Crash Course

Chef Jessie's Casita serves sizzling Sonoran fare

Most days, it seems, there's not much in life I'm sure of. But there's no doubt in my mind now that this is the best tortilla soup I've ever had. Of the countless versions I've sampled over the ages, there have been chicken-stock broths that almost brought me to my knees in awe. There have been models thick with good vegetables, some made fat and rich with avocado, and some packed with so much poultry that I felt (almost) guilty not paying entree price for the traditional appetizer. One recipe, I vividly recall, was spicy to the level of sadism but still so beautiful that I downed an entire warmer-platter of soft flour tortillas and drank half a pitcher of ice-cold margaritas to fight my way through the bowl. Each soup was a joy in its own way.

Yet great, greater and greatest -- chef Jessie Gonzales' tortilla soup is even better. The best parts of every recipe are there: fistfuls of tender torn chicken breast, cups of soft rice, finely diced celery, onion and tomato, sprinkles of shredded cheese and crunchy tortilla frizzles. It's the broth that really gets me, though -- savory and stew-thick, complex, with one spoonful singing of poultry, and the next searing the back of my throat with wonderful chile fire.

I've split a bowl with my buddy, he dunking pliant ribbons of the cute six-inch flour tortillas served alongside, me eating it straight, all the better to savor the rich juices that invade my tongue like salty-gold saliva. The creation is only $3.95, served at the new Chef Jessie's Casita in south Scottsdale. And even as we share the dish, we need nothing else for a full meal.

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

We've already gorged on complimentary baskets of crisp, salted-just-so chips. We've spooned each crackling bite with chunky salsa, the mix thick with torn tomato, rough chops of white onion, lots of sneakily spicy green chiles and cilantro in enough juice to make this a to-the-last-drop operation. Hot sauce is just that, thickly puréed and wonderfully hostile, and we've eaten more than our share. We've even scammed a couple extra tortillas, me finally draining the thick broth of our soup bowl and joining my pal as he fashions mini burritos of remaining meat at the bottom.

Chef Jessie's Casita is a hit. I'm happy for me. But I'm even happier for chef-owner Jessie Gonzales, because after a rocky start with his new restaurant, it looks like he's going to do just fine.

I've been worried about Chef Jessie, the former master of the popular Aunt Chilada's Mexican restaurant at the Pointe Hilton on South Mountain. After two decades of pleasing us with traditional below-the-border fare, he's stepped out on his own, this time with a bolder attitude toward his native food. And right away, he's learned it's tough to start a business, especially yet another Mexican (ubiquitous Sonoran, no less) restaurant in this Valley.

And my first visit was pretty bad, showcasing every new entrepreneurial chef's worst nightmares. Slow, sloppy service. Out-of-place '80s music cranked to irritation. Food that's just acceptable (it's hard to mess up a cheese crisp, but this one is awful, blanketed with so much cheese it should be a joy, except this Monterey Jack and Cheddar is wood-flavored and starchy textured, as if it had been frozen). I would never have come back on my own dime. Honestly, I don't care to return even on New Times' tab.

I leave confused. Everything here, except tortillas, is homemade, utilizing recipes that Gonzales claims his Great Uncle Jose prepared so well that actor-friend John Wayne became addicted after a few tastes and hired Jose to head up cooking at Wayne's ranch in Springerville. So why are refried beans so blah and oddly crunchy? And rice? Blech -- the fat grains are dried out and taste of empty air.

As it turns out, I've come on the single day since opening the restaurant this past August that the chef-owner, Jessie Gonzales, is absent, my server tells me. Normally, he's working the small shop "24-7," but personal business has him tied up. Today, it's a "little guy in the back" who's running the show, my server explains. I guess he's the one responsible for stale chips, salsa not much more interesting than wet tomato, and a boring burro verde, just a goop of green chile beef in a tortilla slopped with everyday green sauce, cheese and sour cream and guacamole.

Running his own business has been an education for the chef, our server adds. My pal and I couldn't even find the place at first, confused as to why our sought-out street address sported a huge sign for Bogie's Bar. Our server sighs when we bring it up. Turns out that Gonzales hadn't read his lease agreement carefully enough, especially the part that decreed that Bogie's, as landlord and co-occupant of the building, didn't have to provide any signage allowance (the dark, crusty pub hunkers across a hallway with a separate entrance). The result: empty tables resulting from people unable to locate the place, or completely unaware there's a new eatery along this nondescript strip of asphalt in front of the General Dynamics plant. There are no takeout menus, and staff doesn't know how to work the fax machine (I go behind the counter and fax a copy to my office myself). No wonder the place is empty.

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.

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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