The Desert Botanical Garden’s Chiles and Chocolate festival took place last weekend, occupying a section of the garden with booths and stalls featuring a wide range of Southwestern sweets and spices. The annual event also featured live cooking demonstrations and flamenco dancing, but it was the food that took center stage.
Here are five of our favorite bites from the event.
Stone Grindz’ Cinnamon and Cayenne chocolate bar
If there were a predominant offering of the Chiles and Chocolate Festival, it would without a doubt be chocolate with chiles inside. Several chocolatiers and dessert makers tried their hand at fusing the two flavors, but none did it better in bar form than local chocolate-maker Stone Grindz. The company's Cinnamon and Cayenne chocolate bar was simple and unambiguous, but not overpowering. Each bite began with a pure dark chocolate flavor that slowly gave way to overtones of cinnamon before finishing with a warm cayenne note in the back of the throat. Admittedly, it wasn't the most original pairing, but despite the recent ubiquity of spicy chocolates, this one was incredibly well executed.
Fabulous Food Catering’s Chicken Mole Chili
Typically, the catering booths at the Chiles and Chocolate Festival are not the main attraction. And while that arguably held true here, one especially excellent food came from Phoenix’s Fabulous Food Catering in the form of an excellent chicken mole chili. While it wasn't particularly visually appealing compared to many of the more delicate options at the event, the bowl of tender chicken enveloped in a sweet red mole sauce and topped with cheese and chopped onions was satisfying and tasty. The mole had a warmth and spice to it that felt perfectly autumnal. The paper cup was a somewhat unconventional plating for a mole dish, but the lack of pretension was in some ways a welcome break.
Chocolate Paleta from Paletas Betty
Anyone familiar with hot afternoons in Phoenix should be familiar with the paleta — generally a cream-based popsicle originating in Latin America. Typically, paletas are not exactly gourmet, but Tempe’s Paletas Betty defies that expectation. The chocolate is one of the simpler flavors, with a cold and refreshing chocolaty opening followed by cinnamon flavors that build in the mouth and cut through the semisweet chocolate. A slight graininess hints at the handmade quality of this treat and also provides interesting textural variation.
Mole from Mano y Metate
The mole from Mano y Metate is a frequent offering at the Chiles and Chocolate Festival and also at the Desert Botanical Garden’s Dia de los Muertos festival. While stores across the state and even into New Mexico and Montana sell the mole, these festivals are the only chances for Phoenicians to try or buy it in person. More remarkably, the mole that Mano y Metate sells doesn't come in sauce form. Rather, it's sold in tins containing the spices and seasonings necessary to make mole yourself. The spice combinations alone were enough to make it onto this list, but the best was the mole dulce, or sweet mole. It may be the type most frequently associated with mole, with an incredibly complex array of sweet, spicy and smoky flavors all coming from an unassuming coffee ground colored powder thickened and flavored with raisins, bananas, Mulato chiles, Oaxacan chocolate, and several other spices and peppers.
Aztec Chocolate Cotton Candy from Spunlight Cotton Candy
It seems the combination of chocolate and chiles in a single item is a reliable choice for the proprietors at this event. But few married those two flavors in a form that was not just another spiced chocolate bar. Only one did so in cotton candy form. Tucson’s Spunlight Cotton Candy provided far and away the best offering of the event. It took the usual combo of spiced chocolates and turned it on its head with the Aztec chocolate flavor. Each bite or the organic cotton candy was a complex and even disorienting experience. The sugary strands seemed to melt into air, leaving a breath of chocolate followed by exhalations of cinnamon and chiles. The novelty of the item combined with the quality of the flavors represented everything that the event is and all that it should aspire to be.