First Dish: Sotol Modern Cocktail Kitchen

Kristy DurkinFebruary 6, 2023
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This small, modern restaurant with an open patio and stunning panoramic views sits two stories above the gentle hustle and bustle of downtown Gilbert. Named after a North American spirit derived from a Chihuahuan Desert shrub called the sotol plant, this hotspot is introducing Gilbert to a creative cocktail menu, but it’s a lot more than a thirst-quenching cantina.

The menu is also filled with imaginative dishes that not only tickled my taste buds but also piqued my curiosity. The passionate focus on the use of local plants, flowers and herbs is showcased throughout the menu. How did Sotol come up with these one-of-a-kind dishes? I needed to know the backstory, so I was introduced to Sotol owner and Valley native Erika Rode, who unraveled her culinary journey which ultimately led her to honoring Arizona’s rich plant life.

Starting in the restaurant business at 15 years old as a food runner, Rode has seen the evolution of the industry through many roles throughout the years. She took a pivotal leap in 2017 when she opened her first solo venture, Bitters Bar & Restaurant in Scottsdale. Sotol came shortly thereafter in January 2021.

“I truly love the development of bars and restaurants, from the construction phase to the branding and ambiance to the seating and functionality and, of course, the menu development,” Rode says. “There is obviously a lot more, like literal blood, sweat and tears that go into it, but the rewards are often beautiful. My favorite is to see a complete stranger truly enjoying what you’ve created.”

Rode’s enthusiasm about local ingredients is apparent as she strives to give her restaurant guests a sense of local flavor and an Arizona identity. But where does one gain the knowledge of safe and edible vegetation from the Sonoran Desert? Her many years of experience and local connections guided her in the right direction, she says. “When I was developing the concept for Sotol in downtown Gilbert in 2019, I was inspired by what Arizona and the Sonoran Desert could provide to a food/cocktail concept,” she says. “The inspiration was literally right in our backyard, and I felt an urge to create a concept that could pay homage or, at minimum, tilt a cap in recognition to the blend of cultures and the incredible terroir… and I knew Cactus Kelly would be such a fabulous resource and would be thrilled to be a part of it.”

Cactus Kelly is a wild desert food specialist who has dedicated her life to foraging, educating and selling Indigenous plants from the Arizona Sonoran Desert. Rode met her when she arrived as part of a team that cared for an onsite garden at one of her previous restaurants.

“We were able to source and grow local ingredients to use onsite. Cactus Kelly helped me with that, but I knew she was special when I first met her,” Rode says. “She went out of her way to bring in unique items, educate me on those items, and then ask for my hand in playing with ingredients to create different cocktails or recipes. Her passion for foraging and harvesting radiates. It’s hard to miss.”

Rode says it was a natural collaboration when Sotol was being developed. “Kelly came to me, as she frequently did, with baskets, cups, bowls and bags of ingredients she had foraged. We would smell them, taste them, discuss their health benefits and brainstorm ideas,” Rode says. “Then, I would work with my team to develop some great cocktail recipes and dishes that had a core foundation of Hispanic or Native American influence.”

Keep your eye out for cocktails utilizing purslane, beets, barrel fruit and fresh-pressed prickly pear concentrate. With choices like The Desert Daiquiri, Sotol So Good and The Mesquite Old Fashion, it’s hard to not want to sample the entire menu. I adored the Sotol Tiki, which is a Southwestern twist on a tropical tiki cocktail: smooth, not too sweet with that taste of vacation we all crave in a tiki-style drink.

Ingredients such as mesquite beans, wild mushrooms and wild oregano fill the food portion of the menu. Standout options include Smoky Chicken Fry Bread, Slow Roasted Beef Barbacoa Sliders and my personal favorite, Nopales Fritas (yucca and cactus paddles fried in house-made batter). Think of the best fried green beans you’ve ever tasted topped with a smoky spicy sauce.

Sipping a signature cocktail and indulging in the local flavors of the desert on display in the distance is what sets Sotol apart. Rode has successfully shined a light on all the wonderful natural things our state has to offer. “All of these moments, coupled with my passions, have led me to where I am,” she says.

313 N. Gilbert Rd., Gilbert, 480-550-6300, sotolmck.com