Each day the southern Arizona sun rises on new visitors to cactus country who’re looking for the scoop on its diverse charms and amusements. The concierges are often a key to finding answers to guests’ questions – both basic and bizarre! Our tourists’ most frequent queries and these area travel authorities’ replies will appear in this column.
Q. What are our chances of sampling your holiday light displays?
A. Part of Arizona’s allure is its vast expanse of mountain-rimmed desert terrain and echo canyons that don’t take kindly to cities. Phoenix and Tucson are the only metro areas that call themselves the c-word. And dining while on vacation can be like playing Russian Roulette--you never know which meal could kill you! So here are some tried and true suggestions from our citified concierges where you can enjoy a savory snapshot of the Southwest (Mexican cuisine is a separate and delicious category.)
Forget about a corporate restaurant one night and lounge on the patio at The Tortilla Factory [(480) 945-4567 www.oldtowntortillafactory.com ] in Old Town Scottsdale in the greater Phoenix area for some grand grazing and stargazing any night of the week. Featured on the Food Network’s “Best of Show,” this mellow eatery has been the rage for eleven years. The signature dish is Pollo Margarita, a tequila-marinated stuffed chicken breast of cheeses, onion, and roasted peppers served with a spicy potatoe cake. Room for dessert? Try the banana crisp. Search the city and you won’t find better outdoor dining with a western spin. Or try the chili and sugar-cured duck breast and green chili pork stew at The Roaring Fork [(480) 947-0795 www.roaringfork.com ] that’s loved by the locals at this “Regional American” favorite northeast of Phoenix. This rustic gathering spot with antler lights and a rotisserie oven-centered dining room, features wood-fired entrees and a generous huckleberry bread pudding that is easily a two-tummy treat.
A delectably esteemed restaurant not to miss in Tucson is its Grille at Hacienda del Sol, [520-529-3500 www.haciendadelsol.com] paired with a charming and historic inn and former dude ranch, this rustic adobe restaurant in the Old Pueblo will make its mark in your memories of travel to the Grand Canyon State. Chef Greg Zanotti infuses his international menu with Southwestern influences. Reserve the Chef’s Table to glean secrets of regional spices, chilies and technique. The talk of local foodies is the Grille’s pecan-wood grilled Buffalo sirloin steak. And the prickly pear [cactus] sorbet adds a subtle finish. Sample a local wine from over 2000 labels here. (The Grille holds the Ultimate Award of Distinction from Wine Enthusiast magazine.) Enjoy live jazz and flamenco music Thursday through Sunday on the terraza. Another Tucson Catalina foothills neighborhood gathering spot for longtime residents is Southwestern mainstay Terra Cotta [520-577-8100 www.dineterracotta.com] housed in some dramatic desert architecture. The Zagat restaurant guide describes their garlic custard as “sensuous.” This writer’s favorite entrees include ancho-chili-brown-sugar braised beef ribs and their popular goat cheese stuffed prawns. And pastry chef Fabrice delights the crowd with a prickly pear crème brulee among other clever indulgences.
Three other sources for sampling our regional palate include one-day cooking classes at such fun gourmet emporiums as Sweet Basil in Scottsdale [(480) 590-5628 sweetbasilgourmet.com] and Culinary Concepts in Tucson [(520) 321-0968 culinaryconcepts.net] Many local spas welcome guests at their chef’s tables and into their kitchens for tips on preparing a delicious slice of this region that you can carry home with you to wow friends and family. And finally, local dude ranches serve some of the finest cowboy cuisine prepared anywhere. Ask your concierge for detailed information on some of these extraordinary inside tracks on our finest feasting with a local flair.
Now, a word about tequila since the Margarita is our most famous drink. No trip to the Southwest is complete without a sampling. So it is strongly suggested that you accompany at least one meal with a Margarita—classic or virgin—to truly breathe in the air of Arizona. The biggest misconception people have about tequila is that is has a worm in it. Only mescal does. Actually there is a tequila with a scorpion in it. Although classified as a tequila, it’s called Scorpion Mescal. Tequila is made from a blue agave cactus found only in Mexico. Enjoy a margarita here, but remember the saying “One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor!”
[Johnny Fenton—a 29-year resident of Arizona—is past President of the Southern Arizona Concierge Network, National Concierge Association member and freelance writer.]