Rocky Joint

Mezcal's Mexican food doesn't bring much flavor to the table.
Erik Guzowski

The craving for tacos was all-consuming. It was an unpleasant lust. No ordinary taco would suffice — no abomination of greasy ground beef and plastic cheese from Taco Bell, no deep-fried corn tortilla coffin serving as the final resting place of long-past parched steak from Macayo's.

These tacos had to be the authentic Mexican model called carbon, garlic- and spice-marinated steak grilled over an open flame, chopped coarse, and ladled onto soft flour tortillas with salsa and fresh guacamole.

There was a new place nearby where I could find exactly that — Mezcal had opened at Kierland Commons and claimed to honor original Oaxacan recipes, with cooking techniques dating back to before the Spanish conquest. Mezcal's tacos al carbon, grilled over a wood fire, supposedly relied on herbs and chiles for flavor rather than modern-recipe oils and fat. Instead of gunky cheeses, these tacos were said to be adorned with rajas (roasted green-chile strips), two salsas and guacamole mashed in a molcajete (a traditional Mexican stone bowl). Mezcal was in my neighborhood; I could be there in less than 10 minutes.

So I hopped in my dusty black Rav4, gathered sister Elisabeth and dog Santiago, and drove four hours to Mexico. Because there's no better tacos al carbon in the world than those served at Beto's Place in Rocky Point.

I had little choice. As good as Mezcal's Mexican dishes look and sound, the flavors have been lost in the north Scottsdale translation. Even with the promise of exotic Oaxacan ingredients — pasilla chile, adobo, green pumpkin seeds, cuitlacoche and epazote — the dishes I'd sampled before deciding to trek across the border were curiously bland, lifeless. Mezcal, I'd discovered, was too timid to send out the powerful stuff, changing its menu repeatedly and ultimately falling back on mostly routine dishes we could get anywhere.

Tacos were no time for me to be taking chances. At Beto's, the ruby-red meat is grilled before our eyes on a fiery steel beast set up along the sidewalk of the fish market. The meat master takes the steak off the flames at just the second of juicy doneness, chops it vigorously with a battered cleaver and mounds the morsels on a plate-size flour tortilla. While the meat sizzles, the chef places the tortilla on a cooler section of the grill, warming it gently until it bubbles and emerges dotted with flecks of gold crust; the doughy round was made by hand just that morning and still smells of fresh lard and baking powder.

For another dollar, I get a big bottle of Mexican Coca-Cola, extra sweet. Then I head for a wooden picnic table, topped with a dizzying array of bottled hot sauces. My creation is difficult to eat, and soon I have beefy juices drizzling down my chin and across my hands. No stray bit of beef goes missing, the meat so rich with its own liquor that I eat it straight.

For every lunch and dinner that weekend, Elisabeth and I lounged at Beto's, decked in saltwater-stiffened swimsuit cover-ups, our feet in flip-flops, Santiago lying on the cool concrete next to my bench. It was pure, perfect heaven.

Now I'm back at Mezcal, though, the latest hot spot in the ever-expanding culinary Mecca of Kierland, staring glumly at my taco lunch. Three soft corn tortillas lie exhausted on the plate, made in-house and hyped as low-fat. They're tasty with full maize magic but barely bulging over a meager sprinkle of dry, just mildly beefy meat that has supposedly been marinated with garlic and spices. Yet most of the flavor comes from the grilled sweet onion and roasted green chile tossed in. No juices, no red-blood rush — this meat won't make it on its own.

"I can understand Beto's using small shrimp," Elisabeth says, poking at her trio of shrimp enchiladas and picking out a piece of the chopped little critter. "But at least they're fresh, and a whole lunch is just two bucks."

Of course we realize the difference between sitting in a converted rock shed across the border and the majesty that is Mezcal in north Scottsdale. Here, it's all glittery copper-topped tables, stunning pin lighting, swaths of fabric soaring from the ceilings like kites and, upstairs, the Cobalt bar, strewn with plasma TVs and featuring live salsa music on Thursdays. Flip-flops — and Santiago — aren't allowed.

Yet ambiance doesn't make up for a few thimblefuls of rubbery, fishy-tasting shrimp under a good but much too stingy slick of avocado puree and crema (a thick-cultured, soupy sour cream). Sides of rice (ruddy from achiote spice and studded with zucchini) and soupy black beans are nice but routine. Mezcal may be unique in pushing healthy, pre-conquest cuisine, but it needs to push harder with flavor in order to captivate my taste buds.

Sending out something as different as Mezcal's fare is a risk, I'm aware. Asking diners to embrace a cuisine that dates back thousands of years is a goal to be celebrated. Poor-quality seafood is inexcusable, though, given the pedigree of owners Ercolino and Laura Crugnale. They're the former owners of Restaurant Oceana in north Scottsdale, long lauded for its unparalleled selection of sea- and stream-fresh swimmers. They've got the money for the good stuff, too, evidenced by the elaborate trappings and the financial backing of Michael and Tara Shapiro, owners of Scottsdale's UhOh Clothing Boutique.

My first visit had me puzzling over the sad seafood, wondering what had happened to my tuna steak. It was over-grilled, not the promised rare inside, and chalky-textured. I could see the telltale orangish tinge of achiote but discerned little vinegar-garlic-salt nuances.

My companion that night wasn't thrilled with her camarones mojo de ajo, and understandably so. The midsize seared shrimp was serviceable, but there was too little of the garlic/onion and jalapeño conceit that makes the mild seafood sing. Her disappointment deepened as I told her of the buttery plates found in Rocky Point — garlic is so generously piled on there that we have to eat outside in order to breathe, and chiles are so aggressive that cold beer — or even better, milk — is mandatory.

Part of the problem with this place is us. It appears the Valley's more creative taste buds haven't arrived yet, hence chef Enrico's decision last week to remove some of the dishes I was most excited about, and likely the reason he's kept aggressive seasoning in check. Gone are the empanadas, handsome little grilled corn tortilla packets stuffed with squash blossoms and mild cheese. Cuitlacoche is no more, too — the rare, distinctly pungent corn fungus was removed, in both its showcase dish of Oaxacan cheese quesadilla with epazote (an almost medicinal-tasting green herb) and as a stand-alone plate capped with epazote, queso and salsa verde.

What made Mezcal look so interesting (country-style adobo duck and sweet fried plantains) has given way to average cuisine. I don't need a bland beef enchilada, especially not when the meat has the texture of cotton balls. If there are green pumpkin seeds in the grilled chicken salad, they elude me. And I wanted the cochinita pabil, Yucatan-style slow-roasted achiote pork in banana leaves with roasted habañero salsa, but my waitress tells me it's been dropped. (Apparently, it's since been brought back, though, so try and keep up.) A substitution of borrego al chipotle is fall-off-the-bone tender, but it falters under Mezcal's dedication to low-fat health food. Some butter, some oil, this dish would be really good.

Only one dish would lure me back: Mezcal's magnificent mole.

"Next time we go to Rocky Point, our mission is tamales," announces Elisabeth, smitten with Mezcal's appetizer sampler of three moist masa bundles steamed in banana leaves. But I remind her that what has stolen her heart, more than the juicy chicken and seasonings within, is the expertly crafted moles these tamales swim in.

Rather than chocolate-heavy, Mezcal's blends are celebrations of dozens of herbs and chiles. Mole roja is complex and sweet, mole Amarillo is light and aromatic, and mole verde exudes fragrant notes of tomatillo. Mole entrees are the most compelling reason to make the trek to Mezcal: the rojo paired with sweet potato puree and Swiss chard; the Amarillo partnering with green beans, chayote (squash) and rice; and the verde linking up with chochoyotes (tender masa dumplings).

And Mezcal's best dessert — an absolutely stunning banana pepita — shows this kitchen has true potential. Picture a sandwich of toasted coconut stuffed with creamy custard, fresh strawberries, sliced banana and green pumpkin seeds.

The restaurant has a mission statement: "We believe that Mezcal has a valuable role to fill in changing U.S. stereotypes if what Mexican food is." Perhaps it does. And perhaps the Valley isn't ready yet to take the challenge.

As it waits for local tastes to change, Mezcal might take the direction that our better Asian restaurants do: Offer the standard cuisine that keeps wallets open. But Mezcal might also keep a "secret" menu — available by request — of true Oaxacan-style favorites, allowing chef Enrico to just go nuts with the potent specialties.

Until then, look for me, Elizabeth and Santiago at Beto's Place. We'll be the ones with beef juice on our chins and great big grins on our faces.

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