By Kathleen Vanesian
By Eric Schaefer
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The sky is rumbling, in that deep, dark voice. Which, in the language of the Valley, means monsoon season has arrived. The thunder is teasing that soon rain will explode on our heads in such big fat drops that we'll be drenched within seconds. We have roiling clouds in purple, gray, navy, black and edges of pink. We have lightning, alternating from silent knife slashes to booming claps that shock the sky like a camera flash.
My pal Judy is thrilled. This is what she misses about Arizona, she says. Yes, life is exciting in Manhattan, she's glad she took her career to that Big City about 10 years ago now. But still, there's little in life as magical as our desert when the storms stampede in.
For a moment, we consider staying outside to eat our dinner -- the patio of Los Sombreros is cooled with misters, and a giant mobile evaporative unit has been wheeled in for temporary relief from the thick summer heat. But then the wind comes in great gusting huffs. Menus are blown straight out of their holder next to the reception stand. We duck and cover, laughing as the first sputtering fits of rain dampen our clothes.
2534 N. Scottsdale Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85257
Region: South Scottsdale
480-994-1799. Hours: Dinner, Tuesday through Thursday, 4:30 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4:30 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 4:30 to 9 p.m.
The hostess ducks out from the doorway. Our table inside is finally ready, she says. She apologizes for the delay. Los Sombreros doesn't take reservations for parties less than seven, and it has been very busy this evening. The group hogging our intended table had paid their check at least 15 minutes earlier, she explains, but were having so much fun they didn't want to leave.
She leads us through the slender hallway. The kitchen is on one side, the elaborately decorated rest rooms are on the other. It's an odd entry to the handsome red brick cottage that was once an old home but now has been refurbished in brilliant Spanish style. The dining room is in the back -- or is it the front -- with large windows facing bustling Scottsdale Road. It's a beautiful renovation. Weathered wooden doors are hung with wrought iron. It has a rose-red ceiling and ornate chandeliers.
We pull out heavy, tall wooden bar chairs at a heavy, tall wooden bar table, and the wood screeches across the floor in a sound that resembles nails on a chalkboard. No one looks up; the sound is almost lost in the din of diners' animated conversations. This is one happy place.
And it's restaurants like this, Judy says, that she misses about Arizona as much as the crazy weather this time of year. For all its culture, New York can't seem to figure out how to make Mexican food, she laments. It's true, I know -- I've had more than my share of embarrassing experiences with Manhattan restaurants sending out Velveeta-capped cheese crisps, horridly bland salsa of nothing but tomato and onion, and burritos that have never been properly introduced to a real chile. As soon as Judy got off the plane at Sky Harbor, she admits, she was thinking about where she could get her fix of favorites: guacamole, chile rellenos and refried beans. She wanted the real stuff, so I suggested one of the most authentic places I could think of -- the lovely Los Sombreros -- where now our server is placing a large bowl of chips and two tiny cups of salsa on our table.
Los Sombreros is a Valley tradition. It's been around since 1997, though until February it was lodged in a Tempe strip mall. The place was cute once diners got past the depressing expanses of asphalt, but this new incarnation is so much better. It's hip in its little house now, brimming with a charm that the Valley restaurant scene so desperately needs. It's a place that invites us to relax.
Los Sombreros comes from chef-owner Jeffrey Smedstad, a graduate of Scottsdale Culinary Institute and an avid fan of central Mexico (the area is his frequent vacation destination). He muses fondly of "the awesome markets that inspired [his] cafe . . . the food [is] so bright, alive and full of flavor."
Appropriately, Los Sombreros emphasizes the regional cuisine of and around Oaxaca. That means some exotica in ingredients used, like cotija (dry crumbly white cheese), rajas (poblano chile strips), string-style white Oaxacan cheese, pumpkinseed, and cilantro crema. This is the stuff I lust after, but soon I'm wondering if perhaps I've tossed Judy into something a bit too brave for someone who hasn't tucked into a typical taco in too many years.
This is not Garcia's grub.
With its change of venue, Los Sombreros has left behind its more standard offerings, like burritos and chimichangas. It's strictly deep ethnic food now, with things like mole poblano, a Puebla dish incorporating about 30 ingredients like chipotle, mulatto, ancho and pasilla chiles; lard; white onion; garlic; sesame seeds; almonds; peanuts; tomato; chicken stock; raisins; cumin; allspice; Mexican cinnamon; Mexican chocolate; and avocado leaf (sometimes animal cookies are tossed in!). Chiles are roasted, seeds are toasted, the blend is meticulously strained for a smooth and creamy sauce poured over grilled chicken. Not just any chicken, either, but braised free-range poultry from Young's Farm in Dewey.