Just one warning: Most of the items pack a spicy wallop and might not work for your meat-and-potatoes relatives visiting from the Midwest. If you’re used to a bit of a kick, though, this stuff will knock you out of your zapatos.
The décor sets the tone: It’s elegant but not opulent – dress up or go in jeans and feel comfortable either way. Check out the cool, glowing wall of salt blocks and bask in the flattering light from chandeliers and dripping candles.
Start your feast with tableside guacamole ($12), which they’re rightly pushing as a signature. If you thought you were over tableside anything, think again – we nearly licked this crock of guac clean. The salsa is smoky and spectacular, too.
Tostadas ($9) with chicken thigh meat, black beans, ham hocks, cotija cheese and aji rocoto are familiar but not boring. Rocoto, as it’s often called for short, is a spicy red pepper used extensively in Peru. It’s a shame we don’t see it here more often – kudos to Carter for bringing it in.
Swordfish bunuelos ($9), three tiny croquettes on skewers, are fabulous, with a golden brown, light-as-a-feather fried shell encasing tender, mild, lightly smoked fish, all atop Spanish romesco sauce. Spicy soups are not for the weak. Roasted 5 chile pepper soup ($9) with slices of chicken and avocado is smoky and thick – a must-try for anyone who is a pepper person. Pozole ($10) is rich and sultry, thanks to a thick, dark chili sauce and smoked pork that’s brined first, then charred on a wood grill and smoked. Carter uses a laundry list of other ingredients to create a complex broth, including poblano, pasilla, guajillo, morita and New Mexico chilies.
Almejas al vapor ($14) is stew-like, with super-fresh clams, rock shrimp, sliced chorizo, roasted corn, pan de yucca and aji amarillo (spicy Peruvian yellow peppers) in spicy gravy that complements, not overpowers, the components. Mango and jicama salad ($8) dressed with Oaxacan cheese cooled our palates; the citrusy mango purée vinaigrette is not overly acidic. As for entrées, the best of the best were the short rib ($25) and pork shoulder ($32). Short rib fanatics will find this one rises to the top of the heap, with the tender meat and amazing lip-smacking sauce. Slabs of pork belly on the side are almost sinful, and that wonderful white stuff that comes with it? White beans with rosemary and cumin.
Carter says pork is his favorite meat to prepare. He loves cooking up a whole pig at parties, and it shows. Pork shoulder for two with pineapple glaze and tiny handmade corn tortillas on the side served on a heated salt block is one of the best dishes in town.
Another find is the crusty scallops ($28); they’re so rich and buttery, you don’t need more than the three you get. They’re topped with Serrano ham chips, grilled octopus, hearts of palm and smoked tomato sauce, and served on a round, flat disk made with corn, cheeses, yucca flour and egg. It could have been a mad-chef disaster with too much going on, but thanks to the right touch, it’s crazy good. Uruguayan rib eye ($32) is spruced up with zippy green chimichurri sauce, and I could have eaten a whole pan of the side of chilaquiles – a layered dish of tortillas, eggs, pulled pork and red chili sauce. Salmon with punchy padron peppers and huitlacoche crema ($24) is different due to the earthy huitlacoche (a delicacy made from a fungus that grows on corn), but it didn’t wow us.
The kitchen didn’t slouch a bit at lunch, delivering stunners the whole time. Everyone “oohed” and “aahed” over hearts of palm salad ($10) with thickly diced bacon and velvety date vinaigrette. Roasted corn gordita ($9) – three thick corn tortillas topped with corn kernels, diced squash and zucchini – showed panache, thanks to huitlacoche and aji rocoto.
Pork shoulder tacos ($10) with pineapple glaze and cotija cheese were to die for, with mellow shredded meat and a subtle sweetness. The Pabellon ($14) – braised beef with peppers between layers of fried cornbread – was addictive, but the bread was oily and almost too tough to chew. I could eat a trough of the meat, however.
Pollo a la Brasa ($16), sliced skin-on chicken breast and leg marinated and brushed with aji rocoto sauce and lemon, gives off a bit of fire, but not too much. Fries – potato and sweet potato – are crisp and delicious with chipotle catsup. Carnivores will love the Kobe dog ($12), an almost humorously oversized frank wrapped in bacon, topped with cotija and served with green chili pinto beans. I prefer the subtlety of the other dishes, but it’s fun.
Desserts show as much finesse as the rest of the menu. Pumpkin bread pudding ($6) isn’t heavy or sweet and gets livened up by slightly tart pomegranate seeds. Fried bananas ($7), drizzled with dulce de leche and served with a dollop of house-made peanut butter and vanilla bean ice cream, is heavenly. They’re delicately crisped thanks to a North African dough called bric.
The drinks list can be pricey (the organic Mission margarita is $13) but creative (spicy peach margarita, anyone?). And you can get some of the best red or white sangria in town for $9 a glass.
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