For Phoenix residents Lawrence Smith and Aseret Arroyo, not making the final cut on the Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Smith, a former Indianapolis Colts NFL player, ran on that momentum to graduate culinary school, work with some of Phoenix’s top chefs (Alex Stratta, Rene Andrade), and open Chilte with his wife Arroyo as a farmers’ market stand in 2020.
Fast forward three years, and the Mexican-influenced spot is now a full-scale brick-and-mortar that Bon Appétit dubbed one of the country’s best new restaurants in 2023. Phoenix’s regional Mexican cooking scene has been growing steadily in the last few years, and Chilte is now firmly a star among the group thanks to Smith’s creative spins that rely on Arroyo’s family recipes. “We’re very off the cuff,” Smith says about his cooking. “We do modern versions of traditional stuff and try to find that cross-cultural thread throughout Mexican cuisine.”
Read on for four reasons to hop on a reservation at this Phoenix hotspot right now.
1. An ever-changing menu where one visit never feels enough…
Chilte isn’t even a year old yet, and Smith is already on to his third menu at the restaurant. The cooler weather means Smith is leaning on larger, warming dishes like his take on the Mexican soup pozole. His version has huitlacoche (corn smut) for a rich, velvety base that’s topped with nutty brown butter-basted grilled chicken, avocado, and zippy salsa macha. “It’s really hearty, homey, and a fun interpretation of the dish,” Smith says.
Plus, post-rainy season in Mexico means Smith can access some favorite ingredients: ants and grasshoppers. The insects are collected during the rainy season and preserved at Chilte, where Smith smokes the ants and swaps them for anchovies in the grilled Caesar salad dressing. Crunchy grasshoppers are part of the house quesadilla that comes wrapped in hoja santa leaves.
2. …but some things will always stay the same
When Chilte was just a stand at the Downtown Mesa Farmers Market, birria tacos on squid ink corn tortillas were Smith’s calling cards—it propelled the restaurant to where it is today, so naturally the chef isn’t parting with it anytime soon.
Other mainstays include always having one kind of burger, as well as the herb-packed green chorizo that’s currently stealing the show as part of the vampiro (a popular Sinaloan street food taco snack). “It exceeds people’s expectations,” Smith says of the chorizo. “When they get it, they’re like ‘oh damn, that was a sleeper.’”
3. Bring an appetite, or, better yet, bring friends
Chilte’s menu of big-and-small plates is all about sharing given that there are only a total of 10 dishes—it’s not uncommon for people to order the entire menu, Smith says. Plus, the restaurant is designed for lingering: comfy couches instead of banquettes, large plants separating tables, and tons of artwork on the walls add to Chilte’s coziness.
4. Different days, different vibes
Much like the changing menu, Chilte has a little something for everyone depending on the day you visit. Tuesdays have unofficially become the days that tacos fly out the kitchen a la Taco Tuesdays. Wednesdays are a spotlight on the restaurant’s Spanish and Mexican wines, so consider coming then if you’re looking for chill, mellow vibes. Thursday’s when the action picks up and reggaeton, hip hop, and Smith’s playful, creative cooking keeps the party kicking through the weekend. “We always say that nothing is original anymore, and we are just excited that people are giving us an opportunity to play and have fun,” Smith says.
Tanay Warerkar is a content marketing manager at OpenTable