Mexican, Old and New
Old Town Tortilla Factory, 6910 East Main, Scottsdale, 9454567. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.
There seem to be two types of restaurantgoers.
The first are the restless adventurers--diners who roam about the town prowling for hip new eating spots, in search of innovation, novelty and thrills.
The second are the I-know-what-I-like types. These predictable folks know exactly what they want to eat, and they usually keep returning to the same familiar haunts to get it.
I think I've found a couple of restaurants that will capture the hearts of both types: Old Town Tortilla Factory puts its own spin on north- and south-ofthe-border regional fare, while Los Sombreros puts out high-quality models of the usual Mexican suspects.
"Business is booming! Old Town Tortilla Factory is currently accepting applications for all positions. Tell a friend." So read a number of signs posted around Old Town Tortilla Factory. The proprietors here are so desperate to hire new help that they even use the rest room to get out their message. I half-expected to see people from personnel interviewing prospective employees by the washroom sink.
But the recruiting campaign is understandable. This bustling new restaurant, which has taken over the spot long occupied by the sedate French restaurant La Chaumiere, is quickly turning into a trendy Scottsdale hot spot.
Partly, it's because of the upscale Southwestern adobe setting. A bright mural depicting a Mexican village scene greets guests just inside the entrance. Next to it, a flesh-and-blood woman is fashioning fresh, warm tortillas, using the kind of cutting-edge tortilla machinery that Mexican villagers could only dream about. And even if they had this equipment, I doubt they'd think to infuse their tortillas with the heady scents of rosemary and fennel, or garlic and tarragon, as the tortilla maker here does.
Beyond the entrance, the restaurant is divided into several cozy dining areas. Striking photos of Mexico hang from the otherwise bare walls. The wood tables with scalloped edges are set with cloth napkins and gaily colored Fiesta ware.
Outside, the heated-patio setting is just as charming. A roaring fire cleverly set inside a jetting fountain is a real conversation starter. So is the "tequilarilla," a freestanding building that houses probably the largest tequila selection in town. It's a pleasure to find a tranquil outdoor spot in the Valley, one that doesn't overlook a busy street or a strip-mall parking lot.
But the setting explains only part of the restaurant's appeal. I'd say the designer Southwestern fare is what's mostly responsible for the "help wanted" signs.
Margarita fans should take advantage of Old Town Tortilla Factory's excellent tequila stock. (Try El Tesoro de Don Felipe Plata--$4.50.) And, for an extra buck, you can have your margarita blended with Grand Marnier andCointreau, an opulent and powerful touch. The on-the-rocks model comes in a shaker that will fill two small glasses, so it's perfect for sharing.
But don't expect to nibble on free chips while you sip your drinks--Old Town Tortilla Factory makes you pay for them. The tricolor chips are fresh and noticeably unsalty--remember, you're in sodium-conscious Scottsdale. Of the two dips they came with, I preferred the piquant house salsa; the black-bean hummus seemed more odd than inspired.
The chorizo chilada is a less filling way to edge into dinner. It's a small tortilla cup filled with a blend of mild chorizo, poblano chile, onions, olives and white Mexican cheese. But this appetizer's distinctive bite comes from the puddle of cascabel chile and blackberry sauce, which imparts a pleasing, fruity, spicy touch. (At $5.95, however, the proprietors aren't exactly giving this dish away.)
There's no shortage of imagination at work in the main dishes, which feature ample portions of quality ingredients and are priced between $11and $16.
The chef deftly manages to inject some life into a chicken entree, a rare skill. Baked chicken pueblo features sliced breast rolled with spinach, red pepper and white cheese, accompanied by cilantro fettuccine and calabacitas, a mix of squash, pepper and corn. But what really boosts the poultry is the eye-opening red-chile-pesto cream sauce--it would make just about anything taste good.
The green-chile halibut is an incredibly fussy arrangement, one of those "tall" entrees that a year ago were all the rage in our gastronomic capitals. Obviously, we're still novices at it here in the Valley, because, as the server placed it before me, the dish unceremoniously toppled over. She hauled it back to the kitchen, where the staff put Humpty Dumpty halibut back together again.
Still, once you sort out all the elements, you'll enjoy some first-rate eating. From the bottom up, it's a tortilla cup layered with calabacitas, luscious squid-ink-blackened linguini in a chipotle cream sauce, a zillion crunchy tortilla strips and an absolutely gorgeous hunk of fish grilled to flaky perfection. While the presentation may need a little work, the ingredients sure don't.
The stuffed filet also makes good use of its primary component, a superb piece of butter-soft filet mignon. It's coated with a mild chile cream sauce and embellished with a thimbleful of poblanos, leeks, corn and white cheese. Thick mashed potatoes add to the pleasure.
Where the baked chicken pueblo, green-chile halibut and stuffed filet got only within hailing distance of the culinary edge, the Oaxacan pasta seems to have leaped right off it. The only genuinely spicy dish on the menu (to their credit, the servers alerted us to that), it consists of about half a dozen ravioli purportedly filled with shrimp, scallops and pancetta. However, the human eye and tongue are not sensitive enough instruments to document their presence. A bucketful of overpowering wild mushrooms and a what's-this-doing-here tortilla inexplicably folded on the plate completed this head-scratching arrangement.
Desserts continue the Southwestern theme, with mixed results. Taos cannoli are two small tortilla shells, pleasantly filled with chocolate mousse, all moistened in a vanilla sauce. The Southwestern tart, yet another tortilla-shell concoction, comes stuffed with lime custard and meringue. Unlike almost everything else on the menu, it's a yawn.
Old Town Tortilla Factory is good enough to outlast its trendoid popularity. The setting is delightful, and the food is interesting, tasty and not unreasonably priced. It's a formula almost any type of restaurantgoer can appreciate.
Los Sombreros, 1849 North Scottsdale Road, Tempe, 9941799. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
During its past two incarnations, this strip-mall storefront has been the short-lived home of a pizza parlor and an Afghan restaurant. But if the quality of the current fare is any guide, the plaza's landlord won't have to worry about remodeling for a new tenant in the foreseeable future. That's because LosSombreros' gringo-friendly Mexican food should satisfy even the pickiest, I-know-what-I-like customers, who long for cheap, tasty, uncomplicated south-of-the-border dishes.
It's a festive-looking place, with Mexican-tile floor, gaily colored walls and lots of touristy knickknacks. After a couple of mugs of Dos Equis on tap, the scenery looks even better.
Los Sombreros' menu is no different from a hundred other Sonoran menus in town. What separates Los Sombreros from its competitors is not what's on the menu, but what's on the plate.
A zippy salsa, thick with onions and tomatoes, helped us make short work of the basket of chips. If you prefer to pay for your chips, the nachos--topped with jack and Mexican cheeses, chiles, guacamole and refried beans--team nicely with a cold brew, too.
The soups are good enough to make you set your beer mug aside for a while. The Valley has only about an eight-week soup season, and two of Los Sombreros' models will help take the sting out of winter. Posole, a hearty, pork-and-hominy stew that's on too few local menus, comes traditionally garnished with radishes and cabbage, and fragrantly perked up by a bit of red chile. Even better is the tortilla soup, a chickeny broth thick with carrots, chiles, cheese, radishes and tortilla strips. It's a real delight on cool January evenings.
Too often, Sonoran platters come glopped under acres of cheese, beans and rice. You know what these plates look like; you poke around with a fork and ask yourself, "Is this the chile relleno or the enchilada?" Happily, that doesn't happen here.
You'll have no trouble locating the carne asada, terrific marinated and grilled skirt steak, served with vegetable chilaquiles (tortilla strips and veggies in a creamy sauce). At $9.75, it's the most expensive main dish here, and worth the price. Equally effective is snapper, rubbed with tasty seasonings and roasted in a corn husk. Someone in the kitchen knows when to remove fish from the heat--our piece arrived properly moist and flaky.
The usual Mexican suspects are also skillfully prepared. Pollo fundido is an enormous chimichanga, stuffed full of fresh-tasting chunks of chicken breast, laced with a chipotle-spiked cream-cheese sauce and topped with jack cheese. The red chile features tender pieces of beef in a well-modulated sauce whose heat doesn't overwhelm the flavor. Anything with carnitas--tacos, enchiladas, burros--is bound to please. The green-corn tamale is also praiseworthy.
Los Sombreros pays attention to the little things, as well. It offers three kinds of beans: refried, vegetarian black beans, and charros. The rice is especially good, not just some starchy afterthought sent out by a lazy kitchen.
I don't usually recommend Mexican desserts, but I'm flexible when it comes to the wonderful homemade Mexican chocolate ice cream here. Keep away from the sopaipillas, though. These seriously deficient critters look more like mozzarella sticks than the puffy pillows of steaming dough that you find in New Mexico.
You won't find foodies or the beautiful people in Los Sombreros. You will find sensible folks who know value and quality when they find it.
Old Town Tortilla Factory:
Chips and salsas
Baked chicken pueblo
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