In the '70s, my friends and I ate at La Rosa, a Glendale diner that served both Mexican and Chinese food -- not only because we liked both chow mein and chimichangas, but because we thought it was hilarious that a restaurant would offer two such diverse cuisines. Although fusion cuisine was just starting to catch on at the time, it hadn't yet arrived in the desert, and La Rosa kept the sopapillas and the sizzling rice on separate platters.
Fusion dining's often pretentious customs are neatly celebrated at SumoMaya, whose glamorous locale is home to a menu that, with some exceptions, expertly blends Asian and Mexican cuisines in eccentric and more often delicious ways.
SumoMaya's setting is big in every sense: A vast, wide-open room wrapped around a monstrous fake tree bursting through its ceiling, its every attractive inch has been feng shui'd by designer Jeff Low. The pair of giant-screen TVs is a de rigueur curse, and one wonders why the traditional sushi bar occupies such a small corner of this large, beautiful room. Place settings border on camp with an elegantly kitschy combination of Mexican glassware, blue willow chargers, and balsa chopsticks.
But executive chef Matt Zdeb could be offering food in a dungeon and few would care, because his unusual and tasty fare, finessed by Chef Lorenzo Lopez and sushi chef Andy Hisao Suzuki, is that good. Guacamole with pumpkin seeds and cilantro was mouthwatering and creamy, with chunks of avocado and red onion and a lingering heat from togarashi spices. These came served with crisp, hot tostada chips dusted with chili powder so delicious, I found myself longing for a basket of them the next day.
The bacon-wrapped Medjool dates offered a striking combination of flavors and textures: mushy dates stuffed with spicy chorizo, wrapped in crisp bacon and drizzled in a superbly mild foie gras sauce. Wild mushroom tacos were robust with wood-fired champignons and poppy seed crema, folded into hearty, soft corn tortillas. Separating the tastes by picking the taco apart with chopsticks proved easy and made for a more distinctive eating experience.
The tempura unagi roll was a real surprise; I expected the eel to be battered and fried and rolled with the cream cheese and sweet peppers; instead, the entire roll was tempuraed. Sliced too thin, dotted with spicy salsa verde and a side of eel sauce, the dish offered one too many flavors and was a colossal fail.
Shrimp cocktail ceviche was a better example of fusion done right: Its beautiful presentation in a big ceramic bowl of ice offered slender slices of avocado and sliced prawns "cooked" in a snappy, cold tomato-citrus broth and dotted with spiced popcorn. As an accompaniment, I ordered a neat bowl of street corn, which combined crisply cooked kernels overpowered by cilantro and still more peppery popcorn. (In fact, there was corn in nearly everything I ordered; as Carol Channing once infamously hollered, "Did I eat corn!")
Arroz con pato was an unsubtle green rice whose many rich flavors -- shredded duck confit, an over-hard fried egg, a balsamic drizzle -- were all overwhelmed by too much poblano chile and a bright puddle of aji amarillo sauce. Garnished with pickled carrots, the miso Chilean sea bass skewers were a nicely unadorned follow-up green rice dish, sweet with a soy glaze and -- surprise! -- absolutely no corn whatsoever.
I've ended every meal at SumoMaya with an order of tres leeches cake, and I suspect I always will. Topped with a slab of burnt marshmallow, its layers of springy sponge cake are drenched in an ideal combo of sweet milks and cream and sidled up to a hunk of coco-flavored Rice Krispie treat -- a flawless windup to a top-shelf lunch or dinner that sidesteps fusion's pretenses in favor of fine flavors.
SumoMaya 6560 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale 480-397-9520 www.sumomaya.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday; 9 a.m. to midnight Saturday; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday