Before I dive into this week's review, I should take a moment to reply to some of the correspondence I receive on a regular basis. To the female admirers who deluge me nonstop with perfumed hankies and declarations of undying love, please see my secretary for an application to my fan club. To the offer of my rivals in food criticism to commit hara-kiri because they know they'll never be able to equal this grand Pooh-Bah of gastronomic greatness, why, go right ahead. And to the suggestions of some letter-writers that Bank One Ballpark be rechristened Big Lemon Bowl, stop, you're making me blush!
Of course, I have my detractors, too, and there is one brain-amputee in particular out there who has made it his raison d'tre to write in every week and complain about my being a pompous blowhard. Yes, Sir Wank-a-lot, and the point is? After all, I'm paid to be a pompous blowhard. That's my job, to give opinions, to pontificate, to tell it like I eat it. Just because I'm a p.b. doesn't mean I'm wrong. Like Muhammad Ali once asserted, it ain't bragging if it's true.
With mail call out of the way, let's turn our attention to three-month-old Padre's Latin Grill and Mojo Bar, which, happily for me, has taken over a space near 11th Street and Camelback, about five minutes away from where I live. I say happily because I've dined at the place several times since it opened, and I've enjoyed most of what I've eaten. The cuisine is sort of haute-Mexican, along the lines of Barrio Cafe or the recently opened Coyoacán, meaning that the food is prepared and served with a gourmet flair.
That said, there's nothing intimidating or snooty about Padre's, which is owned by Cole Durbin, formerly a server at the now-defunct Barmouche, and before that a bartender at Tarbell's. Cole gets help from his dad Denny, an experienced restaurateur who acts as the eatery's marketing director. Ivonne Turincio is Cole's superb chef. Interestingly, she once cooked for Denny at his restaurant Agave Azul in San Miguel de Allende.
Cole is an earnest young man, wise beyond his 23 years, and likes to tell folks that he's more like "23 going on 40." I have to say, I'm impressed. When I was 23, I was still bumming around my alma mater in Chapel Hill, NC, trying to avoid anything that remotely resembled honest labor while donating plasma for beer money. That Cole already has a successful restaurant on his hands so early in life suggests greater things still to come.
The atmosphere of the place is festive and casual, and if you go on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night, you'll think you've crashed someone else's swell shindig, what with the live Latin music playing and all the revelers swilling their mojitos or their margaritas on the rocks. (No frozen margaritas, alas, which I would prefer in this heat.) The outside of the building looks like a rustic house, with a chimney, and a beveled glass doorway that Padre's inherited from a previous tenant.
Inside, there's a main room with a long crooked bar to the right, high tables and chairs to the left, wooden beams above, and Saltillo tiles below. Up front to the left is a room painted cream and burnt orange, with dining tables covered by white linen and black and white linoleum prints of rural Mexican scenes. In the back, to the left of the kitchen, is another room, inspired more by the Jimmy Buffett ethos, painted in blue, lime green, yellow and orange, with beach towels, surfboards, and even a pair of blue flip-flops hung here and there. This leads out onto a patio where nicotine addicts head to light up, Padre's being a non-smoking establishment.
As for the food, the appetizers are particularly outstanding, and the primary source of the bill of fare's "wow" factor. For instance, it's unlikely Napoleon had Padre's lobster Thermidor quesadilla in mind when he named "lobster Thermidor" after the 11th month in the French Revolutionary calendar, but it's a sure bet le petit corporal would've enjoyed Padre's Mexican version, wherein two tortillas sandwich those exquisite lobster tails in bechamel sauce, accompanied by a chunky mango and tomato chutney. And chances are Bonaparte would have sold Corsica to the English for a plate of Padre's clams Corona, tender clams steamed with Corona, in a garlic sauce with a sprinkling of diced tomatoes and lime juice.
The remainder of Padre's entradas are winners as well. The tostadas de tinga are an eye-catching stack of square crisps. On each is a tasty pile of shredded chicken and caramelized onions, all of which sits on a plate dribbled with strands of chipotle sauce and sour cream. And the cazuela de queso fundido, served with plain corn chips, nearly spoils your appetite for anything else, it's so thick, creamy and filling. Here, a cazuela (a deep, bowl-like dish) is filled with a dip made with Oaxaca cheese, spinach, roasted garlic, and poblano chiles, sprinkled over with diced tomatoes and chorizo.
Of the main courses, I'm particularly fond of the pork enchiladas in tomatillo sauce, and the roasted pork tenderloin atop a mole verde. In the case of the enchiladas, the combination of tender, shredded pork wrapped in corn blankets and smothered in the tangy sauce of those little green tomatoes is so memorable that the rice and frijoles along for the ride seem incidental. The green mole sauce beneath the roast pork slices is also the best part about that dish. The word "mole" usually conjures up memories of a brown-black syrup with the strong taste of chocolate. But here the mole is subtle, and nutty, with the flavor of ground pumpkinseeds taking precedence. If there was any chocolate in this mole, I didn't taste it.
The pork atop the mole is quite good, but the whipped potatoes and the sauted slices of squash, zucchini and chayote are less than perfect companions. Both sides taste okay, but are slightly reminiscent of an Arizona Press Club awards banquet. I would have preferred the rice and beans instead.
Nor am I terribly taken with the steaks on the menu, which are more than adequate but lack the zest of the starters. But these are minor quibbles. Take it from a pompous blowhard: If you dine at Padre's, overall, your moola is well spent.
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