By the time you read this, chef Erasmo "Razz" Kamnitzer will be packing up his pots and pans and getting ready to shutter his eponymous Razz's restaurant as he does every summer. From May 20 to September 1, the popular eatery goes dark as Kamnitzer and his family take some well-deserved vacation time. It's a pretty gutsy move, given the Valley's increasingly competitive restaurant scene. It used to be that many popular eateries and resorts here took the sweltering summer months off -- there simply wasn't enough traffic to pay the bills. But today, Phoenix is a year-round town. Diners want to eat well even if they're melting puddles of goo under the Arizona sun; that's why God created air conditioning.
But even though, for a few months, we won't be able to feast on Kamnitzer's almond encrusted foie gras, black bean paella or veal sweetbreads, we can still get our Razz fix at Latino Express. Latino Express is Kamnitzer's new restaurant, which opened in February to little fanfare. As word gets out, though, this is going to be one spicy little hot spot. The concept is fun, with gourmet fast food served in a former Jack in the Box. Look carefully; it's tucked next to a Fred Meyer grocery store in the shadow of the Loop 101 Via Linda overpass.
The renovation is artfully uncomplicated: a few coats of gray and white paint on the walls, molding fancied up in burgundy, a burnished high-gloss order counter and the acoustical ceiling painted black. Patrons of Kamnitzer's upscale eatery will find the decor here familiar, with the same rich color tones, similar upholstery patterns and funky artwork, including a trio of colorful nude renditions and centerpiece portraits of Kamnitzer, his wife and two daughters.
Pick a seat: your choice of metal-topped bar tables with awkwardly proportioned stools (I keep falling off), traditional four-seaters or booths. Or, do as I do and take your party to the patio, where you can bop to the piped-in salsa music with fewer disturbing glares.
However simple the setting, Latino Express is no Razz in the Box. While certainly not diet food, this is a spectacular leap above everyday tray-to-table or drive-through choices. The few fried items are breathtakingly oil-free, and many dishes are clean combinations of fresh grilled meats, veggies, rice and beans in light sauces. Besides, where else in town can you get an order of ostrich steak and mofongo to go? Latino Express will even have liquor, listing Colombian beer plus Merlot, Chardonnay and rosé wine by the glass. (The liquor license hasn't been approved yet; anticipate another month's wait, and no, they won't serve alcohol at the drive-through.)
Call it Razz-a-licious. A Venezuelan native and seventh-generation chef, Kamnitzer draws on French, Southwestern, South American and Indonesian influences to create a fine-dining menu that is all over the map. At Latino Express, though, he's wisely focused on more manageable South American fare, including specialties of Ecuador, Argentina and Brazil. Even with exotic-sounding names like Anticucho, tostones and Pastelitos, many items are comfortable to the most timid palate.
When my dining companion and I visit one night, we bring with us the acid test of picky eaters: a gaggle of teenage girls. At 13, most kids aren't craving strange spicings and aggressive flavors. No problem here. After announcing that they will be sitting at a private table, thank you, the girls tuck quite contentedly into orders of that mystery Anticucho, tickled to find it's simply beef rubbed in a dry marinade, skewered and grilled to a wonderfully juicy turn. Onion marmalade gets pushed to the side, but I feel no guilt stealing their plates after they've run off to inspect the shops next door. It's a yummy tangle of thin, grilled onion strips tossed with garlic.
Arroz con Pollo is another safe choice, nothing more than good, grilled chicken breast served with black beans and fried rice. Asado de Pollo is pretty much the same stuff, with less rice and more chicken in a garlic chile sauce, and I think you can deduce what Asado de Carne is.
Much of Latino Express' menu is fashioned from the same ingredients, with varying marriages of meat, veggies and low-impact but delicious garlic chile sauce. All entrees come with Kamnitzer's black beans and rice. The rice is a disappointment, often watery and always pretty much tasteless, with all flavor provided by soft carrot, red and green pepper and red onion. But the beans -- ah, the black beans. Sweet and wet, their crisp black skin hides meaty cream-colored flesh and a musky aroma. They're cooked tender and resting in their own juices, spiked with bits of carrot and onion.
It's the basics that succeed the best. When my dining companion and I order anything with beef and chicken, we're guaranteed satisfaction. Some of the more adventurous dishes have trouble finding a home, however, as my companion and I slide plates back and forth to sample them.
Picadillo is a favorite in many Spanish-speaking countries, and Kamnitzer's version is one of the best locally, particularly for less than $7. Usually, Picadillo consists of ground pork, beef or veal, and sometimes is used as stuffing rather than an entree. There's no ground meat here, though, but large chunks of char-grilled chicken breast and beef. There's the ubiquitous carrot and onion, but there are also red-skin potatoes, deliciously tender spud sponges for the garlic chile sauce. It's a terrific dish.
Valley diners rarely come across mofongo, which is unfortunate. Despite its provocative name, it's basically a plate of char-grilled chicken breast mixed with carrot, black beans and onion. What makes it mo-fun, though, are tostones, a mainstay of Latin American dining. Taken from the green plantain fruit, thin strips are fired until pale golden and intriguingly chalky, dry and firm with a potatolike texture. Perfect tostones should be crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside, and while these aren't quite that, they're still very enjoyable.
But the best dish, the one that incites me to fire up my little RAV4 and motor over to Latino Express whenever I can, is the Brazilian Pasta. Strap on your seat belt, first, because when Kamnitzer hints that this dish is "spicy," he's not just wasting adjectives. Thick noodles are meticulously al dente, while chicken breast and juicy beef are gloriously just this side of charred on a hot grill. Red onion slivers, red and green pepper, celery and mild chile offer an excellent balance of flavor and crisp texture. Yet it's the spice, the truly inferno peppering (I think it's habanero) that singes my gums, my lips and anything else the pepper comes in contact with. It's a beautiful discomfort.
So wonderful is the torment that on a later visit, my dining companion and I order a side of Kamnitzer's chili paste, an evil purée that worships habanero. The menu warns us that it's extra hot, and diners should remember Kamnitzer's reserved use of descriptives. Spill it, and this blend will strip paint.
I use it to spark up Camarón Frito, four firm shrimp in a very sweet, panko-style crust blended with coconut. The coconut is a welcome moistener for the slightly dry crustaceans, but without the hot sauce, the dish is a snoozer. It does come with tomatillo salsa, a crisp chop of sour tomatillo, onion and cilantro. While an excellent salsa, tomatillo is mild, tiptoeing around the sugary shrimp, with flavors hinting of lemon, apple and herbs.
Even the hottest sauce can't camouflage the inherent dryness of ostrich steak, including this Argentinean presentation of two small ground patties that can only hope for the status of chewy meatloaf. Chuleta de Puerco isn't much better, bringing a bone-in pork chop topped with sliced onion in, yes, garlic chile sauce. The meat is fatty and rare in the middle.
I'm also unimpressed by the Pescado Frito, comprised of boringly mild cod hinting of lemon. The best part of this dish is the fabulous panko batter -- immaculate of oil and crispy. The two fillets are served in a compartmentalized tray with pico de gallo and with . . . any guesses? You got it -- rice and beans.
No, I'd rather have the Ensalada de Carne or Ensalada de Pollo, two simple-sounding meat-and-lettuce salads that make the lighter dining necessity of summer seem like a treat. These are "big" salads, humble and efficient with iceberg lettuce, tomato wedges, cucumber and lots of thin-sliced beef or chicken. The meat is obviously fresh grilled, when it is easy -- and too common -- to precook it. The vegetables are crunchy fresh, when limp produce is the norm for most fast-food joints. Dressings, too, are a step above (lime, herb and garlic for the chicken; chile honey for the beef).
It used to be that I had to travel across the border to get Cocktail de Mariscos, but Latino Express serves the real deal. It's an entree-size portion of bay shrimp and cod, floating in a chunky potion of lime, cilantro, onion, red pepper and what must be Clamato juice. I love the excellent crunchy veggies -- green pepper, soft tomato, iceberg and skin-on cucumber. Such a simple blend adds up to a sweet and sour symphony; it even smells fresh and clean.
Paired with pastelitos or gauchos, the cocktail makes a full meal. As the $3.95 price tag hints, these are appetizer portions of Latin American meat pies -- imagine Hot Pockets properly cooked sans microwave. Pastelitos brings two pack-of-cards-size turnovers lightly stuffed with chunks of beef, carrot and mozzarella. A side of tomatillo salsa, shallots, lettuce, radish and tomato completes the picture. Gauchos (gaucho, really; there's one large pocket per order) are similar, tucked in with green and red pepper, carrot, chicken and Monterey Jack cheese. How Kamnitzer ensures his cooks turn out such airy, nongreasy nibbles, I don't know, but I thank him for it.
Anyone who has ever dined with Kamnitzer knows he's got a thing for duck cakes. They're a signature item on his upscale menu, they're a staple treat when he participates in fund raisers around town, and now they're at Latino Express. These are the real thing -- $2 less than those served at his primary restaurant, but just as good. Two generous portions of properly stringy duck breast come topped with a nopalito glaze. If you haven't tried nopal (prickly pear) cactus, this is a safe intro -- its slightly tart green-bean flavor is hidden under thick, sweet syrup.
Puding de Aroz (rice pudding) is equally sweet, but to its detriment there's little flavor other than sugar. The rice hasn't cooked long enough and is chewy under a mantle of sweet coconut in a light milky base. But the Pastel de Chocolate is incredible, bringing a big slice of cake layered with mousse, enrobed in Ding-Dong-like fudge and drizzled with chocolate sauce.
All this goodness does take a little patience. With up to 10 minutes from grill to plate, Latino Express' drive-through is better used for call-ahead orders. If you're eating in, though, kick back, cool your heels and sip sparkling hibiscus, tamarind or POG juice (a blend of passion fruit, orange and guava).
We're in the lazy days of summer, after all. You've got time. Latino Express 8880 East Via Linda, Scottsdale, 480-451-8880. Hours: Lunch and dinner, daily, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
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