Pho-get about it, Dilla Libre aims for unique

Mike Baum and Daniel Pawenski are the owners of Dilla Libre.

What was once Pho King Kitchen and Food Truck in southern Scottsdale is now Dilla Libre, another restaurant and food truck owned by Mike Baum and Daniel Pawenski.

Located on the northeast corner of Thomas and Hayden roads, it is the second Dilla Libre brick-and-mortar restaurant in the Valley; the first is in north Phoenix.

With Dilla Libre, formerly known as Taco & Dilla Parlor and United Lunchadores Street Gourmet, Baum and Pawenski have found success putting their own twist on the Mexican food staple.

Experimenting with different flavor profiles, regions and cuisines, they are constantly rotating the menu.

For instance, patrons will find Thai- and Vietnamese-influenced, southern chicken-inspired, vegan-friendly and other unique quesadilla flavors on the menu.

“There’s nothing but possibilities with what we can do,” Baum said.

Dilla Libre in Scottsdale officially opened June 1, though the owners gradually transitioned the Pho King menu and trained the staff for weeks leading up to the soft opening.

“The transformational things that need to happen now are just changing the inside to make it pull together this concept [at the Phoenix location],” Pawenski said, adding that they’ll have local artists paint murals inside the Scottsdale restaurant.

The owners plan to host a grand opening celebration in early fall for both Dilla Libre locations.

The Dilla Libre restaurant in Phoenix opened last summer, but the owners didn’t have time to host a party for it.

“It’s been wild because we have the two restaurants. When we started this place, we had four food trucks going — and the food truck business for Dilla Libre is unreal. We do so much catering,” Pawenski said.

Baum and Pawensky said they decided to turn Pho King into a Dilla Libre because they believed they had a better chance of success.

“Pho King is kind of like an indie movie: It has a really strong following for a very narrow target market. And [Dilla Libre] has a much wider appeal,” Baum said.

They also saw the transition as a chance to focus on just one concept.

“Having so many concepts, so many moving parts going on, we’re both working every day of the week. It’s going to make it so nice to focus because it’s so busy,” Baum said.

The owners also wanted a bigger food truck presence in the East Valley.

“It’s just going to spread us out so much easier and it’ll be easier to digest the growth,” Pawenski said.

Pawenski calls the Dilla Libre concept a “blank canvas,” allowing them to not only redefine the quesadilla, but also — as the restaurant and food truck’s name suggests — “freeing” it.

“It’s a completely unique thing,” Pawenski said. “So far, we’ve been marrying of a bunch of different cultures that we kind of put into it. It’s endless, whereas, with Pho King, we’re going to be competing. There’s going to be great pho on the next corner and the next corner.

“With Dilla, there’s no definition of what it’s supposed to taste like. We’re creating that definition.”

In addition to quesadillas, Dilla Libre’s vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free menu includes appetizers, like elote and chips, salsa and guacamole; tacos, burritos, salads, meat-loaded fries and desserts.

Their most popular quesadillas are the Papa Verde, with potatoes, green chiles, pico de gallo and jack cheese; All Thai’d Up, with citrus-marinated chicken breast, serranos, grilled onions, sweet Thai chili sauce and jack cheese; and the Napoleon Dynamite, with citrus-marinated carne asada, tater tots, “happy sauce,” pico de gallo and Monterey Jack cheese.

The Napoleon Dynamite ’dilla is on the expanded, dinner menu, which also includes the El Cubano, which comes loaded with carnitas, grilled ham, bacon, swiss cheese, mozzarella cheese and dijonnaise.

Though they have a vegan-friendly quesadilla — the Impossible ’Dilla made with Impossible Burger meat substitute — any item on the menu can be vegan for $3 extra.

Customers have the option of substituting meat, cheese and mayo.

“One of the reasons we’ve been able to really capitalize it is the amount of great products that are out there,” Pawenski said, adding that they use a special, restaurant-blend Daiya product not available in stores.

Currently, they’re testing Beyond Meat and determining if that meat substitute will be more popular with customers.

“When you start to look at the vegan demographic, it’s growing like wildfire. They’ll go out of their way to find it. So, when we put the options out there, people are on it,” Baum said.

Looking ahead, Baum and Pawenski would like to expand to other cities in the Valley and out of state, including Tennessee, where Baum is originally from.

“I think this concept could go anywhere,” Baum said. “It really depends on how the business model pans out and whether it’s franchising or co-owning.”

The owners are also working on expanding their bar program, transforming the restaurant into a mezcal speakeasy at night, offering cocktails and flights of mezcal and tequila.

“It’s like a candle-lit experience. It’s really intimate,” Pawenski said. “It’s curated music, and the drinks are always going to be seasonal. Our bar menu is really much a celebration of Mexico.”

Dilla Libre is located at 8018 E. Thomas Rd.