

Today, the Calle 16 neighborhood features works by renowned artists such as California-based El Mac, Oklahoma-based Yatika Starr Fields, and Hong Kong-based Caratoes. And the Barrio Café’s storefront serves as a changing canvas where artists like Douglas Miles often address current social justice issues — making Calle 16 one of the best places to see mural art in Phoenix.

Meanwhile, Esparza’s influence is evident in other creative hubs, where early artists she supported received major commissions. For Cota, the commissions include a massive mural on a new electrical substation in the Roosevelt Row Arts District, where a skeletal figure donning jeans and a white t-shirt floats above the city’s skyline. at sunset. For Tato Caraveo, they include an extensive mural painted on one side of the Arizona Opera building that sits across from the Phoenix Art Museum, where a couple plays with bubble wands while sitting back to back on a green lawn.

It turns out there’s another creative enclave where Esparza has married food and culture to masterful effect. It’s a strip of Grand Avenue known for its arts and historic preservation, where artist Lucretia Torva painted a mural showing Esparza in a white chef’s jacket, arm thrust forward with an oversized spoon as if ready to feed the whole town.

Lucretia Torva wall portrait of chef Silvana Salcido Esparza (photo courtesy of the chef)

When Esparza opened her gourmet dining concept Barrio Café Gran Reserva on Grand Avenue in 2016, she commissioned Diaz to fill the ceiling and walls of a small bathroom with black-and-white imagery reminiscent of early revolutionaries. 20th century Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. “It was a cry to the Mexican revolution and to the current revolution that continues today,” she explains.

Just outside the bathroom, margaritas painted bright pink and green played on prevailing perceptions of Mexican culture. Inside the dining room, more subtle shadow images of immigrant farm workers in the fields, painted below the height of the table, quietly channeled the more subversive side of the chef. “There was an elegance and a beauty to the dining room,” she says. “But if you really studied it, it was a critique of social class.”

Esparza closed the Barrio Café Gran Reserva during the early days of Covid-19, deciding to focus its energy on the original Barrio Café, where artists such as Pablo Luna, Thomas “Breeze” Marcus and Lucinda Hinojos created new murals interiors during a pandemic break that the chef used to prepare meals with a small team for healthcare workers and community members in need.

In October 2020, presidential candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris visited the Barrio Café during the campaign trail, another sign of Esparza’s relevance to the region’s conversations about food, art and politics.

Detail of the mural by Phoenix artist Lucinda Hinojos painted inside the Barrio Café (photo Lynn Trimble/Hyperallergic)

This confluence of food and culture recalls Esparza’s childhood and the sensory touchpoints etched in her memory and emotions. Raised in a multi-generational home in California, the chef remembers her father smelling like bread after working nights at a local bakery and spending time baking with her grandmother. On trips to Mexico, she marveled at mercados filled with food and art, and sites where her father explained that the frescoes painted by Diego Rivera and other artists were a form of storytelling meant to preserve their heritage. cultural.

Today, Esparza is the storyteller.

The 61-year-old chef is writing an autobiographical cookbook, where she will address the discrimination she faces as a lesbian chef and the complications caused by fluctuating symptoms of sarcoidosis. She always creates fresh menus that reflect her family traditions, the classic French cuisine she studied in culinary school, and the distinct regional cuisines explored during a year of backpacking through Mexico.

One of chef Silvana Salcido Esparza’s culinary creations (photo courtesy of the chef)

While incorporating Indigenous homages and influences, the chef carries a political lens. “I look at the mole from a political point of view,” she says of the sauce, which is an essential part of Mexican cuisine. “Their national dish is mole poblano, but it’s a colonized version of an aboriginal dish that was Martha Stewartized.”

As its hybrid approach to creative activism evolves, Esparza continues to draw inspiration from the artists and community members who help bring it to life. “Have been family,” she said. “That’s it.”

One of chef Silvana Salcido Esparza’s lowriders parked at a culinary event in Phoenix (photo courtesy of the chef)


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