El Panzón y Frida

Written by Nikki Buchanan Category: Food Reviews Issue: October 2017
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Seabass ceviche. Photo by Isabella Castillo.
Fish cakes. Photo by Isabella Castillo.
El Panzón interior. Photo by Isabella Castillo.

Set in the middle of Scottsdale’s rowdy nightlife district, this bold but erratic global diner is like a painting slightly askew.

If you’re a culture vulture, you may already know that El Panzón y Frida were the nicknames of Mexican art icon Frida Kahlo and her muralist husband Diego Rivera, whose paunchy physique earned him the affectionate put-down panzón, which means “potbelly” in Spanish. Now the power couple’s conjoined moniker has been attached to an ultra-hip restaurant in the heart of Scottsdale’s entertainment district, and for the life of me, I’m not sure why – because Kahlo is perpetually cool, I’m guessing. 

According to the restaurant’s website, chef Paula Martinez draws inspiration from Kahlo, but the culinary connection to the painter’s Mexican milieu isn’t entirely clear, and the menu defies easy description. Think small plates and global orientation with a light Latin accent and you’ve got the slightly unfocused picture. 

A handful of beautifully presented dishes are quite good – they’re just not compelling enough to lure me back to a part of town I despise, especially on weekend nights when the young and the wrecked are roaming the streets in droves. But let’s accentuate the positive. On a rainy day, I might venture in for feijoada – El Panzón’s soup-like answer to Brazil’s traditional pork and black bean stew, brimming with chicken sausage, red pepper, black beans, rice and tomato. Avocado gazpacho goes the other way – thick when you expect thin – a creamy, pale green avocado mixture poured over marinated grilled shrimp and garnished with tart pickled radish. 

Martinez’s best dishes are bright and balanced: fish cakes crusted with nutty-tasting Buffalo worms (yes, worms), strewn with peppery arugula and sided with tangy tartar sauce; light but flavorful seabass ceviche accented with mango, habanero, radish, cucumber and blood orange foam; and tender, grill-charred octopus served with pearl onions, cherry tomatoes, juicy pomegranate seeds and spicy aioli, an unorthodox but effective combination.

Not every dish is this successful, however. A lavishly decorated snack board called Cheese, Pickles & Bits certainly looks gorgeous, but proves banal. Fresh mozzarella with golden raisins? No, thanks. At first blush, fried olives stuffed with herbed goat cheese and sided with remoulade sound fun, but of course they taste like bar food, salty and one-dimensional. The biggest fails are undercooked gyoza, stuffed with sweet potato, carrot and beet purée and set afloat in a lukewarm, citrus-soy bath; and orange beef taco bites, tough little mongrels that do a disservice to both Chinese and Mexican food.  

I regret ordering entrees here as well – not because duck breast with lingonberries or seared scallops with coconut lobster are bad, but because at the $30-plus price point, I can have much better food at much better restaurants. Similarly, I have no patience for popcorn ice cream served with tiny cubes of cornbread, caramelized popcorn, roasted corn, sweet tomato-herb mix and a wafer-like tuile. Cornbread and a tuile? Even Frida wouldn’t approve of such overkill. 

And neither will the beer-sodden masses of the entertainment district, I fear, for reasons that have less to do with culinary rectitude, and more to do with the spendy vittles offered here. What this crowd needs are fried potato wedges and wings, not art. 

El Panzón y Frida 
Cuisine: Global, Latin-inflected small plates
Contact: 7323 E. Shoeman Ln., Scottsdale, 480-659-1544, elpanzonyfrida.com
Hours: Lunch Tu-Th 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner Tu-Th 3 p.m.-11 p.m., F 3 p.m.-1 a.m., Sa 4 p.m-1 a.m., Su 4 p.m.-9 p.m.; brunch Sa-Su 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
Highlights: Feijoada ($9), avocado gazpacho ($14), fish cakes ($13), seabass ceviche ($11), grilled octopus ($14) 

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