By Heather Hoch
By Eric Schaefer
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By Rachel Miller
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By Heather Hoch and Lauren Saria
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I'd have a rough time coining a more idiotic name for a restaurant than "Cocono's," the d.b.a. of the new West Valley venture brought to us by members of the Salazar family, proprietors of the mostly mediocre Manuel's Mexican Restaurants. The handle's too close to "Coco's," that family-friendly peddler of chicken strips and ciabatta burgers, to pique my interest. And Cocono's logo seems blatantly inspired by the restaurant chain Islands, the sort of enterprise you kinda wish would be flattened by Old Testament wrath-of-God-type stuff. You know, boils, locusts, rivers of blood, etc.
Cocono's is way out in a section of the West Valley about 30 freeway minutes from central Phoenix. I can stand the drive; that's no biggie. Though the smell of this supposedly nouveau riche area is another matter. I don't know what creates this unyielding sulfuric stench that you catch a whiff of in certain sections of our metro area. New construction? Overtaxed sewers? Whatever it is, someone should be up in arms about it. Each time I inhaled a nostril-full out that way, I kept thinking of those Lynyrd Skynyrd lyrics, "Ooooh that smell/Can't you smell that smell?" An invitation to fine dining this is not.
But what got me this far in the first place, despite my having to hold my nose on each trip from my car to the restaurant, was not the name Cocono's but the name Moises Treves, a legend when it comes to Valley dining. And deservedly so, with authentic gourmet-Mex eateries like Such Is Life and Coyoacán under his chef-belt. Both places are still around, but Treves & Co. garner the glory for putting them on the map. Such Is Life now operates as Asi Es la Vida, and has remained fairly consistent under new ownership. Haven't been back to Coyoacán since Treves skedaddled, but one hopes it hasn't gone downhill in his absence.
Cochinita Pibil: $14.95
Shrimp Trinidad: $26.95
623-362-8000, »web link
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
So as Treves signs on for what Cocono's management intends to be a chain prototype, you gotta wonder if he'll navigate the vagaries of restaurant politics and remain with them long enough to fine-tune both service and menu. Sure, Cocono's just opened, but having a heavyweight like Treves as your executive chef is a double-edged sword, raising expectations as much as it draws in customers. A well-written TV show like The Shield is a good analogy, the series being so consistently compelling that it must compete with its own track record rather than with other crime dramas. Treves is like that. If you've been to Such Is Life, or Coyoacán while he was there, anything less will be a letdown.
This accounts for why I'm slightly disappointed by Cocono's. Some plates are outstanding, superlative. Others are so-so. If you live in the neighborhood, that's probably fine. But I can't quite bring myself to tell folks to motor out to BFE for it.
Take the margaritas, which were pretty horrible, too heavy on the margarita mix, with an off-putting powdery aftertaste. I can't blame Treves for the drinks, but I can take him to task for an utterly revolting "ceviche," more a poor seafood cocktail, with literally two shrimp and tiny bits of octopus and calamari in a thick red goo that tastes like ketchup with Tabasco. You can get better ceviche at any 16th Street mariscos joint, and I'm sure Treves knows this sucks. So why does he serve it?
As you'll be able to tell as I recount what I've masticated, Cocono's menu is all over the map, from the Gulf of Mexico, to the Caribbean, and on to Europe. I've got no beef with this sort of fusion, just with the inconsistency of the vittles. The three small crab cakes? Plain and tame, like something that latter-day Muppet Rachael Ray would whip up. The shrimp cocktail was pretty forgettable too. Jumbo prawns, but not fresh enough, and the cocktail sauce? Similar to that with the "ceviche," but weaker.
The two lamb pinchos -- miniature grilled kebabs -- did have an interesting mango curry sauce all over them, though one or two more skewers wouldn't exactly break the Salazars' bank account. The sincronizada (think quesadilla, gringo) was a home run, though it needed to be: flour tortillas filled with melted Chihuahua cheese and greasy house-made chorizo. Got one word for you: Yum, snarf, yum. Okay, that was three, but I was eating, sorry.
Next, we come to the tale of two apps: the chilito, a roasted poblano pepper with garlicked-up shrimp and oozy manchego; and the nopalesco, a grilled prickly-pear cactus pad topped with manchego and chorizo. Loved both. The poblano induced a touch of heat on the tongue, while the nopal induced none, its slithery, okra-like texture having a refreshing sour bite to it. Chef Treves should be advised that his underlings do not make it as well when the culinary sorcerer is away. One night, I didn't see Treves in the open kitchen, and noted that the food took a dive. That eve, the nopal was overgrilled, and the cheese too hard as a result.
The entrees exhibited more highs and lows than one of those Mexican soap operas. My filet Oaxaca proved to be eight of the most tender ounces of tenderloin I've ever jabbed in my gourmand gob. The melted manchego and tasty, dark pasilla-garlic pepper sauce only enhanced the flavor. What's up with that chicken mole, though? Not as thick or as spicy as I want it. And the red snapper Veracruz was another bust. The stew of onions, capers, olives, tomatoes, and so on covering the fish? Blandisimo. Like I said about the ceviche, there's better to be had on 16th Street.
A Treves standard like the cochinita pibil, its shredded pork dripping juices tinged with achiote, plus a red onion relish and a salsa of incendiary haba&nitlde;ero to the side for the brave, was as perfect as when I first had it back at Coyoacán. I dug the shrimp Trinidad, curried crustaceans served in a hollowed-out pineapple, but found it too expensive at $26.95 a shot. Back to perfection on the desserts, like the pear poached in red wine, or the amazing choco-flan, sure to be another Treves classic -- half his signature cheesecake/flan "Napolitano," and half moist, spongy chocolate cake.
Chef Moises wants to lead his followers into the culinary desert, but Cocono's ain't The Promised Land. Still, for residents of the surrounding area, manna from heaven it may be.