This spring/summer Valley restaurateur Aaron Chamberlin, chef Suny Santana and well-known Phoenix-based artist Gennaro Garcia will open a new Mexican restaurant concept in downtown Phoenix. Called Taco Chelo, the 1,000-square-foot bar and restaurant will be an ongoing collaboration between the three talents and has been in the works since late August 2016.
“I’ve been friends with Gennaro and Suny for the past five years and with this project, we’ve found a great opportunity to bring our skills together and create something exceptional for the downtown Phoenix community,” Chamberlin says.
As the creative force behind Taco Chelo’s menu development, chef Suny Santana hopes to bring the flavors of his native Mexico to downtown Phoenix. Santana has spent the past six years at both of Chamberlin’s restaurants, starting as a line cook and eventually working his way up to his current role as Chef de Cuisine at St. Francis.
“Suny is young, dedicated and driven and has always wanted to open his own restaurant,” Chamberlin says. “I think this is a perfect opportunity and a perfect place for this to happen for him.”
The restaurant takes its name from Santana’s mother, nicknamed “Chelo,” who grew up on a farm in Mexico that grew wheat for tortillas. As a nod to those rich culinary roots, Santana will nixtamize corn to make masa in-house. The restaurant will offer a menu of about nine items, mostly tacos, as well as a full bar with beer, wine and cocktails.
For Garcia, the project is a natural progression of his family history. After growing up in the kitchens of his family’s restaurants in Mexico, Garcia opened his first restaurant with his father at age 19 and went on to open three more on his own before moving to the United States almost two decades ago.
“In the last few years I’ve started to return to culinary roots through my connections with the local food community,” Garcia says. “The way I see it, a chef is an artist and what we like the most as artists is to collaborate with other artists. To me, this restaurant is an art installation, a collaboration between chef Suny, Aaron and myself.”
Over the past five years, while establishing himself as an internationally-recognized artist, Garcia has continued to decorate and create award-winning ceramic dishware for restaurants in both Mexico and the United States. He will have a hand in creating the Taco Chelo menu as well as design the restaurant’s interior — handpicking everything from the ceramic floor tiles to the light fixtures.
His ambitious plans for an art-focused interior include a multimedia video mural that will rotate seasonally. One wall of the restaurant will also be dedicated to exhibiting works from local and international artists curated by Garcia for First Friday art walks.
Taking over the space most recently occupied by Flowers Craft Beer & Wine, Taco Chelo will be located on the southeast corner of 5th Street and Roosevelt. The building is notable for the untitled mural by artists El Mac and Augustine Kofie found on the west-facing wall, which will be incorporated into the restaurant’s design.
“One of the reasons we are attracted to the space is the El Mac mural, a favorite piece of street art for many Phoenicians,” Chamberlin says. “We will make sure it’s not obstructed and remains highly visible to the community.”
Taco Chelo is expected to open in spring or summer 2017 as a part of The Blocks of Roosevelt Row, a mixed-use development project from local real estate firm Desert Viking.
This will be Chamberlin’s third restaurant in central Phoenix, joining Phoenix Public Market Cafe in downtown Phoenix and St. Francis in the uptown neighborhood. He also plans to open a fourth restaurant, Tempe Public Market Cafe, in mid-2017.