Dining along Arizona’s Black Canyon Freeway
We are halfway into a tasting dinner at Scottsdale’s FnB (7125 East 5th Ave. No. 31, 480-284-477, www.fnbrestaurant.com) that began with chickpeas crisped with smoked paprika and lemon and grilled eggplant and peppers paired with the tang of sherry vinegar, before shifting to churro lamb and jidori chicken. A tray laden with giant orange lobster mushrooms arrives. In a demonstration of her farm-to-table approach chef Charleen Badman, known locally as the vegetable whisperer, whisks the delivery off to her open kitchen where she prepares a lobster, mushroom, and fresh-shucked corn egg pasta that will leave our table reeling.
FnB was no anomaly. During a two-week stay in Arizona that found us shuttling among Scottsdale, Sedona, and Flagstaff, we took full advantage of the restaurant boom along the Black Canyon Freeway, Arizona’s Interstate 17. Moderately priced, welcoming, and unpretentious eateries have cropped up in town centers, shopping strips, repurposed buildings, and adjacent to hotels. We met the young chefs who are transforming Arizona’s food scene with their focus on seasonal and locally sourced slow food.
In the conflation of flavors that soon emerged as uniquely Arizonan, we discovered such highlights as air-dried corn and rose sorbet with champagne foam crafted from organic roses. And with 85 licensed Arizona wineries and a score of artisanal breweries, these restaurants feature a drink list with an equally local emphasis. Along with FnB, these are the standouts that wowed us.
A stone’s throw from FnB is Citizen Public House ( 7111 East Fifth Ave., 480-398-4208, www.citizenpublichouse.com) where old family photos from the three owners grace the walls. We started with a local varietal red. Our waiter insisted we try the “original chopped salad.” Later in the week when we hit the road we encountered copycat salads from Sedona to Flagstaff, but none compared to this creation. Chef Bernie Kantak’s salad was crunchy, salty, and sweet with orderly rows of air-dried corn, arugula, asiago, toasted pepitas, smoked salmon, currents, tomatoes, and couscous, and a sassy buttermilk pesto dressing.
We found an antidote to the Scottsdale heat at The House ( 6936 East Main St., 480-634-1600, www.thehousebrasserie.com), tucked away in a shaded corner of Old Town in the city’s second-oldest dwelling. The year-old restaurant, which changes its menu seasonally, served up housemade watermelon and honeydew melon sodas. The patio is one of the city’s best, with intimate groupings of seating and tables, a fireplace, and the original owners’ now towering Christmas tree. There’s a French influence in the kitchen, and the mains can be heavy. But the salads and small plates showcased seasonal fruits and vegetables combined in unexpected ways. A black kale salad was paired with plums and feta. Bruschetta arrived with warm radishes and locally made ricotta. Shrimp partnered with harissa-roasted corn.
At the just-opened 25-seat Virtù , (701 North Marshall Way, 480-946-3477, www.virtuscottsdale.com) chef Gio Osso proved to be a fine interpreter of Mediterranean food. Chickpeas in olive oil and thyme dusted with lemon zest and a charred octopus transported us to a tapas bar in Granada, and his housemade burrata stands up to that of any Italian farmer.
Festooned with Dia de los Muertos artwork, Barrio Queen (7114 East Stetson Drive Suite 105, 480-656-4197, www.barrioqueen.com) serves food of chef-owner Silvana Salcido Esparza’s native Sonora region. She shuttles across the border the ingredients that make up her 40 taco offerings. These are real workmen’s tacos: built on two warm, supple corn tortillas folded around long-cooked meat with nubs of char and topped with radish, onion, cilantro, and wedges of lime.
We headed up to Sedona hungry for more Mexican cuisine. There are surprisingly few serious restaurants in Sedona, but with chef Jeff Smedstad’s Elote (771 Highway 179, 928-203-0105, www.elotecafe.com), perhaps it needs only the one. Each night people line up patiently, spilling down the stairs of this casual establishment located along a highway lined with car dealerships and fast-food outlets. We settled into an outdoor table warmed by a fire pit, at once ordering elote, the restaurant’s namesake dish. The base is sweet Silver Queen corn roasted in the husk until well charred, to which mayo, lime, and cotija cheese are added and served with crispy corn tortillas. The smoked chicken relleño defied the dish’s usual heaviness and featured a sauce of pureed sesame and pumpkin seeds.
Flagstaff has its share of flannel shirts and the casual food to match. Walking into Coppa Cafe (1300 South Milton Road, No. 107, 928-637-6813, www.coppacafe.net), located in a shopping strip, we expected the food to resonate with the location. The restaurant’s name refers to a salt-cured pork shoulder, aged like prosciutto but for less time, that Paola Fioravanti, our hostess and chef along with husband, Brian Konefal, explained, is known as the “poor man’s prosciutto.” The analogy proved a perfect fit for the unassuming Coppa, where this European-trained couple serves such sophisticated wonders as local pasture-raised veal in a Blanquette stew, agnolotti filled with pork, and mandarin-steeped marshmallows.
Seasonal and farm-focused, Brix, (413 North San Francisco, 928-213-1021, www.brixflagstaff.com) two blocks north of downtown, offers American comfort food with attentive service. For this, our last Arizona dinner, we ate rabbit leg, a roasted beet salad, a little duck on polenta, crispy roast chicken, a bavette steak and frites, popcorn ice cream, and devil’s food cake.
Every Arizona meal had introduced us to a taste — this night it was the power of finger limes. The tiny balls of juice served atop a miniature chevre literally burst on the tongue. Cultivated in their native Australian rain forest? No, by an Arizona grower, of course.