A new Cave Creek restaurant hopes to amass a bigger selection of agave-based spirits than any other in the world. Ofrenda, a colossus of a 300-seater with two stories of outdoor tables, has a 20-foot-tall “library” of tequila and mezcal accessed by ladders. Behind a bar near the entrance stands prominent bottles: Mezcal Carreno, a brand with some Arizona roots, and El Tesoro, a celebrated highland tequila line.
I stood at this bar on a recent night waiting for takeout, ogling bottles, looking around.
The waitstaff was wiping tables, polishing handblown glassware, attending a few diners. A crooning female Spanish voice, her notes dripping with emotion, emerged from the pleasant, staid music being played. I noted the cavernousness of the dining room, its open kitchen, its tables built from Indian Rosewood, its display of cowhide fashioned into marigolds. Windows were open. Late sun was thick. The rattling of a cocktail shaker erupted.
With a jolt, I realized how much I missed restaurants. I also realized how much fun, after the pandemic, this one might be.
The owners of Ofrenda are Carlos Marquez and Michael Stone, the team behind Taco Guild. They’ve remade the restaurant at 7100 East Cave Creek Road, Suite 151, in Cave Creek's Stagecoach Villagfrom from its previous space, Indigo Crow, also theirs. Beyond agave spirits galore, Ofrenda focuses on food channeling Mexico, Latin America broadly, and Spain. The kitchen has exciting wrinkles, like heirloom blue corn tortillas, a smoker, and even the creativity and guts to grind mesquite pods for gnocchi.
Marquez believes this north Valley town suits Ofrenda’s ethos.
“Cave Creek is very dear to me,” he says. “I like how it’s not urban — it’s very spread out. You’re out in the real Sonoran Desert. It kind of represents what we’re going for. We want people to experience not only the ambiance but to go out into the desert and look at nature.”
Marquez is executive chef, Daniel Masferrer sous chef. If a few menu items bring the old Cartwright’s to mind (mesquite gnocchi, salmon over Pima corn), it might be because Masferrer cooked there.
The Ofrenda menu feels straightforward, yet contains flashes of intrigue and originality.
I hit the starters pretty hard. A beet carpaccio was impressive, built on ultra-thin slices like broad purple sails. These get attentive treatment: a soft steaming with vinegar, a thin slicing, and a final smoking. It makes for a luxurious way to eat the sweet, earthy vegetable.
A starter board of garlicky guacamole, hummus, grilled vegetables, and a few other bites was solid overall, no curveballs, about what you’d expect. Puffy, perfectly crunchy bands of chicharrones were on point and had me missing takeout cocktails. All was gravy but for fried pieces of hominy, hard and chewy.
Solid plates of food were the norm, including a rich tepary bean puree, flavorful chicken grilled over mesquite, and the coarse, thick blue-corn tortillas coming with many orders, like duck carnitas tacos. That said, the salsa verde on that chicken could have had more zap, the mole on prawns more depth.
My favorite dish was a trout tamale, inspired by Masferrer's Salvadorian grandmother. As I drove home to eat, the aroma of steamy banana leaves perfumed my car. Simple trout fillets teeter near the tamales, sure. The real treasure, though, lies inside. Unfold those banana leaves, and more fish lurks in the masa. Its smoky flavor has spread all through the warm masa, pervading the compact corn in the best way possible. Leftovers scream for a fried egg or two.
My early sense of Ofrenda is that it has a ton of potential. The kitchen shows some nice flashes, but it could also edit itself harder. The restaurant design is top-notch, creating the kind of spot that, with the right tunes and drink and weather, can put you at peace. The agave program will be grand to dive into, whether or not the owners can amass a truly peerless selection. (“We’re going for the world record,” Marquez reiterates. “Right now, the world record is held in Oaxaca.”)
“Ofrenda” is Spanish. “What 'ofrenda' means is 'offering,'” Marquez says. “It also translates into 'altar' … Ofrenda is a place where you can celebrate with your loved ones and remember those who have passed.” It’s also, he adds, a space where you can celebrate community.
By the entrance, an ofrenda stands. Candles cover the eerily wax-streaked table. Both it and everything else at Ofrenda feels ready, now and for after the pandemic, waiting for the community to come in.