A long-awaited Mexican restaurant is opening inside this iconic Phoenix hotel on Grand Avenue

Bahar Anooshahr
Arizona Republic
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Owned by former NFL player and chef Lawrence "L.T." Smith and his fiancée, Aseret Arroyo, the popular Chilté Tacos food stand is opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant at the Egyptian Motor Hotel on Grand Avenue on Feb. 3.

"It felt like it was never gonna get here and now that it's here, feels like we are racing now," said Arroyo, who left a job in marketing to focus on the restaurant full time.

Chilté is short for chiltepin peppers. "Small but very powerful," Arroyo said, "Similar to how we started and what we continue to live by, small but mighty."

Transforming a historic building into a modern Mexican restaurant

The couple began serving tacos, tortas, quesadillas and horchatas from their food stand in 2020, alternating weekends between downtown Phoenix and Mesa farmers markets, Tuesdays at Greenwood Brewing and Wednesdays at Uptown Farmers Market. Chilté gained a loyal following for dishes like tacos de carnitas, which reflect Arroyo's Mexican heritage. Now they're excited to have a permanent home inside a Grand Avenue icon.

Formerly, Las Palmas Inn, the Egyptian Motor Hotel is a relic from the 1950s. The mid-century modern building has been restored to feature 49 rooms and a 250-seat outdoor entertainment venue and bar.

According to Arroyo, who's now the event manager for the hotel, Rebel Hospitality in Chicago saw Chilté on a Thrillist list and contacted them to become the hotel's flagship restaurant.

The Egyptian Motor Hotel in Phoenix first opened in the 1950s on Grand Avenue.

"I've done the plumbing, the electrical, building and carpentry," Smith said. "Excited to get back in the kitchen."

Smith and Arroyo did all the interior work themselves, even the decorating, which Smith describes as super eclectic and kitschy with punk and retro vintage elements adding to the mid-century glam.

Two glass walls allow light to pour into the vibrant space. The dining room includes multiple seating areas with dining chairs, sofas and accent chairs arranged around square and rectangular wooden tables. The restaurant seats 40 guests and another 10 on the patio.

Planters accent the space, and works by Mexican artists fill the walls. Entering the restaurant, a large portrait of a woman draws the eye. Wearing a black and red leather mask and a choker, she's thrown her head back, eyes closed, smoking a cigarette. Jet black hair falls to her neck and shoulders where three small scars are apparent. "This to me is an image of a real woman, her struggles, her beauty and scars," Arroyo explained.

In the kitchen, bowls and plates in gray, yellow and pink are stacked in columns. "These were handmade in Mexico for us," she said.

Though Smith called the decor eclectic, the combination of the teams' thrift shop and online finds have come together beautifully — a perfect metaphor for the team itself, on which everyone has a say. "Anything goes at Chilté," Smith said. "We are transparent so if we feel like something is not working, we'll change it."

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Meet the team behind Chilté

While LT runs the kitchen, Arroyo oversees the marketing. She oozes confidence in her partner and their project. "The next James Beard Award winner right here," she said as the two posed for a photograph.

The other two members of the leadership team include Miranda Russell, sous chef, who has worked at Chilté since nearly the beginning. She was a customer but asked to work with Arroyo and Smith. "She said pay me what you can. I know you're gonna make it big," Arroyo said.

Rubi Gonzalez, another sous chef, joined more recently.

What's on the menu at Chilté

Mole flight at Chilte, a Mexican restaurant inside the Egyptian Motor Hotel in Phoenix's Grand Avenue Arts District.

When Smith enters the kitchen, it's clear this is his new arena. "Just like anything it's all feel," Smith explained as he kneaded pinkish-hued dough made with heirloom corn from Oaxaca, which he pressed into neat tortillas.

Though the restaurant can best be described as serving Mexican cuisine, Smith draws inspiration from all parts of the world and tries to understand how a particular food relates to the foods of his childhood and how he can incorporate global flavors into the restaurants' specials.

"We are the new wave rather than a fusion restaurant," Arroyo said. "We are taking a different approach to cookie-cutter recipes."

A neon wall sign reading "Me vale," which put politely means "I don't give a darn," summarizes the culinary philosophy.

The plan, according to Smith is to keep the menu of street foods like burgers and tacos that they served from the food truck, and add some elevated plates such as a mole flight with lamb in addition to cocktails.

The couple will unroll the menu in stages, starting with a limited dinner menu of oysters on the half shell, a mole flight, huitlacoche pasta, a trio of tacos, a chef's burger and cheesecake de elote for dessert.

A full dinner menu and extended hours will follow. The couple plans to add a brunch menu by Super Bowl weekend, along with a Chilté to-go window serving a chorizo pastor burger and tacos, an ode to their old food truck.

The initial cocktail menu will feature sotol and mezcal-based drinks, such as the Hada Madrina made with mezcal gin, absinthe, pina, egg foam and queso cincho. And the Por Siempre made with sotol, piloncillo cane sugar, mole and Angostura bitters plus orange peel.

"It's gonna be a live venue and bumping music," Smith said. "It's street food mashed up with fine dining elements."

Chilte's grand opening is set for Friday, Feb. 3, from 5 to 10 p.m. Starting at 6 p.m., there will be complimentary passed hors d'oeuvres and an open bar.

Details: 765 Grand Ave., Phoenix. 602-807-5225, chiltephx.com.

Limited Hours: Beginning Feb. 3, Wednesday to Sunday from 5 to 10 p.m. Expanded hours will follow. (The original opening date of Jan. 27 was delayed.)

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Reach the reporter at [email protected]. Follow @banooshahr on Twitter.

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