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¡Cantina! del Pedregal, 34505 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 480-488-0715. Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. daily.
The most overworked utensil in my kitchen is the blender.
As part of my never-ending search for the perfect margarita, I've burned up a number of noisy ice-grinding machines. The designs range from sleek Eurostyle to clunky retro models, from cheap garage-sale finds to expensive mail-order catalogue purchases. The one thing they have in common is their limited ability to create that frozen concoction that launched a thousand sets by cover bands.
34505 N. Scottsdale Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85266
Region: North Scottsdale
One minute you're strumming a six-string on your front-porch swing, listening to the purring of the blender, and then suddenly there is a silence from the kitchen that means you are about to confront large chunks of ice in your salt-rimmed glass.
With the price of tequila rising as fast as the Mexican agave crop is disappearing, it's obviously cheaper to keep buying blenders and making your margaritas at home. Still, sometimes you just have to get out of the house. Here's a suggestion.
Located near the southern edge of Carefree, ¡Cantina! del Pedregal has one of the most serene settings in the Valley. Part of The Boulders Resort, the restaurant is tucked away in the posh El Pedregal shopping center, a festive village surrounded by miles of pristine desert landscape with views of the rising stones that form a dramatic backdrop. With such a picturesque setting, you immediately feel a calming sense of arrival, as though you've been transported to a tranquil new world. It's far enough away to make the trip a soothing journey, but close enough that you can return home before David Letterman reads his Top 10 list.
Although the surrounding boutiques and galleries are sophisticated, the restaurant itself is unassuming, preferring a relaxed atmosphere and unpretentious Mexican fare. The room is intimate, and the sculpted interior walls could pass as rippling adobe surfaces, dressed in mild pastel colors to complement the saltillo tile floor.
The minimalist decor is a bit odd, though: a few brightly colored blankets, a Day-Glo macramé hanging and a couple of mariachi sombreros -- exactly what a tourist might buy with $100 and 10 minutes in a Scottsdale souvenir shop. Over in the corner, a strange Teletubby-like doll with a golf club is nestled in a saguaro skeleton. Oddly enough, over successive visits, the cheesy ambiance began to grow on me as I rationalized how it represents a friendly North American fantasy of what a Mexican house might look like.
Sitting at a table, we were greeted promptly with warm multicolored chips and salsa and an invitation to order margaritas. The house margarita is the Cantina Rita. For $6.95, you get a generous pouring of some premium booze: Cuervo 1800, Cuervo Gold, Sauza Giro, Cointreau and Grand Marnier, topped with lime juice. It was thick and slushy and very, very smooth. Although I prefer a bit sourer, citrusy tang to my marg, this was a solid, sweet version and perfect for taking the edge off the day's worries.
The extended list of 52 different tequilas is impressive, especially the one that pours for $125 a shot. What really got my attention was the chile margarita. Presented with a flourish, the lip of the glass was bedaubed with a ruddy chile salt and decorated with a sizable serrano chile pepper dangling on a swizzle stick -- all clues that there's fire in the hole.
The result was what I had been looking for -- tangy frozen lime juice that dances a norteño polka across your palate, followed by a cinch-up-your-bola-tie spicy aftertaste. If you've ever tried any of the local chile beers, you'll have an idea of how refreshing this can be. This is a passionate take on the margarita and worth trying.
The blood-red sangria here is exuberant. Blending red wine with orange juice and fruit, the addition of blackberry brandy takes it to another level of richness. Served in large goblets, you need to drink it quickly before the ice cubes melt and dilute its complexity of flavors.
For starters, the rolled taquitos are filled with a zesty mixture of chicken and chorizo, paired nicely with an avocado-lime sauce. The quesadilla incorporates caramelized red onions and poblano chiles with your choice of meat filling. The chicken version is good, but the shrimp is excellent and makes me wish more restaurants offered it as an option.
The Sonoran crab cakes sounded promising, but they were uneven. The jicama slaw and the roasted corn tomatillo lime sauce were creative and flavorful, but on my first visit, the cakes were too fishy tasting to finish. On a later trip, they were passable but without much flavor -- ultimately a disappointing appetizer.
The Cantina's salsa selection is excellent. This eatery offers some of the most interesting salsas in the Valley. The salsa that accompanies your warm chips is a media picosa that's mild and thick with fresh tomatoes.
Things really became interesting when we asked for the salsa Tejana. Filled with garlic and cumin, this smoothly blended salsa is an exceptional mix of flavors. We liked it enough to take the rest of the bowl home for future experimentation.