Jackie Mercandetti Photo


Those wishing to experience the finest of what the Sonoran Desert has to offer — the native saguaro fruit and wolfberries, the tepary beans and wild sumac — would be wise to throw down for an upscale evening at Kai Restaurant. For nearly two decades, Kai has taken the best of what the Gila River Community can grow and forage (the tribe owns the restaurant, which is on its grounds) and put those quintessential Sonoran ingredients through global, fine-dining filters. Cactus key lime pie. Buffalo steak with saguaro syrup. Posole with Ramona Farms corn. Wolfberry vinegar. Chiltepin froth. A circus of beautiful desert ingredients carried to new places. These days, Chef Ryan Swanson is leading Kai's efforts. Swanson's congenial, soft-spoken nature might, at first blush, seem at odds with his ferocious passion for this kind of innovative, deeply Arizonan cooking. His process for developing new dishes is arduous, often taking weeks and weeks of expensive revisions and taste-testings. But what emerges is a menu reading like a hike through the creosote-fragrant desert. Kai remains as intimate a place-rooted experience as you'll find in metro Phoenix, and, even after all these years, is a thoughtful and thrilling place to eat. New Normal: Reservations are required and can be made via OpenTable.

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