Sunday, January 19, 2014

You Win Some—And Then You Don’t (Part Two)

Upon our arrival in Phoenix, Chuck’s cousin Raina loaned us copies of Phoenix Magazine and the New Times Best of 2013 guide, and these have proved to be great resources in scouting out local restaurants. So today we are at another of Phoenix Mag’s Best New Restaurants of 2013—Otro Café.
“…(C)hef Doug Robson…has never let Mexico's Distrito Federal stray too far from memory. Born and raised just outside Mexico City, Robson moved to San Antonio before coming to the Valley to attend Scottsdale Culinary Institute. After graduating, Robson took gigs with James Beard Award winner Robert McGrath as well as Matt Carter…before opening Arcadia's La Grande Orange as its executive chef in 2002. Seven years later, Robson realized his own restaurant in the form of Gallo Blanco, his Mexico City-style eatery with the tongue-in-cheek name (Mexican slang for ‘white guy’) in the Clarendon Hotel in Phoenix. In March, Robson opened his newest and second Mexico-inspired venture: Otro, a name meaning ‘other’ in Spanish, in north Central Phoenix…

“It could be said Otro is a complement to Gallo Blanco in the way of very good, deftly prepared, and affordable traditional Mexican dishes made with local ingredients. In another sense, it's a more elevated companion that can hold its own — a kind of Tom Waits to Billy Joel: both piano-based singer-songwriters, but one with a few more eclectic touches” (Laura Hahnefeld at phoenixnewtimes.com).

We parked in the rear lot and that is where we saw this mural by El Moises who is described as Arizona’s Chicano Picasso.
“El Moises is leaving his mark as a modern day artist that brings the essence of urban culture and barrio flavor to mainstream fine art arena. The foundation of his artwork is influenced by the Chicano, American, Native American, and Mexican cultures that are reflected in his art pieces. Narrating history, culture, visions, and street life, he creates the core elements of a chic, vibrant cornucopia. The artist's distinctive style is bright, intense, and exhilarating with countless strokes of brilliant colors flowing in all directions layered on his images, often distorted and surreal, bordered in a bold black outline” (artedemoises.com).

In front of the restaurant is a small dining patio, but while the weather was perfect for al fresco dining, the front parking lot was busy, as was the street. I don’t know about you, but I don’t find auto exhaust to be an appetite stimulant, so instead we went inside.

“It's a welcoming space of wood and brick, with a…cheery entrance leading to an open kitchen.

A comfortable dining area is easy to settle into with its generously spaced tables and chairs,
a few leather booths, and local artwork on the walls.
The service is as laid-back as the scene, although sometimes too much so, especially toward the end of the meal when servers' table visits become rare” (Laura Hahnefeld at phoenixnewtimes.com).

While we studied the short menu, we snacked on an order of chips that came with two salsas.
I found the chips to be too thick for my taste, but the salsas—a tart and spicy tomatillo and avocado and a spicy chile de árbol (a small and potent Mexican chili pepper also known as bird's beak chile and rat's tail chile) were delicious. Chuck loaded a chip with the latter and was heard to gasp “Oh boy,” (deep breath) “Oh boy” (deep breath) before deciding to eat the chips naked (the chips, not him).

The menu includes a selection of burritos: Carne Asada Burrito with grilled ribeye, avocado, fire salsa, beans, cheddar cheese, and sour cream; Al Pastor Pork Burrito with “Tender Belly” pork, tomatillo salsa, beans, cheddar cheese, and sour cream; Grilled Chicken with aji [a form of pepper] aoili, beans, cheddar cheese, and pico de gallo; and vegetable. Tacos and tortas can be ordered with Al Pastor, carne asada, shrimp, fish, and veggies.

The list of Platos Fuertes (main courses) listed pollo asado, mole negro, pescado del dia, and enchiladas verdes but Chuck was interested in the café’s rendition of paella that could be ordered as Paella Mexicana (chicken, pork, chorizo and seasonal veggies), vegetable (saffron rice with seasonal vegetables) or chicken. He chose the chicken.
In truth, this really wasn’t paella (most notable was the lack of a crispy bottom that is so prized in great paella) but rather the chef’s reworking of one. I am sure that any self-respecting Spaniard would look at this and exclaim: “esto no es ningún paella,” but it was still delicious.

First, the rice was perfect—every grain standing alone and separate from the others. And it didn’t hurt that it was also well-seasoned. The seasoned chicken had a “smoked” flavor and was tender and juicy. And mixed with the chicken and rice were mushrooms (I ate these.), tomatoes, corn, onion, and jicama. This latter—a crunchy Mexican root vegetable—gave a great textural counterbalance to the softer rice. Chuck certainly scored a winner here.

So does this make my choices losers? As was the case in yesterday’s blog, loser is probably too strong a term. But one of my two selections, the Mexican Shrimp Cocktail (Coctel de Camaron) was underwhelming. And that is unfortunate, since this is one of my Mexican restaurant favorites.
The dish contained a good amount of shrimp that had been cut into roughly quarter-inch pieces along with tomato, tomato juice, ketchup, jicama, and cilantro. And although the menu listed chiles and red onion as two of the ingredients, I couldn’t detect the presence of either. As a result this was a very bland version that was helped—somewhat—by a hearty glug of the chile de árbol salsa. What I really missed was the avocado that I have been served every other time I have ordered the shrimp cocktail. The soft and almost buttery avocado would have been a nice balance against the very crisp jicama and the crisp shrimp.

To accompany the shrimp cocktail, I ordered the Inca Salad that had received positive comments on line.
This was a mélange of quinoa, fresh corn, dried cranberries, pepitas, yulu seeds (I had to look this one up. According to phoenixnewtimes.com, they are “(f)rom the bonete, a wild tree native to Mexico, yulus are tiny, crunchy, fiber-packed orbs with a taste that's similar to sunflower seeds.”), tomato, arugula, mint, basil, cilantro, red onion, lime juice, avocado, and herb vinaigrette.

Did you know that “The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has officially declared that the year 2013 be recognized as ‘The International Year of the Quinoa.’ …(Q)uinoa has now been singled out by the FAO as a food with ‘high nutritive value,’ impressive biodiversity, and an important role to play in the achievement of food security worldwide” (whfoods.com). So I guess that I ate healthy, but the salad was not something I would crave.

If one could put together my Pork Chile Verde Pot Pie from yesterday with Chuck’s Chicken Paella from today, we’d have one 5.0 Addie meal. But you can’t, so Otro Café receives the same 3.5 Addie rating as did Phoenix Public Market Café.
To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.

1 comment:

Frank Depaz said...

Granted we are all entitled to our own opinions so I will say this: The Inca Salad is the best salad I have ever tasted and I come to this restaurant as much as I can just for this salad. If you get a chance...sit at the bar. You will be able to see them make all of their ingredients by hand. Best food I've had in a very long time. Highly recommended!