Crash Course

Chef Jessie's Casita serves sizzling Sonoran fare

Duty, though, draws me in again later. This time, Chef Jessie's in the house. And the change is remarkable. Suddenly, the casual, comfy Mexican establishment catapults to the Top 5 in my list of favorite Sonoran-style cafes. Service sparkles. Music is upbeat ranchera. Gonzales has worked his way around those rascals at Bogie's, having a huge, colorful sign painted in his long stretch of windows facing McDowell. And the food -- excuse me, cuisine -- is nothing less than stunning.

No wonder the place suddenly is buzzing with happy customers. What a difference a little time makes.

Gonzales pokes his head out of the kitchen today, dressed in crisp chef's whites, an outfit that's adorably professional for this hole-in-the-wall decor of Easter candy-colored vinyl tablecloths; paper napkins in bright red, orange, purple and yellow; and walls unadorned with anything other than yellow paint and a few dried chile wreaths. He's just been tasting the salsas, and is concerned they might be a little too spicy. But they're perfect, I tell him, just as is everything sent to our table. Now I see why the guy holds the championship for the Southwest Salsa Challenge, winning eight years in a row for a while at the Pointe.

It’s a good thing if Chef Jessie Gonzales is in the house.
Erik Guzowski
It’s a good thing if Chef Jessie Gonzales is in the house.

Details

Chicken tortilla soup: $3.95
Chile relleno: $4.75
Borracho burro: $8.25
Tamale: $4.25
Pechugas de pollo: $8.95

480-941-2950. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

8040 East McDowell, Scottsdale

Calling it "Sonoran with a twist," his menu actually reads little different from the many, many other tacos-burritos-tamales-enchiladas huts all over town. What's different is how he handles his chiles. Gonzales has an arsenal of peppers from mild green to fiery habaneros and serranos. But the secret: He purées his pods, blending them into his dishes to bring dramatic flavor impact without overwhelming flames. Hot, mild, bold, blissful -- like that symphony of soup.

I encourage my pal to take a bite of chile relleno, warning him it's spicy. He's a gringo; he approaches gingerly. But his forkful is tame, taken from the edge of the plump green chile, cloaked in fluffy egg batter and oozing with molten Monterey Jack. The next bite, chile-hot from the center, wakes him up. I spear a forkful of red chile con carne, the centerpiece of a borracho burro, and it's mellow meat under a blanket of red and green sauces, cheese, sour cream and excellent fresh guacamole spiked with tomato. The next bite, though, grips the back of my throat with pepper.

Through this meal and the next, things only get better. Gonzales alternates between cooking and peeking out his kitchen door to see if we're happy. Someone's taken great care with colorful holiday decor. A simple enchilada is heaven, gorged with cheese and my choice of shredded chicken, beef, machaca or smoked pork (the meat is moist, full-flavored, and crisp on the edges as it should be). I make a note to call in an order for Christmas tamales -- sold by the dozen -- because red chile, green corn or beef, the masa is thick and studded with sharp black olives.

Whatever doubts I may have had have dissipated by my first mouthful of Gonzales' specialty, pechugas de pollo. Call it Sonoran comfort food, this casserole of tender chicken breast sliced and draped in a velvety sauce of Cheddar and jack cheeses, sour cream and green enchilada sauce. And my gringo friend doesn't even push aside the poblanos that adorn his fine rib eye; he's intrigued with their dark, snappy character and bundles them in tortillas with grilled onion and tomato.

Gonzales originally didn't have a liquor license, but he's got one now, and he blends a killer margarita. My pal looks around thoughtfully.

"This place is great," he says. "I hope people figure that out. I hope he makes it."

Me too. Chef Jessie's Casita deserves it. That's another thing I'm absolutely sure of.

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