El Bravo3800 E. Sky Harbor Blvd.
Arizona style Mexican food is known for being less spicy than its counterpart in New Mexico, but both are popular regional cuisines with flavorful dishes unique to each. The style of food that originated in the Mexican state of Sonora, and is now predominant in Arizona, provides subtle blends of ingredients that can be just as good as any other style of Mexican food. To me, though, the El Bravo restaurant in Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport was not entirely successful in representing this style of food.
El Bravo is a local, family owned restaurant that began in north Phoenix. There was a great amount of excitment when they opened an outpost in Sky Harbor Terminal, the busy Phoenix airport that has long needed additional dining options. El Bravo provided a welcome choice to the standard fast food franchises that abound. Although much airport food around the country ranges from bad to horrible, El Bravo provided one of the better meals I have had in any airport (and most of the ones I thought were better were outposts of local Mexican restaurants as well).
El Bravo is located in a food court within the security area of the airport. It was near the gates that Southwest Airlines uses, and is probably convenient to other airlines as well. There was really little contest as to where I wanted to eat since most of the other choices were fast food franchises.
When I walked up to the counter it became apparent that the Green Corn Tamales were a specialty of the restaurant, with several kinds of fillings. I understand this same dish is probably the most popular one at the north Phoenix restaurant, and El Bravo is thought by many to have the best tamales in Phoenix. I ordered the veggie version that was topped with Hatch green chile, and this was done with great expectation that this tamal would be a true Mexican food find. Although it seemed to be free of the lard flavor found in many tamales, the masa was so moist it broke apart and it was quite flavorless. The Hatch green chile must have been one of the milder varieties. The chile was puréed, and although it tasted good, I am not sure why they made such an effort to use Hatch chiles if it was going to be so far down on the spiciness scale. It was also rather baffling as to how they could find cheese with so little flavor. I did think the green chile was OK, but the rest of the tamal was rather boring.
A Chicken Tostada had a rather good flavor, and the chicken was excellent. It did not contain any chile, though, and they gave me a small container with some red salsa to pour on top. The salsa tasted more like tomato than chile, and was so mild that I thought it actually made the tostada worse rather than improving the flavor. The yellow cheese tasted a lot like American cheese, and did not contribute much to the overall quality of the tostada. Still, I thought the delicately spiced chicken was the way to go with just about any dish at El Bravo, and added a flavor component that was not present in the sauces.
A small container of Guacamole I purchased as a side dish actually turned out to be very fresh and good. Like the other dishes it was not particularly spicy, but it seemed to be made in house rather than being an institutional variety. I know the logistics of preparing food at the airport are probably not as easy as at El Bravo's north Phoenix location, but I am glad at least some of the food tasted as if it were freshly made.
I found out later that El Bravo provides small bottles of "hot sauce" that give additional heat to the mild sauces that are used on the food. However, I never saw these bottles at the airport food court, and I have only heard about them being available at the north Phoenix restaurant. If I had known about them the meal I had might have been more enjoyable.
After a visit to Tucson in 2007 I decided to go back retroactively and give El Bravo a higher score. This is not so much a reflection of my opinion of El Bravo's food as a gradual refinement I have made in the rating scale over time. I am trying more and more to give low scores only to restaurants that use inferior ingredients or poor cooking techniques. El Bravo served top notch ingredients, with the chicken being especially impressive. Eating at some of the better known Sonoran restaurants in Tucson confirmed something I had known previously, that well cooked and flavorfully spiced chicken is one of the hallmarks of this cuisine. El Bravo in Phoenix seemed to prepare chicken about as well as any of the good restaurants in Tucson, so this is a definite good sign. I think a good Mexican restaurant needs more than good chicken, but at least this is a start.
My main disappointment with El Bravo was due to a lack of flavor in the sauces and in the tamale masa. The Tucson restaurants I tried in 2007 demonstrated that Sonoran food can be as flavorful as any other style of Mexican food. Unfortunately, I did not find this to be the case at El Bravo. I would rather have good food with a lack of flavor, though, than the other way around.
Since El Bravo is quite popular with local residents, I am sure it has the potential to serve some really good meals. I think this is more likely to be the case at the north Phoenix location, though, than at the airport.
Cuisine: Mexican Sonora
Hours: Open Daily
Additional Location: 8338 N. 7th St.
Smoking: No Smoking
Most Recent Visit
May 1, 2006
Number of Visits: 1
Chicken Tostada, Guacamole
Green Corn Tamal: