Budget Beat: Via de Los Santos
By Jay Bennett
Is there a restaurant you love so much that you'd go there four times a week? Me neither. I live four blocks from La Grande Orange and love its pizzas and salads like nobody's business, but still, I eat them, like, twice a month, tops.
The other night, I was at a Budget Beat reader-recommended Mexican place called Via de Los Santos, in north Phoenix's Sunnyslope neighborhood, and met a diner who says he eats there four times a week. I asked the slender, 50-ish gentleman whether that claim was just a bit of margarita-fueled hyperbole, but he soberly declared again that he eats at "Via's" four times a week, often with his 91-year-old grandma, who doesn’t get excited about much anymore — unless it's a trip to this neighborhood treasure.
Upon arriving at Via de Los Santos, which is on Central and one block north of Dunlap, I realized I'd been at the place one other time, a couple of years ago, with a dude named Bart Bull. Bart's a musician, manager, writer (including New Times, waaay back in the day), gadabout, and cool-guy raconteur — one of the true characters I've met in AZ. And before he high-tailed it to Paris to teach accordion, he loved dining at Via's. So, it was good to be back.
I can see why ol' Bart dug the place. Via's is one of those old-school Phoenix institutions that has a ton of charm, great energy, a fun-looking bar, and a welcoming, neighborhood-y vibe. Nothing pretentious, nothing mall-ified about the place. The missus and I popped in there at 8 on a Tuesday night and the place was packed — always a good sign.
Via's is a hit right off the bat because the two kinds of fresh salsa and homemade chips are among the best I've tried in Phoenix, better even than at some of the higher-profile Mexican places in town. Both favor a rich tomatoey taste over heat. My favorite of the two features chunks of tomato, scallion and cilantro, and a hint of oregano. We nearly filled up on the stuff.
The huevos rancheros: Good for breakfast or dinner.
For entrees, we opted for some Mexican staples over the house specialties. She had huevos rancheros, which weren’t as good — mostly because of the middle-of-the-road chili verde it was covered with — as some others in town. But still, it's huevos — tough to screw it up, you know?
I had a shrimp enchilada and a fish taco. The grilled fish, seasoned with Mexican spices and served on a corn tortilla, was flavorful and cooked just right, but I could've done without the lettuce and cheddar cheese piled on it. The best fish tacos have cabbage instead of lettuce and are cheese-less. It got better after I doused it with the spicier of the two salsas that Via de Los Santos makes.
The shrimp enchilada hit the spot. It was chock-full of little seasoned shrimp, some melted cheese, and an excellent red sauce — all wrapped in a delicious corn tortilla — that suited my tolerance for heat perfectly. Next time, I’ll make sure to try a house specialty — I think I dropped the ball by not exploring that part of the menu — and a margarita (which Mr. Four-Times-a-Week claims is the best in the city).
The fish taco and shrimp enchilada: Dig the red sauce. (Photos by Laura Hahnefeld)
If you live in the north half of Phoenix, Via's is worth checking out. All in all, it was a pleasurable experience and the two of us got out of there for about $25 (which included a coupla Coronas). A ton of food? Not much money? That's old-school charm for you.