Over the last decade, Scottsdale has been earning multiple culinary stripes, with a food scene that has matured and evolved from more predictable cuisine to options ranging from genre-bending French bistros to re-imagined regional menus featuring indigenous Southwest tastes and ingredients. But the tradition undergoing perhaps the most fundamental transformation is also one of the area’s most typical: Latin cuisine. Mexican fare has been served here for generations, but this is not your abuelo’s carne asada. These are wide-ranging experiments in flavors, textures and ingredients that take in all aspects of Latin America ranging from Tejano to Tierra del Fuego.
Scottsdale’s resorts have played an important role in this transformation, attracting top talent who are either currently running kitchens or move on to guide their own restaurants. Then there are local culinary programs, which are turning out the next generation of chefs who are as comfortable with a French soubise as Oaxacan mole.
Not surprisingly, area resorts still play a major role in the culinary scene here, attracting top talents from around the country and the world. A standout example is Talavera and Crescent Moon restaurants at the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale, both guided by Executive Chef Mel Mecinas. A native of Oaxaca, Mexico, Mecinas brings a creative and colorful edge to his menu design, thanks to a culinary resume that includes chef positions at other high-profile Four Seasons properties including Santa Barbara and Beverly Hills, where he cooked for multiple celebrities including Julia Child. Mecinas also worked for a decade under the highly demanding tutelage of Joachim Splichal and his Patina powerhouse of restaurants. Adding zest to his repertoire, Chef Mel brings the culinary artistry of Oaxaca, arguably Mexico’s most sophisticated cuisine, to his menu and merges it artfully with classic techniques and sensibilities.
“I used to say I wanted to go to culinary school, but working with Joachim was the best education I could have ever had,” said Mecinas.
Today, Chef Mel integrates his Oaxacan roots to create modern Mexican fare at the Four Seasons’ Crescent Moon where he showcases artful recipes such as various mole sauces and rarities like huitlacoche, a flavorful corn truffle. Mecinas takes these traditional elements he grew up with, then re-imagines them with sophisticated techniques he credits to his time working side-by-side with Splichal. As Mecinas put it “When you know what to do, you can then reinvent.”
One look at the menu and you immediately sense the creativity and passion here. For something refreshing and light on typically warm Scottsdale day, there is cangrejo, or crab “tacos,” composed of a jicama shell that holds sweet crab, grapefruit and an avocado citrus reduction. The Chuleta de Puerco is another stellar entry. No ordinary pork chop, as envisioned by Chef Mel, this entrée is lavished with mole Oaxaqueno, yuca, lemon juice, garlic and sugar to make a flavorful mojo, or light sauce, that is served with mushrooms.
Latin cuisine gets another artful makeover at the hands of Matt Carter, one of Scottsdale’s most high-profile owner/chefs. With an impressive resume that includes a stint at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, Carter first made a name for himself here devising a menu of sophisticated classical French and American fare at Zinc Bistro, still a mainstay on Scottsdale’s gastronomy scene after a decade. Two years ago, he turned to Latin America for inspiration, and opened The Mission, a handsome space adjacent to an historic church that features chandeliers, rustic ironwork and backlit blocks of Himalayan rock salt. A gastronomic road trip through Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Spain and related cuisines, the “Modern Latin” fare at The Mission stays true to its south-of-the-border roots with ingredients such as huitlacoche, queso Oaxaqueno, Habanero chiles, and fried plantains, but swerves off in innovative and playful ways.
A perfect example is the signature dish, Almejas al Vapor, a starter that features clams, rock shrimp, homemade chorizo, roast corn and Peruvian Aji Amarillo, all conjured in a delish bouillabaisse. As much fun as it is tasty, another small plate, Crispy Cola Pork, is pork belly cooked in cola (I swear it works, lightly crisp outside, tender inside) with other ingredients including lime, chiltepin, pickled red onion, all served in a cup of gem lettuce. The newest entrée on the menu is the Pepita and Pesto Marinated Hanger Steak, featuring a chef-select cut of grass-fed beef dressed with a leek and scallion soubis and poblano chile, all resting on a thin slice of Colombian-style bread (pan de bono), then topped with tomatillo.
Other must-try items include an extensive menu of hand-pressed cocktails, many featuring organic ingredients and premium agave spirits from the venue’s Tequila Bar, which boasts nearly 60 top tequilas and several super premium mezcals. Our recent foray here included sipping the Pineapple Ginger Mojito featuring Orinoco rum and Canton liqueur, and muddled with mint, pressed lime and pineapple. Super refreshing, it superbly cools the heat of any chile-flavored dish. Another cocktail worth experiencing is the outside-the-bar Aguacate Margarita. Not your typical margarita, this one features premium Cruz del Sol tequila and the usual makings, but with one notable exception – muddled avocado, which gives the drink a guacamole-like finish and silky texture.
With spirited fare like the menus being designed by chefs Mecinas and Carter now available in Scottsdale, it’s definitely game on here for innovative Latin cuisine. And should you want to get back to basics, don’t fret, Carter says the al pastor tacos don’t get any better than the ones down the street from The Mission at Tacos Jalisco, where he often goes and spies other chefs and local foodies getting their fix.