Haute Mexican

South-of-the-border cuisine goes gourmet in Phoenix, Arizona

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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.



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