Mexican, Argentine, vegetarian chorizo – Latin is anything but a dead tongue in this month’s new-restaurant roundup.
Los Arbolitos de Cajeme
Opened: June 2019
Alluring variations on the standard Mexican-American playbook can be had at this inaugural U.S. location of a Mexico-based chain, housed in the shell of a former La Parrilla Suiza. Seafood is the specialty here, with octopus seemingly a point of pride. Tacos de pulpo ($13.98 for two), stuffed with tangled, springy slices of cephalopod arm and gooey cheese, are one of several showcases. Caldo largo ($18.50) was more democratic – a bounty of octopus, fish, shrimp and sea snail in a restorative, gloriously rich red broth. A word should also be said for one of the complimentary salsas, a soy-based concoction laced with chopped cucumbers. It goes great on the house tortilla chips; so do the frijoles puercos ($6), a pinto bean dip potently enriched with pork lard.
Must try: The beauty pageant winner of Arbolitos dishes is filete florista ($18), fish fillet topped with two shrimp, posed on a bed of spinach, inside a ring of mashed potatoes. Tastes as good as it looks.
3508 W. Peoria Ave., 602-314-6043
La Esquina Argentina
Opened: July 2019
On the other hand, you could go a bit farther south, culturally, in Mesa. Visually speaking, the nondescript little building that houses this new Argentine diner – the passion project of chef-owner Alexandra Gorosito – is notable only because it flies that country’s flag alongside the Stars and Stripes. But when you pull into the rear parking lot, the mesquite-charcoal smell will draw you inside fast. Start with the empanadas ($3.25), baked not fried, with fillings varying daily. Most of the menu is carnivore-centric, like the Milanesa ($11), a thin but expansive cut of beef in a light batter, sort of a sophisticated chicken-fried steak with a side of pea- and carrot-supported potato salad. The choripan ($6), a mild, herbaceous beef-pork sausage on a soft white bun, is house-made, as is the morcilla ($6), a blood sausage. Top everything with generous dollops of zesty green chimichurri.
Must try: Well, OK, don’t put chimichurri on the caramel-equipped flan ($5.50), but do try it – it’s also house-made.
3960 E. Broadway Rd., Mesa 480-590-5185
Agave del Scottsdale
Opened: June 2019
Many of us find it hard not to love Mexican food, but even the most torrid love affairs can start to feel routine and over-familiar. If so, this upscale-ish Scottsdale spot stands a good chance of rekindling your passion for south-of-the-border fare. The savory Azteca soup ($9), fortified with pasilla chiles, avocado and chicharrón, and the mole enchiladas ($16) are both orthodox but confidently executed – the mole stays just on the right side of smoky versus scorched. Lighter appetites might want to pay homage to the surrealist great with the Frida Kahlo salad ($16), featuring shrimp, strawberry and greens in a light guajillo dressing; hungrier souls will relish the burro de langosta ($16), with lobster and strips of pepper in warm chipotle sauce, wrapped in a tomato tortilla.
Must try: Easily the most spectacular bites I tried at Agave were the tlacoyos de huitlacoche ($16) – twin cakes of dark, seductive masa topped with scrumptious corn smut.
8390 E. Via de Ventura, 480-248-6901, agavedelscottsdale.com
Earth Plant Based Cuisine
Opened: September 2019
The name sounds like something out of Aldous Huxley, but the non-futuristic items on the menu include such staples as burgers, hot dogs and shrimp. Like Veggie Village in North-Central Phoenix, this vegan joint on the hipster stretch of Grand Avenue offers meatless eats in the form of classic animal proteins. A mural of the Earth on reclaimed wood features a cow, a chicken and a pig smiling their approval at us diners. I inevitably spent my meal trying to decide if I could be “tricked” by the Hot Diggity Dog ($6.50), served with all the trimmings including avocado salsa and pinto beans, or the fine, crispy chorizo fries ($7.50), topped with cheese and something masquerading as chorizo. Do they really have the same punchy potency as flesh? Probably not, but they’re yummy in their own right, with a texture that isn’t off-putting like those of some meat substitutes.
Must try: The Crazy Shrimp Tacos ($10.75) are the most convincing of the lot. I presumed they’d be the hardest to simulate, but they really look and taste like shrimp.
1325 Grand Ave., 480-465-2110, earthplantbased.com