Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza Blends Mexican Food, Art, and Culture


PHOENIX — Pristine white plates body the Mexican cuisine created by Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza, whose dishes infused with pops of shade echo the artworks filling the partitions within her Barrio Café. Opened northeast of downtown Phoenix in 2002, it is a hub for arts and activism, the place Esparza counters colonizer narratives by way of cooking, culture, and local community.

For many years, she’s been commissioning primarily Phoenix-based artists to paint interior and exterior murals that often middle her Mexican heritage and resourceful passions past food stuff. Behind the café, artist Lalo Cota paired taco imagery with lowriders, paying out homage to the chef’s immersion in local lowrider culture and her selection of automobiles — which includes just one bearing Cota’s airbrushed picture of the chef’s beloved nephew who died, his head adorned with a golden crown.

A collaborative mural at Barrio Café that includes lowriders painted by Lalo Cota (image Lynn Trimble/Hyperallergic)

For Esparza, who moved to Phoenix in 1995, the lowriders characterize Chicano culture and group. But she’s also drawn to their aesthetic. “Lowriders are pure art,” she suggests. “And art is portion of every little thing I do.”

Little paintings and drawings by artists whose subjects assortment from lucha libre wrestlers to mariachi skeletons convey warmth and charm to the café. Within an place of work house the chef shares with Barrio Café co-founder and business enterprise husband or wife Wendy Gruber, there’s an spot known as WalkBy Gallery, where rotating exhibitions are noticeable by way of massive windows flanking the sidewalk. For a time, a trio of artists operated Por Vida gallery in an adjacent house now it is residence to Frida’s Backyard garden, one more enterprise to rise from the chef’s artistic household.

One particular of various lowriders in Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza’s vehicle assortment (image courtesy the chef)

Barrio Café anchors a component of the city dubbed Calle 16, a title referencing a person of Esparza’s most impactful contributions to the region. In 2010, she collaborated with neighborhood artists to start the Calle 16 Mural Job as a protest from Arizona’s SB 1070. Nicknamed the “papers please” law, the legislation (which has considering the fact that been largely gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court docket) was greatly criticized for marketing racial profiling and anti-immigrant sentiment.

Angel Diaz’s anti-SB 1070 mural in an alleyway at the rear of the café critiques American history from chattel slavery and Indian reservations to military services tradition and the jail pipeline. Far more not long ago, Diaz up to date the piece to contain visual iconography from Trump’s “Make The united states Excellent Again” motion, comprehensive with figures in white KKK hoods and pink MAGA caps.

Tato Caraveo’s portrait of Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza for gentle rail station in Phoenix (photo courtesy Valley Metro)

Right now, the Calle 16 space boasts parts by renowned artists this kind of as California-centered El Mac, Oklahoma-centered Yatika Starr Fields, and Hong Kong-centered Caratoes. And the entrance of Barrio Café serves as a modifying canvas where by artists like Douglas Miles usually treat social justice problems of the working day — producing Calle 16 a single of the ideal places to see mural art in Phoenix.

In the meantime, Esparza’s influence is apparent in other artistic hubs, where artists she supported early on have received sizeable commissions. For Cota, the commissions consist of a huge mural on a new electricity substation in the Roosevelt Row arts district, where a skeletal figure donning denims and a white T-shirt floats over the town skyline at sunset. For Tato Caraveo, they contain an expansive mural painted alongside a single aspect of the Arizona Opera building that sits across the street from Phoenix Artwork Museum, where by a couple plays with bubble wands although sitting down back-to-back again on a lush eco-friendly lawn.

Turns out, there’s a different innovative enclave where by Esparza has married food and society to masterful result. It is a strip of Grand Avenue identified for arts and historic preservation, wherever artist Lucretia Torva painted a mural exhibiting Esparza in a white chef jacket, her arm thrust ahead with an oversized spoon as if she’s ready to feed the entire town.

Lucretia Torva’s mural portrait of Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza (photograph courtesy of the chef)

When Esparza opened her fantastic dining concept Barrio Café Gran Reserva on Grand Avenue in 2016, she commissioned Diaz to fill the ceiling and partitions of a compact rest room with black and white imagery calling back to early 20th century revolutionaries Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. “It was a cry to the Mexican revolution, and the latest revolution that proceeds today,” she points out.

Just outside the house the bathroom, margaritas painted in shiny pink and green played on mainstream perceptions of Mexican culture. Within the dining room, subtler shadow-like imagery of immigrant farm employees in the fields, painted underneath desk-peak, quietly channeled the chef’s much more subversive side. “There was an magnificence and attractiveness in the dining home,” she states. “But if you truly studied it, it was a critique of social course.”

Esparza closed Barrio Café Gran Reserva throughout early Covid-19 days, deciding to concentrate her electrical power on the initial Barrio Café, exactly where artists such as Pablo Luna, Thomas “Breeze” Marcus, and Lucinda Hinojos developed fresh inside murals during a pandemic pause the chef employed to make foods with a compact crew for health care employees and neighborhood users in require.  

In October 2020, presidential candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris frequented Barrio Café on the marketing campaign trail, an additional sign of Esparza’s relevance to the region’s discussions about food, artwork, and politics.

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

That confluence of foodstuff and lifestyle is reminiscent of Esparza’s childhood, and the sensorial touchpoints carved into her memory and feelings. Raised in a multi-generational domestic in California, the chef recalls her father smelling like bread immediately after performing the night shift at a nearby bakery, and the time she spent cooking with her grandmother. Through visits to Mexico, she’d marvel at the mercados crammed with foodstuff and artwork, and the websites in which her father discussed that frescos painted by Diego Rivera and other artists had been a variety of storytelling meant to preserve their cultural heritage.

Today, Esparza is the a single telling the stories.

The 61-calendar year-outdated chef is composing an autobiographical cookbook, where she’ll tackle discrimination she’s confronted as a lesbian chef and issues wrought by fluctuating sarcoidosis signs. She’s nonetheless producing clean menus reflecting her family traditions, the classical French delicacies she researched in culinary university, and distinctive regional cuisines explored in the course of a 12 months of backpacking by means of Mexico. 

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

Even though incorporating Indigenous homages and influences, the chef wears a political lens. “I glance at mole from a political eye,” she says of the sauce which is an vital component of Mexican delicacies. “Their countrywide dish is mole poblano, but that is a colonized edition of an Indigenous dish that is been Martha Stewartized.” 

As her hybridized solution to artistic activism evolves, Esparza proceeds to attract inspiration from the artists and group associates who aid give it lifetime. “We’re familia,” she suggests. “That’s all the things.”

1 of Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza’s lowriders parked at a culinary function in Phoenix (picture courtesy the chef)


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