Still, give credit to Iron Chef Jose Garces for cooking up something different – Mexico City street food with culinary-school flair. Distrito’s hearty-but-high-end tacos and masa delicacies make a muscular addition to Old Town’s dining scene. Both the kaleidoscopic decor – lots of hues and shapes, in both the beach-themed bar and flamboyant dining room – and a buzzing service staff make for a high-energy, youthful scene.
Loosen up for the small plates menu with respectable margaritas by the glass ($10-$13) or by the pitcher ($49-$60), if you dare. Guacamole ($10) is as good as it gets: absent watery tomatoes and primed with plenty of lime, garlic and roasted jalapeños that build to a pleasant, slow burn. Too bad there’s no kick to the salsa Mexicana ($7 – you didn’t expect free chips and salsa, did you?).
Do share the dinner skillet of nachos encarnacion ($14) with juicy bits of marinated skirt steak, refried beans, and strips of roasted peppers and onions on a mound of thick, crisp chips with a tingling chile de arbol sauce.
Huarache de hongos ($12, dinner only), a sandal-shaped masa flatbread topped with roasted cremini mushrooms and corn, and smeared with huitlachoche (mushroom-flavored corn smut) is delicious, but the Mexico City-style quesadilla ($9) misses the mark with bland zucchini, goat cheese and something called poblano espuma (foam).
A trio of crisp-fried Mahi Mahi tacos ($14), jazzed up with chipotle remoulade and pickled red cabbage, is tasty, but the coconut milk-poached chicken enchiladas (dinner: $7 for one enchilada; lunch: $13 for two, plus terrific rice and beans) draped in a mild red chile sauce are too cinnamony and sweet.
Sweet is a recurring theme, especially in the barbacoa (barbecue) menu items (dinner only). The cochinita a la pibil ($12) swims in a sugary, pineapple barbecue sauce, bearing no resemblance to pibil’s trademark sour orange flavor – that said, I ate every tender bite.
Speaking of sweets, desserts need fine-tuning, from dry, grainy tres leche cake ($8) to granola parfait-like panna cotta ($8) to undercooked churros ($7).
Instead of dessert, veer into creative sides, like ejotes ($6), crisp green beans tossed with peeled cherry tomatoes, pickled jalapeños and roasted garlic lemon vinaigrette, or a glass of esquites ($6), a sweet, velvety combo of cream and corn with chipotle and lime.
Distrito isn’t a typical Arizona-Mexican restaurant, and it’s worth experiencing for that reason alone. Just bring some extra cash – if you don’t spend it all on the meal, you can cover the $5 valet fee. It might be Mexican street food, but this is still Scottsdale.
Distrito at The Saguaro
Address: 4000 N. Drinkwater Blvd., Scottsdale
Hours: Breakfast 7-11 a.m.; lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner 5-10 p.m.; weekend brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Highlights: Guacamole ($10); nachos encarnacion ($14); huarache de hongos ($12); esquites ($6)
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