After a taco-shack-fueled road trip along Mexico’s coast, 21-year-old Northern Arizona University senior John Conley had one goal: Bring authentic fish tacos to landlocked Flagstaff. Thirty-three years later, Conley’s restaurant, Salsa Brava, is still turning out fish tacos and an entire menu of authentic Mexican fare.
Conley’s Mexico wanderlust continued after his college years, and Salsa Brava’s menu has evolved as his travels have taken him from coastal towns to the interior and south of the country. The original fish tacos now are joined by a bevy of street taco options, including the lightly fried shrimp tacos, which are topped with pickled red onions and chipotle tartar sauce. For adventurous spirits who can stand the heat, the adovada tacos bring spice and flavor. For those, Conley marinates pork tenderloin in a purée of chile de árbol, proudly proclaiming, “It makes me sweat — and I eat hot food.”
The heat is toned down in Salsa Brava’s signature peach and habanero carnitas, with sweetness balancing the spice on this platter of slow-roasted pulled pork. The cochinita pibil is the Yucatán’s take on carnitas: Pork shoulder is roasted in banana leaves, creating a rich, smoky filling for tacos and burritos.
In Conley’s kitchen, salsas and sauces are labors of love. Salsa Brava’s self-serve salsa bar fell victim to COVID-19, but the cult favorite, the pineapple habanero salsa, lives on, served to each table alongside fresh pico de gallo. (Pro tip: Mix them together to create the perfect condiment.) And choosing between the shrimp and lobster enchiladas and the chicken and sour cream version is made easier because both are smothered in a decadent cilantro cream sauce.
Salsa Brava has been a local favorite for decades, but Conley’s appearance on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives catapulted the restaurant into the national spotlight. While showcasing the restaurant’s Navajo taco, he forged a friendship with host Guy Fieri, and he’s since appeared on several of the celebrity chef’s shows.
Despite the restaurant industry being hit extraordinarily hard by the pandemic, Conley used his recent winnings from Fieri’s Guy’s Grocery Games cooking competition as seed money to challenge the Flagstaff community to provide matching donations to the Special Olympics. Local chefs, business owners and residents came together during this challenging time and raised $67,000. The college kid who just wanted to bring fish tacos to Flagstaff has evolved into a community leader.
“Everybody told me how stupid I was,” Conley says of his decision to leave NAU during his senior year. Those last 10 college credits are still out there, but so are tables full of loyal customers hungry for Conley’s approachable Mexican cuisine. The degree will have to wait.
2220 E. Historic Route 66