Over the last couple of decades, Mexican food has flowed across the continent, but Mexican cuisine has followed hesitantly. Americans have become accustomed to a lot of burrito for a buck, so our southern neighbor's serious cooking, which can be as complicated and delectable - and expensive - as Mediterranean cuisine, has struggled to find an American welcome.
"It can be smashingly good, as good as anything on the planet," says Howard Seftel, restaurant critic for the Arizona Republic. But, according to Seftel, Mexican cuisine doesn't always get the recognition it deserves. "The problem is that high-end Mexican tends to morph into 'Southwestern' so restaurants can charge more for it."
In Phoenix, however, a handful of highly regarded restaurants are winning converts with authentic regional Mexican dishes such as puerco enrollado, a roulade of pork stuffed with fresh spinach and raisins; and pato en tamarindo, duck breast with tamarind and chipotle chili sauce. Most eschew chips and salsa, take more care with presentation than the average Mexican restaurant, and strive to educate their customers.
"A lot of people think Mexican food is burritos and chimichangas," says Arturo Rodriguez, owner-chef of Así es la Vida (Spanish for "Such is Life," its former name), a restaurant specializing in central and southern Mexican cuisine. "Real Mexican food is a little more complicated, but people love it."
La Hacienda at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess is Arizona's Mexican splurge; dinner for two can rocket into three figures even without a boost from the tequila or wine list. But the flavors are a revelation. The ceviche features lobster and tuna, not shrimp and mackerel. The menu bristles with a constellation of chilies - ancho, pasilla, poblano, serrano - and executive chef Reed Groban estimates that he cooks with 20 varieties. But each contributes a distinctive flavor, not mere fire (in fact, most of the chili-starring dishes are mildly spiced). "You could eat a raw habanero, but what's the point?" says Groban. "We use the chilies to give the food a cutting edge, but with balance."
Jeff and Azucena Smedstad's Los Sombreros offers cuisine from central and southern Mexico; the owners travel to a different state every summer to digest inspiration. They went to Veracruz to sample its signature huachinango a la Veracruzana, red snapper baked with tomatoes, onions, olives, and capers. "I wanted to eat it there to make sure I got it right," Jeff explains.
The area newcomer is Barrio Café, which Wendy Gruber and Silvana Salcido Esparza opened in July 2002. Its menu is southern Mexican, drawing from the regional cuisine of Oaxaca, Puebla, and the Yucatan, and the food is nuanced in ways that still seem unusual north of the border. Here a chile relleno gets stuffed with shrimp and scallops, and the cheese is a blend of havarti and Mexican queso fresco.
These Phoenix-area restaurants may be harbingers of delicious things to come. In America, ethnic cuisines tend to start with mom-and-pop cookery, then explode with sophistication and innovation. The Mexican revolution may be at hand.
FINE DINING, MEXICAN-STYLE
Así es la Vida. Lunch and dinner daily. 3602 N. 24th St., Phoenix; (602) 952-1255.
Barrio Café. Lunch Tue-Fri and Sun, dinner Tue-Sun. 2814 N. 16th St., Phoenix; (602) 636-0240.
La Hacienda. Dinner Thu-Tue. In the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, 7575 E. Princess Dr., Scottsdale; (480) 585-4848.
Los Sombreros. Dinner Tue-Sun. 2534 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale; (480) 994-1799.