Mexican food is everywhere in Phoenix -- toss a chili pepper anywhere in the city and you'll likely hit a food cart, grocery or restaurant dishing up tasty tacos and burritos. But no Mexican-inspired dish has been more successful than the quesadilla, a tortilla and cheese delight that can be found on restaurant menus across America.
My quest this week was to find a uniquely Southwestern version of this staple appetizer that goes beyond the standard melted cheddar and diced chicken. Luckily, I found two.
In One Corner: Sam's Cafe
at the Arizona Center
455 N. 3rd St. in Phoenix
Sam's Cafe, whose sister eatery at the Biltmore closed earlier this year, is a homey New Mexican restaurant located in the Arizona Center at 3rd St. and Van Buren in downtown Phoenix. The dining room is long and narrow, with huge booths on both sides and rustic logs placed as decorative pillars throughout.
There's a small half-circle bar near the front entrance that's popular during happy hour, and a lovely stone water feature near the entrance. A massive patio offers more seating and a fabulous close-up view of the Arizona Center's blue-lit palm trees. Very romantic for an evening date.
Chef Hector's menu focuses on tweaking classic Southwest and Mexican fare for modern tastes -- adovo chicken, carnitas, Desert Fire Pasta with shrimp and mushrooms in jalapeño cream sauce. Here, quesadillas aren't considered mere appetizers. They warrant their own section alongside tacos and are stuffed with ingredients such as blackened steak, spinach, portabellas and red onion marmalade.
My date and I ordered the Southwest Shrimp Quesadilla, described as a flour tortilla stuffed with blackened shrimp, goat and Jack cheeses, red peppers and roasted corn. The ingredient list alone made our mouths water -- and we weren't disappointed. After snacking on the decadent sweet and salty fried tortilla chips for a while, we were presented with four large quesadilla slices arranged in a pretty compass shape and topped with vinegary greens and fruit.
The flour tortilla was thin and not too bready in my mouth and the shrimp were nicely spiced, but not enough to shine through the goat cheese haze. They also had that barely cooked texture and pale color that some culinary aficianados prefer. Me, I like shrimp done enough to turn the flesh a bright orange. My companion adored the dish as-is.
"This might be the best quesadilla I've ever had!" he exclaimed. "I love the urgency of the goat cheese flavor. It just explodes in your mouth, while the more subtle Jack glues the whole shebang together." We both agreed the highlight of this quesadilla is the incredible diced fruit salsa. Sweet without being cloying, the tender pieces of marinated melon tied the whole dish together with a light, summery finish.
I don't know if it's the best I'll ever have, but this Southwestern quesadilla is worlds apart from the boring cheese and chicken version served at other Valley restaurants.
In the Other Corner: Dick's Hideaway
6008 N. 16th St. in Phoenix
You can't help but giggle at this restaurant's name, so let's get that over with up front: it's called Dick's Hideaway, hahahaha! The speakeasy-like entrance with a sign blazing "Additional Parking in the Rear" doesn't help, either. Clearly, owner Richardson Browne has a sense of humor (and is a dirty, dirty man). Moving along, Dick's is tucked into a tiny hole between Luci's Healthy Marketplace and a hardware store.
Enter through the unmarked wooden doors and you'll find yourself transported to a cave-like bar in some distant Northern country. The lighting is so dim you practically have to squint to see the menu and the place is so tiny it's doubtful the Duggar family could fit inside the bar room, which has only a few small tables and a row of seats.
We eyed the place for an opening and were delighted to find one long copper table with a single wall bench open in an adjoining dining room that's often closed for private parties. Like Sam's, Dick's treats the quesadilla with respect, offering several varieties including a shrimp and red pepper marmalade one we passed up in favor of the Breakfast Quesadilla a nearby table of diners suggested (Tip: If you're missing the burned-down Richardson's, the menu here is the same). Gotta love a place where breakfast is served until 4 p.m. daily!
The breakfast quesadilla includes eggs and choice of meat and chile. At our delightful server's prompting we ordered the green and red chile combo, though I chose the Schreiner's sausage (insert more Dick's jokes here) instead of his suggested chorizo. While we waited, a nearby table of tipsy patrons cackled furiously and tried to take photos which hid the dreaded "neck fat." Their laughter reverberated so much in the tiny space that I had what felt like a hangover headache by the time our breakfast plate arrived.
Good thing the breakfast quesadilla makes an awesome post-hangover meal! A steaming metal plate from sister restaurant The Rokerij arrived on our copper table, piled high with a thick, gooey quesadilla, spiced beans and roasted potatoes. The additional flour quesadilla under the side dishes was a nice touch, though my companion and I mixed the starches directly into the cheesy quesadilla.
This dish is classic New Mexico. The eggs were light and fluffy, covered in a delicious spicy red chile sauce (our green chile arrived on the side) and mountains of Mexican cheese blend. The red chile, combined with the spicy pork sausage, had just enough kick to make me reach for an iced tea the first time it hit my mouth. After a few bites, it calmed down and became a backdrop for the other flavors. The green chile was milder and more piquant. This was a quesadilla I could imagine being served at a bed and breakfast in Taos, or maybe having at a friend's place in Albuquerque. But if it weren't for the beans and the chile sauce, I could also imagine my husband making it. Hmm...
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"This might be even better than the other one," my dining companion began, head cocked to one side in deep thought. "I can't tell because they're both so amazing! I love how this one is so homey and accessible, but the goat cheese and corn in the other one was refreshing. I don't envy you for having to choose."
The Winner: Both were scrumptious, and it really was a tough decision. I'll definitely be back for another go at Dick's (perhaps trying the chorizo suggestion), but this time around the explosion of flavor in the quesadilla at Sam's Cafe gets my vote.