Cave Creek Carnivores
As a member in good standing of PETA (that's People for the Eating of Tasty Animals), I've long nursed a flesh-eating fantasy that would put serial bison-killer Ted Nugent to shame: a ranch-restaurant where all manner of critters roam the grounds, everything from javelina and jackrabbit to ostrich and Gambel's quail, and maybe even the occasional Kobe steer for beef lovers. A tenderfoot like moi would be given a rifle or shotgun with which to slay din-din, and afterward said beast or bird would be dismembered, flayed and readied for the serving tray, preferably medium rare so one might relish the animal's warm blood.
This fever-dream of sanguinary excess put the notion in my noggin to travel to the nearby hamlet of Cave Creek and the three-year-old eating establishment Cartwright's, christened for the illustrious clan that for a century maintained a ranch in the area. (In its heyday, the spread sprawled across 65,000 acres, with around 2,500 head of cattle.) I was told the menu included a veritable menagerie of meats, and was served in an elegant, Western-themed restaurant worthy of the Ponderosa, even if Little Joe and Hoss' fictional stomping grounds on Bonanza were actually set in the Reno-Lake Tahoe region. I know what you're thinking. But the Phoenix area's famous Cartwrights didn't give the creators of the classic NBC show any bright ideas, at least according to surviving members of the Cartwright clan to whom I've spoken.
Uncle Edward wanted to accompany me on my excursion, and of course, he had to bring along the boys -- Mikey, Brad and Lance. Seems whenever this flabby foodie is paying, Uncle suddenly considers him the most popular chap west of the Pecos. So we sallied forth together in ye ole horseless carriage. Mikey couldn't live without stopping by Carefree to see the bleedin' big-ass sundial they have. Apparently he so adores telling time like Fred Flintstone that he wants to purchase a house in that rugged terrain. I don't know what hallucinogenic Gila monster he's been licking, but it's the freakin' boonies, chum, sundial or no. Why, there's nary a Nordstrom in sight!
Cartwright's squat, adobe exterior resembles every other building in Cave Creek, save for a brassy-looking compass logo and its moniker out front. Inside, one initially glimpses a dark, beautiful bar with a stained, mesquite-wood top. This is separated from the main dining space by a partition fashioned from pressing copper and silver foil betwixt two glass panes, thereby rendering an impressionistic mountain range.
On the partition's opposite side, there's an airy dining chamber decorated à la Sonora. An open, faux fireplace with copper exhaust dominates the center. Walls and shelves are adorned with old farm implements, iron coffeepots, roughhewn pottery, and so forth. Beige tablecloths and burgundy serviettes are complemented by pewter lamps and salt-and-pepper shakers. Tan Empire-style chairs, with Southwest upholstery, and brown leather menus with the eatery's insignia suggest an attention to detail.
It was too cold to take to the patio, heated though it was by an immense beehive fireplace. And the wine room, an elegant little enclosure with wine racks and antique-looking maps, seemed too intimate. Thus, we opted for the main dining space. Mikey had to have the chair with its back closest to the fireplace. But that didn't stop him from constantly bitching that he was too hot. You can't please that finicky prisspot, no matter what.
I was disappointed that the menu included nothing more extraordinary than buffalo and elk. No rattlesnake stew, javelina ham hocks, or Gambel's quail à l'orange. You don't get to kill your supper, either. So much for my flight of fancy. But what Cartwright's does, it does well enough to recommend. For appetizers, we shared a mess of ahi nachos, Dungeness crab cakes, and an order of sausage on grits.
The crab cakes were good, though hardly nonpareil. Actually, I found the roasted tomato relish accompanying them more memorable. If I'm forced to enter Hades someday -- that's assuming I'm not there already -- I fear I'll be forced to down crab cake after crab cake ad infinitum. After a while, one crustacean fritter tends to taste like another.
The ahi nachos, however, were magnifique, with morsels of seared ahi and soft, Mexican Manchego cheese topping toasted corn chips. These were also popular with the fellas, but my preference was for links of the house sausage, made by young Chef Adam Bellassai from by-products of elk, buffalo and beef, with various spices mixed in. Served on a pile of grits covered in melted Cheddar, they were so scrumptious that I would consider hawking my Aunt Bessie to al-Qaeda for a lifetime supply. Note to Chef Adam: Look into marketing these suckers at specialty food shops, and you'll be bigger than that putz Emeril one day.
Brad and Uncle Edward chose fish entrees, the rest of us, meat. Cartwright's allows for several types of Piscean preparations. One selects from an array of gill-bearers, then picks European, Mediterranean, Southwestern or Asian cookery. Brad had sea bass Mediterranean -- i.e., pan-roasted with artichokes, leeks, roasted tomatoes and spinach, served with a side of angel-hair pasta. My handsome Portland pal allowed me a portion, and I must admit it was the best bass I've enjoyed since Bootsy Collins left P-Funk.
Uncle Edward ordered the barbecued swordfish special, which he consumed with gusto once he discovered the sauce had been flavored with a jigger or two of Jack Daniel's. Uncle mostly eschews firewater these days for health reasons. So that touch of Tennessee sippin' whiskey had him regaling us with his adventures in prewar Afghanistan. "On our first foray into the Kush, we lost our corkscrew and had to survive on nothing but food and water for weeks," he quipped. But I suspect he swiped that line from W.C. Fields. Uncle also gave me a bite or two of his fish. I've never been a swordfish fan, but the sauce was palatable. My only request: More whiskey! For the sauce, not for Uncle.
Mikey found his buffalo slightly chewy, but that didn't stop him from inhaling every bite. When it comes to meat, Cartwright's offers a selection of sauces, starches and veggies, and Mikey chose scalloped potatoes for his starch. Once it came, he decided he'd "never liked scalloped potatoes to begin with." What a Little Lord Fauntleroy! I wanted to tan his hide, because I found the side dish excellent.
Lance had nothing but praise for his slab o' cow. A refugee of Gotham, he just had to have New York strip, which made him pine for the steak houses of Manny-hanny, those days of wine and, ahem, poses. Me, I selected a tenderloin sampler: beef, elk and buffalo. Creamed horseradish was my sauce, smashed potatoes my starch and wild mushrooms the veggie. I adored the wild mushrooms, though the smashed potatoes were too salty. My tenderloins all tasted pretty bovine, with buffalo being the most mandible-intensive and elk the most tender. But the elk was farm-raised, depriving it of its uniqueness. And all the meats were basted in beef fat, further explaining their similarity in taste to steak. Supposedly this is done because the local yokels complain when their game is too, well, gamy. As for those of us who enjoy that muskiness, Cartwright's is no Shangri-la.
Recently I spoke to Dottieann Cartwright-Bird, the great-granddaughter of patriarch Reddick Jasper Cartwright, and she amused me with tales of eating Rocky Mountain oysters as a little girl before she even knew what they were! (Neither she nor the other Cartwright descendants have anything to do with the restaurant.) Would it be too much to ask Cartwright's to add some cojónes to their menu, figuratively if not literally?
I have no complaints with Cartwright's as an upscale surf-and-turf joint. The wine list was sufficient, the service was generally attentive and the dessert menu had us all moaning in appreciation -- especially with such exceptional offerings as a chocolate taco stuffed with margarita-lime mousse, and the "cowboy campfire s'more," an elegant riff on the standard Girl Scout fave. Moreover, the meals come with a truly inspired selection of breads, my favorite being one topped with jack cheese and peppers. But does Cartwright's really give Phoenicians a reason to trek north into the wilderness when there are alternatives closer to home? For the answer to be yes, the management needs to take its concept to the next level and impress our palates with the unexpected and the unusual.
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