I feel like kicking up my heels à la Tom Cruise and pumping my fist for joy. That's right, I'm in love, and I don't care how dirty I get Oprah's couch! No, it's not with some pretty young thing 16 years my junior. And no, I don't need a "beard," thank you very much. Au contraire, my amour fou, or "crazy love" as the Frogs call it, is for the recently opened Sierra Bonita Grill, on Seventh Street near Glendale Avenue in Phoenix.
Now that I've grossed everyone out with Tom Cruise references, I must affirm that my infatuation with Sierra Bonita was love at first sight. I don't know what the building looked like when it was a watering hole called the Copper Queen, a brilliant bar name if there ever was one. But after a redesign by new owner Sheldon Knapp, proprietor of Phoenix City Grille, the eatery has a romantic ranch-house look inside and out for which I'm a sucker.
Overall, SB appears longer than it is wide. A brown adobe front porch greets you, with large wooden double doors set near the center of the structure. To the left of the main entrance, you can catch sight of a beautiful patio covered over by latillas, with an open fireplace and an end bar where patrons can sit outside. The bar continues inside, made of gray-black granite with the name of the establishment inlaid in steel. The flooring is Cherokee red, and the ceiling is of dark, plank wood and thick, weathered beams.
Tables stained brown-black, dim lighting, and candles in wrought iron complete the atmosphere, as do photographs of modern-day cowboys on horseback. There's the occasional coil of rope here and there for accent, and the stereo plays soft, Spanish songs with plenty of guitar. Knapp named the Sierra Bonita after the historic Sierra Bonita Ranch in southeastern Arizona, and the feel of the place evokes that mingling of Mexican, Spanish and Caucasian bloodlines and cultures for which the Southwest is known.
It would be a shame if, having so successfully designed Sierra Bonita's look, Knapp did not come through on that promise with a menu to match. But you needn't worry. SB's bill of fare effortlessly seduces your palate from soup to nuts, Southwestern-style. Rarely have I visited a new venture that so impressed me on my first visit. And even after my second and third meals there, I have few cavils. This seems to be because executive chef Bill Leisses possesses a real passion for the cuisine, and has traveled extensively in Mexico, studying in Oaxaca with chef Susana Trilling, author of Seasons of My Heart, the companion book to her PBS cooking series of the same name.
Sierra Bonita's clientele are the beneficiaries of Leisses' hunger for knowledge. The Azteca soup, for example, is exquisite, a slightly spicy mélange containing chicken, avocado and lime, and topped with corn tortilla strips sprinkled with queso panela, a mild, crumbly Mexican cheese. Crush the tortilla strips into your soup with your spoon, and the result is hearty, tart and rewarding. The green chile pozole is another winner: hunks of soft pork, onion and hominy in a broth of green chile, with cilantro and strands of cabbage. The bowl came with grilled flour tortillas, but I sped through that pozole so quickly I hardly realized their presence.
My companion during all of my meals there, save for my occasional dalliance with a margarita, was the house sangria, which I found most refreshing, with its blend of red wine, peach schnapps, Grand Marnier and the juice of many a fruit. In this oppressive heat, sangria is about all I care to drink, as it's not as heavy as wine. Knapp claims SB's sangria is still a work in progress, but you'll hear no complaints from me.
I spent most of my pre-entree time in the starters, and found them to be superlative. My fave was the rock shrimp cocktail, in part because I'd recently had a disappointing shrimp cocktail elsewhere, and this reminded me of how delectable a cóctel de camarón can be when executed properly. Here fresh rock shrimp were mixed in a tangy citrus/roasted tomato sauce, and served with corn chips. Just delightful.
The other starters may not have similarly tickled my palate, but they were all quite tasty: chicken enchiladas Suizas in tomatillo sauce with sour cream drizzled over them; silver-dollar-size mini quesadillas of Mexican menonita cheese, spinach and huitlacoche (a fungus some call the Mexican truffle), with a Oaxacan salsa and an Indian salsa; bacon-wrapped shrimp with a lip-smacking salsa verde; and on and on. You could make a meal of the small plates alone and leave quite stuffed.
Space prevents me from dwelling on the entrees, so I'll just highlight a few. SB's marvelous cowboy stew had me throwing aside all of my queasiness about beef-eating in the wake of recent headlines. Chunks of tender cow flesh share a piquant brown sauce with roasted shallots, potatoes, green chiles and carrots, and a small football of sourdough bread on the side. I doubt the geezers who won the Old West had it this good.
If you don't grunt with pleasure while devouring a platter of SB's buttermilk chicken, there's something wrong with you. Two breast portions are heavily coated in a sweet, brown batter, with a cracked black pepper cream gravy and mashed sweet potatoes topped with asparagus spears. It hangs on that edge of the sweet and the savory without tipping over into the too sweet realm. One entree that does tip over is the pecan-crusted rainbow trout slathered over with a maple butter sauce. I'd label this an acquired taste, though I eventually did acquire it.
Per desserts, the pineapple crepes with caramel sauce and vanilla bean ice cream made me wish the filling was all caramel and no pineapple. And with the Dutch apple cheesecake, I kept pulling off the sliced apples to get to the cheesecake beneath. On the other hand, the Oaxacan chocolate soufflé with strawberry sauce and roasted banana ice cream blew the other two sweets out of the water with its cinnamony Mexican chocolate made at Trilling's cooking school.
Sierra Bonita, you don't play fair in the game of culinary love! I'm simply swept off my feet, and I'll be back for more and more.
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