When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out — and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).
Restaurant: El Panzon y Frida
Location: 7323 East Shoeman Lane, Scottsdale
Open: About two months
Eats: Inventive seasonal small plates and creative cocktails
I was skeptical about El Panzon y Frida from the beginning. Perhaps it was the vague description of the food as "Food forward, international cuisine, chef inspired, locally sourced, fresh, fun, refined casual, boutique wines, local brews, inspired craft cocktails in the heart of Old Town Scottsdale, Arizona."
It sounded like someone was trying very hard not to own that dirty, passé label of "fusion cuisine." But on a closer read of the menu, I could understand why the food was so hard to describe. At worst, it was going to be an unintelligible tangle of flavors and influences, without a common thread to unite any of the disparate dishes, or at best, it was going to be inventive, fresh, and fun.
My husband and I turned down Shoeman Lane on a Sunday night and were met by the reverberating thud and hum of bass pouring out of the nightclubs. At the end of the lane, the street quieted a bit, and on the corner of Shoeman and Wells Fargo Avenue, I saw the bright scrawl of neon typography, over a clean, modern-looking restaurant tucked between two New York pizza joints.
We found parking a few blocks away.
Once inside, the space was a playful, rustic-modern space with ornate tile flooring upon which colorful, weathered metal chairs encircled light pinewood tables. The walls were adorned with wood-cut artwork, pressed tin, and a towering portrait of Frida Kahlo painted on driftwood. It was charming, except for one thing.
As an affront to the very deliberate interior decorating that had clearly gone into the space, massive televisions flashing the latest sports updates where plastered above us on nearly every wall.
I know we were in Scottsdale's entertainment district, surrounded by sports bars and clubs, but the aesthetic and menu of this restaurant implied that it was here to offer something different, something more thoughtful and refined. Those blasted televisions told another story.
Dismayed, I settled in for a long wait as the bartender, who seemed to be pinch-hitting for absent servers, finished pouring his concoctions at the bar.
"We should grab a slice from the pizza place next door after this," I said, my expectations further lowered.
Our friendly bartender-slash-waiter appeared and took our order. I skipped the mundane-looking mains (there are only four of them, all of which are $35-49 a piece), and instead focused on the intriguing lineup of shareable small plates, ordering a grilled peach and goat-cheese salad ($13), house gyozas ($10), sirloin sliders ($15), and the cheese, pickles, and bits plate ($12).
After what felt like an eternity (to be fair, I was starving), the dishes finally arrived.
The sweet potato, carrot, and beet puree-stuffed gyozas came floating in a bowl of citrus soy. I was confused by the presentation at first, but after one bite of the chewy dumpling, its delicate fillings punctuated by a mouth-puckering punch of tangy soy, I understood. I wanted more of that sauce. On everything.
The grilled peach and goat-cheese salad came festooned with halved cherries, candied pecans, and lamb bacon under a light mist of ginger vinaigrette. All the elements were well-balanced, and the chewy, salty lamb bacon was a welcome surprise. It was only after eating this dish that I realized that this was perhaps the first of the "hip new" restaurants that I had visited in recent memory that had no pork on the menu. It was a refreshing change from the incredibly tired "bacon craze" that has plagued us for the last five years.
Heartiest of the dishes, the sirloin sliders, were a proud trio of freshly baked pretzel rolls layered with thin slices of steak, pickled cabbage, Dijon mustard, and a pleasantly sharp horseradish crema. But my favorite dish was the adventure platter they called cheese, pickles, and bits.
A mound of whipped goat-cheese mousse, small spheres of fresh mozzarella, and a few slices of what could have been manchego, were surrounded by little piles of blackberries, sliced strawberries, and blueberries; cinnamon-pickled potato slices, sweet-spicy cherry peppers, and pickled radishes; a few crisp baguette toast points and some raw walnuts. The various pickled flavors set against the creaminess of the goat cheese made for an ever-evolving series of taste sensations.
I loved it. My husband loved it. This simple putting together of things that actually taste great together is something I still find uncommon in restaurants, and it remains something I find particularly gratifying when done right.
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SHOW ME HOW
These were exactly the kinds of nibbles I crave late at night, when I don't want anything heavy, but I want something more interesting than bar nuts or a basic salad. This food was surprising, in all the right ways.
Though we got off to a rocky start (and though I still loathe the flashing televisions lining its walls), for the sheer pleasure of light, inventive, cocktail-friendly, late night bites, I would recommend El Panzon y Frida to anyone looking for a great place to take a date or simply to satisfy a late-night craving for something different.
The restaurant is open Tuesday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 11a.m. to 1 a.m., and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m, and is closed Monday. For more information on happy hour specials and the current menu, check their website or call 480-659-1544.