Welcome to The Essentials, our catalog of indispensable and quintessential Phoenix food and drink. From now until May, we'll be sharing 50 dishes, drinks, and food experiences that make up the culinary backbone (and personality) of metro Phoenix. This list is highly eclectic, mixing classics with newer and lesser-known favorites. But all The Essentials have one thing in common: We think they're required eating (and drinking) in metro Phoenix.
22: Cahuamanta Stew at Cahuamanta El Yaqui
Cahuamanta El Yaqui, a Mexican restaurant located near 35th Avenue and McDowell Road, has the kind of gritty, unglamorous exterior that has probably scared off more than one diner. If you can look past things like curb appeal, though, you'll be rewarded with a bounty of good tacos, tostadas, and one of the most quintessential Sonoran seafood dishes around.
The restaurant specializes in the beachy dishes of southern Sonora, and its hallmark dish is its caldo de cahuamanta, the salty, flavorful manta ray and shrimp stew enjoyed around northern Mexico.
The first time I tasted cahuamanta, it had been prepared for somebody's wedding, which speaks to the dish's special role as a food of celebration. It's the kind of food that easily feeds large crowds without breaking the bank, and like many rich stews, it also seems to offer comfort in times of need.
At Cahuamanta El Yaqui, you will sometimes see men alone, sitting at tables, sipping the bichi de cahuamanta — the briny broth all on its own — out of Styrofoam cups. It is nourishment and warmth in a cup.
You can also enjoy cahuamanta in taco form, the slippery hunks of fish and shrimp nestled in a freshly warmed corn tortilla, which you can dip into the oniony, flavor-rich broth to extract even more flavor.
Cahuamanta may not yet be as popular as other classic Sonoran exports — probably nothing will ever outpace the love and attention lavished on carne asada and Sonoran hot dogs. But cahuamanta is the kind of dish that is often made with care, and demands to be eaten and enjoyed at least once, if you're not totally averse to fishy stews.
There are many restaurants around town producing many fine renditions of cahuamanta. So far, though, Cahuamanta El Yaqui in Phoenix been one of the steadiest suppliers of very good cahuamanta that I have come across. It's served there daily, because who doesn't need a daily dose of comfort?
The Essentials so far:
50: Tequila Sunrise at the Arizona Biltmore.
49: "Dragon" Dumpling Burger at Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour.
48: Dizzy Fig Empanada at Republica Empanada.
47: Linguine Carbonara at Avanti.
46: The Food Court at Mercado de los Cielos.
45: Chicken Feta Salad at George’s Kitchen.
44: Spinach & Cheese Chimi Burro at Mi Patio Mexican Restaurant.
43: Dinner at Rustler's Rooste.
42: Gyro Omelet at Mel's Diner.
41: Zipps Wings at Zipps Sports Grill.
40: Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa.
39: Asian Nachos at Moto.
38: Olive Oil Tasting at Queen Creek Olive Oil Mill.
37: Baby Back Ribs at Don & Charlie's.
36: Limoncello at Cibo.
35: Chili Salt Chicken Wings at Asian Café Express.
34: Smoked Prime Rib at Texaz.
33: Steak Salad at Feeney's.
32: Tasting Menu at Kai Restaurant.
31: Toffee Banofi Sundae at Sweet Republic.
30: Big Jim at Welcome Diner.
29: Sonoran Hot Dog at El Caprichoso.
28: Sashimi at Nobuo at Teeter House.
27: Oysters at Casey Moore's Oyster House.
26: Spring rolls at Da Vang.
25: Bruschetta and wine at Postino.
24: Hot green chili fry bread at Fry Bread House.
23: The Big One at The Chuckbox.