First Taste

El Santo: Better-Than-Expected Bites, But Be Ready to Pay the Pool Guy

When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out -- and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).

Restaurant: El Santo Location: 7301 East Butherus Drive, Scottsdale Open: Just over three weeks Eats: Mostly Mexican Price Point: $11 to $30 a person

Put on your flip-flops, North Scottsdale scenesters, we're goin' to a pool party.

From restaurateur Bryan Chittenden, co-owner of Stingray Sushi, Geisha A Go-Go, Jimmy Woo's, Spanish Fly, and the new Big B's Hangover, comes El Santo, a cantina, patio bar, and restaurant near the Scottsdale Quarter in the former location of Jilly's American Grill.

Billing itself as "a fiery combination of Cantina + Patio Bar + Restaurant, built around a Mexican resort-style pool!" El Santo's huge party-hardy space, around 25,000 square feet, includes both an indoor and outdoor bar, a sprawling dining area, and pumpin' beats loud enough to be heard from the parking lot.

All of which might make it easy for El Santo to file its mostly Baja-style menu of lunch and dinner eats in the "afterthought" cabinet -- but it doesn't. Surprisingly, the dishes I tried were well-prepared, flavorful, and fresh. They're all a dollar or two more than what you might expect to pay for them, but then the pool guy ain't gettin' paid in sun tan oil.

Two server-recommended grilled rib eye skewers were certainly tender and well-seasoned -- and were accompanied by a nice sweet-then-spicy guajillo chile dip -- but the portion size (three small bites per skewer) didn't seem worth the $8 price. The same could be said for the $14 sweet shrimp enchiladas. Their plump shrimp and sweet agave crema played nicely off the spice of the roasted peppers, but at no more than three bites each, the three enchiladas seemed slightly overpriced given the casual setting.

The best bang for the Baja buck at El Santo may be its combo plates. With six to choose from, I enjoyed the number three ($11) featuring two roasted chicken adobe "tacos" (really, more like enchiladas) and a rib eye burrito. A slathering of a nice, mild red sauce and fresh tomatoes on all three -- in addition to tender bites of roasted chicken and steak -- made for a satisfying lunch.

El Santo's dining area, although large, remains inviting thanks to a centrally located bar, bright orange booths, brick walls, dim lights, and niches for pool players and lounge-y types. And the restaurant's cadre of staggeringly attractive servers are efficient, friendly, and happy to direct its North Scottsdale customers to their favorite dishes.

The pool area at El Santo is unquestionably where the action is, but at least it hasn't forgotten that even the see-and-be-seen set needs a good meal now and then.

Follow Chow Bella on Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest