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The craving for tacos was all-consuming. It was an unpleasant lust. No ordinary taco would suffice no abomination of greasy ground beef and plastic cheese from Taco Bell, no deep-fried corn tortilla coffin serving as the final resting place of long-past parched steak from Macayo's.
These tacos had to be the authentic Mexican model called carbon, garlic- and spice-marinated steak grilled over an open flame, chopped coarse, and ladled onto soft flour tortillas with salsa and fresh guacamole.
There was a new place nearby where I could find exactly that Mezcal had opened at Kierland Commons and claimed to honor original Oaxacan recipes, with cooking techniques dating back to before the Spanish conquest. Mezcal's tacos al carbon, grilled over a wood fire, supposedly relied on herbs and chiles for flavor rather than modern-recipe oils and fat. Instead of gunky cheeses, these tacos were said to be adorned with rajas (roasted green-chile strips), two salsas and guacamole mashed in a molcajete (a traditional Mexican stone bowl). Mezcal was in my neighborhood; I could be there in less than 10 minutes.
7122 E. Greenway Parkway
Scottsdale, AZ 85254-8147
Region: North Scottsdale
480-556-0770. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily; dinner, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
So I hopped in my dusty black Rav4, gathered sister Elisabeth and dog Santiago, and drove four hours to Mexico. Because there's no better tacos al carbon in the world than those served at Beto's Place in Rocky Point.
I had little choice. As good as Mezcal's Mexican dishes look and sound, the flavors have been lost in the north Scottsdale translation. Even with the promise of exotic Oaxacan ingredients pasilla chile, adobo, green pumpkin seeds, cuitlacoche and epazote the dishes I'd sampled before deciding to trek across the border were curiously bland, lifeless. Mezcal, I'd discovered, was too timid to send out the powerful stuff, changing its menu repeatedly and ultimately falling back on mostly routine dishes we could get anywhere.
Tacos were no time for me to be taking chances. At Beto's, the ruby-red meat is grilled before our eyes on a fiery steel beast set up along the sidewalk of the fish market. The meat master takes the steak off the flames at just the second of juicy doneness, chops it vigorously with a battered cleaver and mounds the morsels on a plate-size flour tortilla. While the meat sizzles, the chef places the tortilla on a cooler section of the grill, warming it gently until it bubbles and emerges dotted with flecks of gold crust; the doughy round was made by hand just that morning and still smells of fresh lard and baking powder.
For another dollar, I get a big bottle of Mexican Coca-Cola, extra sweet. Then I head for a wooden picnic table, topped with a dizzying array of bottled hot sauces. My creation is difficult to eat, and soon I have beefy juices drizzling down my chin and across my hands. No stray bit of beef goes missing, the meat so rich with its own liquor that I eat it straight.
For every lunch and dinner that weekend, Elisabeth and I lounged at Beto's, decked in saltwater-stiffened swimsuit cover-ups, our feet in flip-flops, Santiago lying on the cool concrete next to my bench. It was pure, perfect heaven.
Now I'm back at Mezcal, though, the latest hot spot in the ever-expanding culinary Mecca of Kierland, staring glumly at my taco lunch. Three soft corn tortillas lie exhausted on the plate, made in-house and hyped as low-fat. They're tasty with full maize magic but barely bulging over a meager sprinkle of dry, just mildly beefy meat that has supposedly been marinated with garlic and spices. Yet most of the flavor comes from the grilled sweet onion and roasted green chile tossed in. No juices, no red-blood rush this meat won't make it on its own.
"I can understand Beto's using small shrimp," Elisabeth says, poking at her trio of shrimp enchiladas and picking out a piece of the chopped little critter. "But at least they're fresh, and a whole lunch is just two bucks."
Of course we realize the difference between sitting in a converted rock shed across the border and the majesty that is Mezcal in north Scottsdale. Here, it's all glittery copper-topped tables, stunning pin lighting, swaths of fabric soaring from the ceilings like kites and, upstairs, the Cobalt bar, strewn with plasma TVs and featuring live salsa music on Thursdays. Flip-flops and Santiago aren't allowed.
Yet ambiance doesn't make up for a few thimblefuls of rubbery, fishy-tasting shrimp under a good but much too stingy slick of avocado puree and crema (a thick-cultured, soupy sour cream). Sides of rice (ruddy from achiote spice and studded with zucchini) and soupy black beans are nice but routine. Mezcal may be unique in pushing healthy, pre-conquest cuisine, but it needs to push harder with flavor in order to captivate my taste buds.
Sending out something as different as Mezcal's fare is a risk, I'm aware. Asking diners to embrace a cuisine that dates back thousands of years is a goal to be celebrated. Poor-quality seafood is inexcusable, though, given the pedigree of owners Ercolino and Laura Crugnale. They're the former owners of Restaurant Oceana in north Scottsdale, long lauded for its unparalleled selection of sea- and stream-fresh swimmers. They've got the money for the good stuff, too, evidenced by the elaborate trappings and the financial backing of Michael and Tara Shapiro, owners of Scottsdale's UhOh Clothing Boutique.