I was mighty impressed by the food scene in Scottsdale and Phoenix. Being so far down south, I tried to focus on Latin flavors and foods that I wouldn’t typically be able to experience elsewhere (or at least not in Vancouver). I was especially determined to try some good Mexican food, never really having reached beyond the likes of tacos and quesadillas.
Cheats included corn (most dishes seem to be at least garnished with it – I picked out what I could and didn’t worry about the rest), vegetable oils (impossible to avoid when dining out), sugar, and peanuts (kept popping up, did my best to avoid them). I did ensure that all my meals were gluten free, though I was not concerned with cross-contamination.
Sadly, I didn’t have dessert at any of the restaurants. There were hardly any gluten-free dessert options – probably a good thing, although disappointing since dessert is still my favourite course. However, interestingly enough, I seemed to have developed a liking for tequila. It makes me think of that post I did about desensitization/acquired tastes. I think it has started to grow on me. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that the quality of a couple of the margaritas I tried was outstanding.
Highlights of my foodie adventures included what I swear tasted even better than bread at Deseo (pan de bono – gluten and grain free), and honestly everything else I ate at Deseo, and the lamb ribs at the Mission. Restaurants that I didn’t get around to: Kai (awesome looking menu, but nothing that suited my dietary preferences), and Roaring Fork (ran out of mealtimes). For a great wine bar / live music experience, I recommend Kazimierz Wine Bar (impressive wine selection – I had a white port over ice (!), great atmosphere and awesome jazz).
Read on for my reviews of Blue Sage Bistro, Carolina’s Mexican Food, Deseo, Bandera, and Sweet Republic.
Whenever possible, I try to stay at a hotel/condo with a kitchen/kitchenette. I then stock up on breakfast essentials and snacks at the nearest Whole Foods. Having full control over at least one meal when travelling is huge for me. It also saves both time and money. I bought eggs and butter (both pastured and organic), sardines and blueberries. If I can’t score a room with a kitchen, the next best option is at least having a breakfast buffet.
It’s a bonus when there are great lunch options right at the hotel, more time/money savings, especially if I’m already there lounging by the pool anyway, which was the case this time around. They had a great pool menu (wings, salads, burgers) and a taco grilling station that served up awesome tacos for $3 a pop. I also had brunch at the Blue Sage Bistro – a very primal and yummy chicken and sweet potato hash (poached eggs, chipotle hollandaise). The chicken hash was a generous portion, but rightly so considering the $14 price tag. Their menu was pretty funny though – the majority of the egg options were egg whites only, and I’m pretty sure that the complimentary Greek yogurt they served at the beginning (which was a nice surprise) was fat-free (fat-free Greek yogurt = oxymoron). I did like that they used cage-free eggs and free range chicken (it’s a start). As a side note, it’s time to replace those patio cushions, or at least have them professionally cleaned – yuck.
Carolina’s Mexican Food
Carolina’s was literally my first stop in Phoenix. It got 92% on Urban Spoon with 320 reviews – that seemed like a slam dunk. I was excited – I would finally get to experience authentic Mexican food. The reviewers warned that it was a bit of a dive, but that did not bother me – if that’s where the locals ate, great, sign me up.
Well… Carolina’s did not live up to the hype. I really don’t get what people like about this place? The food was bland, lacking flavor and variety. Everything tasted the same. The tacos at my hotel were better (those were actually very tasty). The only thing I liked about this place, other than the prices, was the guacamole. But that’s probably because it seemed like it was simply a mashed up avocado – how can you go wrong with that? Oh, and the beef burrito was okay. Two thumbs down. (In case you’re wondering, I just ditched the corn/flour on everything I ordered).
Deseo at the Westin Kierland Resort
Once in a blue moon, the stars align, and you find yourself rapturously enjoying the elusive perfect meal. It seems like the chef can do no wrong – every dish that is brought out, and every morsel that passes your lips is utter perfection. Such meals are the ultimate payoff for all the researching, combing through urbanspoon and chowhound, and studying menus. I have only had a few such memorable experiences, and I’m happy to report that my dinner at the Westin Kierland’s Deseo was one of them – it decidedly ranked as one of the best restaurant meals I’ve ever had.
Navigating Deseo’s menu was a little more challenging than usual, as I’m not very familiar with Latin cuisine. Luckily, our helpful server knowledgeably walked us through the menu and provided great recommendations, especially since there was some unexpected gluten.
But first, before our food came, I snuck off to the bathroom. I came back to find a plate with two bread rolls in front of me. I cocked an eyebrow at my friend, who knows full well that I do not, under any circumstance, eat bread. My friend looks incredulous – apparently the guy who had brought the bread insisted that it was gluten and grain free. So there I was, eyeing these beautiful round rolls skeptically, careful to not get prematurely excited. When he comes by, I drill the bread guy, who, seeing that I won’t be easily convinced, decides to bring over the recipe. Sure enough, the main ingredients are pan de bono (yuca flour), tapioca flour, and cheese. I’m still puzzled by the pan de bono yuca flour, so I flag down our server. She reassures me that there’s no gluten – it’s just yuca flour. Now, I have since done some googling, and it appears that pan de bono is often made with cornmeal as one of the ingredients. But there are variations of it made simply with yucca and tapioca flours – and it appears that this was the case with the one at Deseo (although if I were there again, I would triple check). Annnyways. I tore into the buns, slathered them in the cactus-shaped butter (!), and… OMG. I was in heaven. It didn’t just taste like bread. It tasted better than bread. Much, much better. The meal was a success before the appetizer even arrived :P Yes, it has lots of carbs and is made of flours, but oh my goodness, the pan de bono was phenomenal. I still daydream about it. I would go back to Deseo just for those rolls.
But there was more! As if I wasn’t giddy enough after the pan de bono, the appetizer blew me away: kobe beef tenderloin on casabe flatbread (truffle aioli / micro arugula / pickled onions). At that point, I was about ready to start worshipping yuca, which, by the way is the same as cassava (also called manioc). Yuca, when dried to a starchy, powdery extract is called tapioca. Thankfully, Mark Sisson had just done a post last week about various food items are paleo, and tapioca passed his scrutiny as a “safe starch”, very low in anti-nutrients :) The kobe beef was so tender and flavorful. The aioli, arugula and onions worked ridiculously well together. It was a party in my mouth. And I was eating yuca flatbread. Two for two. Actually, let’s call it 3 for 3 because Deseo has a muddle bar, and I had ordered the tropic mojito (cruzan mango, parrot bay pineapple, coconut, fresh lime, mint) hands down the best mojito I have ever had. Everything fresh and top shelf.
My friend ordered the rainbow ceviche (white soy / citrus / sesame seeds / pickled jalapeno), which I didn’t try because of the soy. The presentation was gorgeous though, and my friend said it was delicious – very clean and fresh tasting.
It was at this point that I became a little apprehensive. With a run that good, I almost wanted to quit while I was ahead, and simply love Deseo for all the enjoyment it had provided me with thus far. I didn’t’ want to break the spell – what if the main course disappointed?
Thankfully, the main exceeded my already high expectations: lamb cutlets and trufa chimichurri (lamb chops / truffle chimichurri / uala sweet potato). When I read lamb chops, I was expecting shoulder or loin chops, since it didn’t mention rack of lamb or lamb ribs. But I was pleasantly surprised to see rib chops arrive. The sauce was fantastic, really elevated the dish. So fresh and flavorful – what a beautiful medley of flavors. The uala is a Hawaiian sweet potato that actually originated in South America – very tasty. I couldn’t’ get enough of this dish. And the portions were very generous – I saw plenty of people leaving with doggie bags. But I just couldn’t stop eating. I had to refrain from using my hands to gnaw on the bones :P
My friend ordered the beef tenderloin “churrasco style” (crab mojo / peruvian potato / tomato / horseradish chimichurri) – also absolutely fantastic. The meat was so tender it tasted and looked like it had been stripped of all its fibers – I don’t know how they did it. And we split a side of green and yellow squash with oaxaca cheese (calabazitas con queso) – so incredibly good. Cheesy, and smoky thanks to the serrano pepper. We also wanted to try the plantains, but unfortunately they were out.
Believe it or not, I didn’t have dessert. The server told us that none of the desserts were gluten free, which was rather disappointing considering how accommodating the rest of the menu was. But honestly, we were both full and very much satisfied with the meal thus far. If I wasn’t so full, I would’ve happily inhaled a couple more of the pan de bonos :P
Overall, dining at Deseo was a joy. The menu was creative, the food was incredible and beautifully plated, the portions were generous, and the service helpful and genuinely nice. If I were to change one thing, it’d be the ambiance. Walking down the stairs to the restaurant, there were funky colored candles on each step, but that was it. The restaurant felt a little bit too much like a hotel restaurant, which it was. But I think the ambiance should’ve risen to match the quality of the food. They did have an artist painting outside the restaurant, but I found the interior boring. But really, that’s a very small gripe. Quite honestly, I was so enthralled by the food, that I barely noticed my surroundings. Oh, and it’d be great to have a gluten free dessert added to the menu, please. Other than that, I was thrilled :) I’d love to try more Latin food – the flavours were outstanding.
On your way into this Old Town Scottsdale restaurant, you get to see your rotisserie chicken dinner being roasted – we’re off to a good start. Bandera is owned by the Hillstone Restaurant Group, and also has locations in Brentwood, Corona Del Mar, Chicago, and Sacramento. I generally don’t love chains, but I’m okay if they’re only limited to a few cities. In addition to dine-in, Bandera also has a “flying chicken curbside service” aka take-out/delivery.
Bandera’s menu is pretty limited, which can be a very good thing: choose something and do it well. In this case, they’re known for their wood-fired rotisserie:
“At Bandera we choose only the highest quality rotisserie meats which we slowly cook over a hardwood fire in our custom stone oven for genuine flavor.”
They also have a small selection of salads, burgers, fish, and beef. The restaurant itself was pretty chill. The staff was very friendly, attentive, and entertaining. And this is where I got turned on to margaritas. I had one previously poolside, which was surprisingly good but had mediocre ingredients, so it just whet my appetite for something more shmancy. The server recommended the margarita as the house specialty. It was fantastic – the fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice really hit it out of the park and they make their own sours. Best margarita I’ve ever had (even better than the one I would have the following day at the Mission). My friend found it a little bit too sour, so I guess to each his own, but I prefer sour over sweet drinks. As I mentioned, this trip was a game changer for me in terms of tequila – this margarita was exceptional.
Now, for the food. They had deviled eggs on the menu! What the heck? How could we resist. They were tasty – nice and horseradishy. My friend and I then split the Roasted Chicken & Low Country Barbecue Beef Rib Combo with coleslaw and the Macho Salad (with roasted chicken, avocado, chopped almonds and goat cheese), along with a side of escabeche (pickled veggies).
The Macho Salad was delicious – holy guacamole, those were some huge avocado chunks! And again, portions were enormous. The chicken was very tasty. But my favourite was the ribs – so tender, and the sauce was very good. The coleslaw was interesting – it did have peanuts in it, and it wasn’t something I’d come back for. But the escabeche was very tasty – refreshing, citrusy; I’m not used to having such a variety of pickled veggies, and would definitely like to have it again.
I didn’t satisfy my sweet tooth at the restaurants that I visited, so I made a special stop at Sweet Republic. They have won multiple awards for their natural artisinal ice cream.
Our artisan ice cream is made using one simple philosophy: start with the purest ingredients and you get the most flavorful ice cream experience.
There are no artificial flavors, colors, preservatives or hydrogenated oils in any of our products – only what nature intended.
Sounds good to me! They also sell their ice cream at Whole Foods, but I wanted the full experience with all the flavour choices, so I decided to pop by. I tasted a bunch of flavors :) The real mint chip tasted just like real mint. The maple pecan tasted like, wait for it, real maple and pecans. And the banana foster tasted just like, banana foster. In all seriousness, that’s really good – most ice cream doesn’t taste anything like their name.
After trying half the flavors :P I settled on espresso and…. honey blue cheese! I have never ever tasted blue cheese ice cream before. It was really good, subtle, but you could definitely taste the cheese. I didn’t always love blue cheese, by the way, it was definitely an acquired taste. But now, I can’t get enough. So this flavor was a bit of a no-brainer. I’d love to have it again. I also tried the medjool date ice cream, but the date was a little understated so I passed. After checking out their website afterwards, those two seem to be a pairing, which I wish I had been informed of while I was there.
The experience at Sweet Republic was a good one. They had some creative flavors, and I appreciate their quality ingredients. I did wish their ice cream was more “creamy” though – I wonder what the fat content of their cream is, and how much of it they use relative to the milk. Overall, I was pleased, and really enjoyed the unique blue cheese honey flavor (the espresso was also very good). They also have an assortment of sundaes, as well as some baked goods. Great spot!