Gadzooks owners open new downtown Phoenix bar Hugo’s Cantina

Sara Crocker
10 Min Read

Aaron Pool has a gripe with downtown Phoenix: the price of cocktails has gotten too high.

“I think downtown has kind of gone away from its roots. It used to be the place where I’d go have a good cocktail and it’s like $10. Now I’m going into places and it’s $25 for an old fashioned,” says Pool, who, along with his brother Jared Pool, owns the fast-casual chain Gadzooks Enchiladas & Soup. “It’s gotten so out of control. I love the creativity and the artistry behind creating cocktails – it’s just like food, it’s a special thing – but we’ve gone so far.”

The Pool brothers’ answer to reining in bar tabs? Hugo’s Cantina.

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The Hugo’s Cantina sign casts an electric blue glow over the historic stucco building on First Street.

Sara Crocker

The casual, Mexican-leaning bar and restaurant replaces Sin Muerte, which shuttered in August, in a Mission Revival building near First and Garfield streets that once was a funeral home.

“We want it to be a place where you can go in… have really good cocktails, maybe get drunk, but not blow your budget,” Pool says.

We visited to check out how the moody, cheekily morbid Sin Muerte has been transformed and checked in with Pool to learn more about Hugo’s Cantina.

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Hugo’s Hideaway, the bar side of Hugo’s, has rich emerald tones in the paint and wallpaper.

Sara Crocker

What is Hugo’s Cantina?

Hugo’s is “an ode” to a former Gadzooks manager – a burly, ginger-bearded man whose email signature revealed a quirky alter ego, “El Oso Fabuloso,” or the fabulous bear. The Pools took that idea and ran with it – creating the persona of a bolo tie-wearing city bear who “likes the finer things in life,” and building a concept around him, Pool says.

“We want this to be a super fun place, it’s going to be eclectic, it’s going to be kind of funky and weird,” he says. “We always think, will Hugo like that?”

Hugo’s Hideaway – the moniker for the bar portion of the space, opened on Jan. 5 to serve thirsty First Friday patrons. Seating in the dining room opened Thursday, with a truncated bar menu. The full dining menu will be on offer next week.

Pool says he was approached by the building’s landlord to open something in the space. The brothers’ hospitality group, Poolhouse Hospitality Concepts, includes Gadzooks, the forthcoming Poolboy Taco and The Green Woodpecker, which they opened at the end of 2022 in central Phoenix with their mom Linda and brother Drew, a co-founder of Wren House Brewing Co. The duo wasn’t looking to add a Gadzooks downtown, so the offer presented an opportunity to create something new.

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The rolled tacos at Hugo’s are topped with avocado salsa, shredded lettuce, pickled onions and cotija cheese.

Sara Crocker

What’s on the menu?

Hugo’s initial drinks menu includes cocktails split between “house libations” and “Hugo’s favorites,” as well as a selection of beers on draft and in bottles or cans. Mixologist Antonio Jenkins designed the “house” cocktails. Pool describes the selections as crushable and boozy and many of the drinks lean on agave spirits.

There’s the electric blue Can Bears Even Swim? – combining tequila, rum, Blue Curaçao, lime juice and orgeat and garnished with a flower. Or, try A Classic Tale, a play on an old fashioned that uses Rayu mezcal infused with nutmeg, agave and angostura and orange bitters.

Among the beer selection, you’ll find Wren House beers and other local craft brews, as well as a West Coast IPA from Green Flash Brewing Co., Modelo, seltzers and non-alcoholic beers from Athletic Brewing Co.

Pool describes Hugo’s as “a bar that I can eat at versus a dinner I can drink at.” But there will be an array of shareable bites, pulling from the owners’ experience creating Mexican-inspired dishes at Gadzooks and The Green Woodpecker, and weekend brunch with breakfast tacos, burritos and quiche.

“It’s all about communal-type stuff,” Pool says.

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A massive cheese crisp topped with duck carnitas, rolled tacos and chips and dips are among the bar snacks.

Sara Crocker

Among those family-style eats are enchiladas with duck carnitas, tacos, nachos and massive cheese crisps that will be charred in the pizza oven formerly used at Sin Muerte to bake pitas, among other eats.

Keep an eye out for rotating specials as well.

After the dining room closes, the bar will offer burritos and ice cream sandwiches made with Gilbert creamery Cream of the Crop ice creams and cookies from Mama Linda’s Bakeshop, owned by the Pools’ mother.

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The dining room at Hugo’s bursts with color.

Sara Crocker

From moody and morbid to airy Ibiza

The sandy-colored stucco building has lived many lives since it was erected in 1937 on First Street. It was initially the home of painter Charles E. Palen, according to a post from Downtown Phoenix Journal. From there, it became Merryman Funeral Home, which Sin Muerte drew on for its macabre inspiration. It later served as a recovery center and more recently was the Paulina Miller Gallery before starting a new chapter as a restaurant and bar.

The most notable change for those familiar with Sin Muerte is that the entrance has moved. Instead of walking in through the carved front door, guests enter through the adjacent bar door. But the peekaboo window in the front door is open when Hugo’s is – a literal vantage into what’s happening inside.

The dining room interiors at Hugo’s are inspired by Pikes in Ibiza – an infamous hotel, restaurant and bar that was put on the map by MTV and known for its wild parties with guests like Freddie Mercury and George Michael. Pool says he wants to evoke the 1980s with lots of color and give the space a brighter, airier vibe. The once-dark room is now painted a vibrant pink.

He also has modified the existing pews, creating L-shaped booths and a large circular table at the center. The stone fireplace that stretches into the rafters and separates the bar and the dining room will be decorated with a “big statement art piece,” Pool says. Will there be a fabulous bear, too? Pool says he’s working on it.

In contrast to the dining room, the bar takes cues from English-style pubs and has a rich emerald color palette and floral wallpaper. TVs show the game and a Golden Tee Golf arcade game is nestled in a corner.

“We’re hoping it’s a nice, comfortable watering hole for people,” Pool says. “It’s just going to be a fun playground.”

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Hugo’s Hideway, the bar side of Hugo’s, boasts TVs and Golden Tee Golf.

Sara Crocker

What’s next for the Pool brothers?

Though Hugo’s has been a new focus, the brothers are continuing to work to bring diners Poolboy Taco, their taqueria concept. When the Pools opened The Green Woodpecker, the plan was to open Poolboy Taco nearby to serve a more robust food menu that customers at the beer bar could also enjoy.

But, after serving 2,500 tacos over three days in Aspen, Colorado over the summer at the Food & Wine Classic, Pool and his brother decided they’d like to try Poolboy in a pop-up format. So now, Pool says two mobile taco shops are being fabricated from shipping containers.

He’s finalizing plans to drop one in Old Town Scottsdale, near Shoeman Lane and Brown Avenue, later this month. Another place a mobile Poolboy Taco shop, or the recipes from them, may pop up is at Hugo’s, Pool concedes.

These mobile shops will allow them to share Poolboy tacos, meet people and gauge the response.

“This is a case study for us,” he says.

Hugo’s Cantina

Open Thursday to Sunday
817 N. First St.

Sara Crocker Food & Drink/Chow Bella

2024-01-19 16:36:00 , Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona, Phoenix New Times –

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