Cafe Reviews

A Perfect Storm

The sky is rumbling, in that deep, dark voice. Which, in the language of the Valley, means monsoon season has arrived. The thunder is teasing that soon rain will explode on our heads in such big fat drops that we'll be drenched within seconds. We have roiling clouds in purple, gray, navy, black and edges of pink. We have lightning, alternating from silent knife slashes to booming claps that shock the sky like a camera flash.

My pal Judy is thrilled. This is what she misses about Arizona, she says. Yes, life is exciting in Manhattan, she's glad she took her career to that Big City about 10 years ago now. But still, there's little in life as magical as our desert when the storms stampede in.

For a moment, we consider staying outside to eat our dinner -- the patio of Los Sombreros is cooled with misters, and a giant mobile evaporative unit has been wheeled in for temporary relief from the thick summer heat. But then the wind comes in great gusting huffs. Menus are blown straight out of their holder next to the reception stand. We duck and cover, laughing as the first sputtering fits of rain dampen our clothes.

The hostess ducks out from the doorway. Our table inside is finally ready, she says. She apologizes for the delay. Los Sombreros doesn't take reservations for parties less than seven, and it has been very busy this evening. The group hogging our intended table had paid their check at least 15 minutes earlier, she explains, but were having so much fun they didn't want to leave.

She leads us through the slender hallway. The kitchen is on one side, the elaborately decorated rest rooms are on the other. It's an odd entry to the handsome red brick cottage that was once an old home but now has been refurbished in brilliant Spanish style. The dining room is in the back -- or is it the front -- with large windows facing bustling Scottsdale Road. It's a beautiful renovation. Weathered wooden doors are hung with wrought iron. It has a rose-red ceiling and ornate chandeliers.

We pull out heavy, tall wooden bar chairs at a heavy, tall wooden bar table, and the wood screeches across the floor in a sound that resembles nails on a chalkboard. No one looks up; the sound is almost lost in the din of diners' animated conversations. This is one happy place.

And it's restaurants like this, Judy says, that she misses about Arizona as much as the crazy weather this time of year. For all its culture, New York can't seem to figure out how to make Mexican food, she laments. It's true, I know -- I've had more than my share of embarrassing experiences with Manhattan restaurants sending out Velveeta-capped cheese crisps, horridly bland salsa of nothing but tomato and onion, and burritos that have never been properly introduced to a real chile. As soon as Judy got off the plane at Sky Harbor, she admits, she was thinking about where she could get her fix of favorites: guacamole, chile rellenos and refried beans. She wanted the real stuff, so I suggested one of the most authentic places I could think of -- the lovely Los Sombreros -- where now our server is placing a large bowl of chips and two tiny cups of salsa on our table.

Los Sombreros is a Valley tradition. It's been around since 1997, though until February it was lodged in a Tempe strip mall. The place was cute once diners got past the depressing expanses of asphalt, but this new incarnation is so much better. It's hip in its little house now, brimming with a charm that the Valley restaurant scene so desperately needs. It's a place that invites us to relax.

Los Sombreros comes from chef-owner Jeffrey Smedstad, a graduate of Scottsdale Culinary Institute and an avid fan of central Mexico (the area is his frequent vacation destination). He muses fondly of "the awesome markets that inspired [his] cafe . . . the food [is] so bright, alive and full of flavor."

Appropriately, Los Sombreros emphasizes the regional cuisine of and around Oaxaca. That means some exotica in ingredients used, like cotija (dry crumbly white cheese), rajas (poblano chile strips), string-style white Oaxacan cheese, pumpkinseed, and cilantro crema. This is the stuff I lust after, but soon I'm wondering if perhaps I've tossed Judy into something a bit too brave for someone who hasn't tucked into a typical taco in too many years.

This is not Garcia's grub.

With its change of venue, Los Sombreros has left behind its more standard offerings, like burritos and chimichangas. It's strictly deep ethnic food now, with things like mole poblano, a Puebla dish incorporating about 30 ingredients like chipotle, mulatto, ancho and pasilla chiles; lard; white onion; garlic; sesame seeds; almonds; peanuts; tomato; chicken stock; raisins; cumin; allspice; Mexican cinnamon; Mexican chocolate; and avocado leaf (sometimes animal cookies are tossed in!). Chiles are roasted, seeds are toasted, the blend is meticulously strained for a smooth and creamy sauce poured over grilled chicken. Not just any chicken, either, but braised free-range poultry from Young's Farm in Dewey.

Judy, who's expecting more of a Manuel's/Macayo's/Mi Patio experience, isn't initially sure what to make of the chips and salsa here. The crisp tortilla squares go down fine, dipped in a low-burning thin red purée, or a sweet-tangy tomatillo sauce. The duros have her stumped, though -- they're spoke-wheel-shaped, deep-fried flour pasta puffs with a color and texture like shrimp crisps.

And she's not sure she's smitten with her chile relleno, a hefty poblano stuffed with roasted corn and gooey white cheeses under a fluffy comforter of eggy batter and salsa. The flavor is there in fine form -- we decide she's simply not used to the flat, open-faced presentation or more subtle, earthy tone of the true Mexican cheeses.

Wow, but does she love the guacamole. Like everything at Los Sombreros, it's homemade, glittering with freshness and served in decadent portions. Judy and I can barely make a dent, and on later visits with a party of four, even, it's impossible to finish the mountain of chunky avocado cut with radish, tomato, onion and fiery chile. We cool our mouths slightly with tortilla soup, spiked with lots of chicken breast, fried corn frizzles, lime, jack cheese and silky avocado.

The Los Sombreros chefs like a few things very, very much. Those would be sliced radish, chopped tomato and onion, and flurries of cilantro. They're everywhere: in the soup, in a delightful salad of matchstick jicama layered with orange segments and doused in a gutsy chile lime dressing, and in virtually every entree. I like the color, I like the crunch. Judy likes the familiarity of the garnish, especially after I present her with unexpected tacos de birria de chiro (braised goat, tender shredded meat served on tiny soft corn tortillas), and chilaquiles de camarónes (a comfort casserole of corn tortilla strips and shrimp simmered in salsa verde, jack cheese and crema).

The food is thrilling. There are wacky flavors from slow-simmered pork in pumpkinseed tomatillo mole. There's a disturbingly good homemade vanilla ice cream spiked with roasted pumpkinseed and pralines. A quesadilla of crisp-edged corn masa stuffed with braised portabella is enthralling, and where else are we to find such delicacies as smoked salmon tostada with chipotle cream cheese, or crab and mango salad with honey lime dressing?

Judy can't handle the lamb adobo. She likes the tender braised lamb shank on the bone but is overwhelmed by the muddy soup of sweet-spicy ancho chile it swims in. She's much more comfortable with carnitas, a friendly pile of slow-roasted pork made luscious with char-sealed edges savoring lots of fat and bone. The chocolate tamal doesn't do it for her, either, a log of fudge cake fashioned from real Mexican chocolate (think harsh baker's chocolate), imbued with corn flavor from the husk it rests on, and paired with homemade vanilla ice cream and whipped queso.

For me, this is my element. I love the experimentation, the wild ride of finishing a meal with hot chocolate made from Ibarra (unsweetened cocoa) and Almendrado tequila. I love getting an enchilada, not draped in American Cheddar, but in the velvet of tomatillo and crema.

Bring on the rain, the thunderclouds, and the carne en mole Amarillo (grilled steak in Oaxacan mole). Los Sombreros is so much like our monsoon storms. Unbridled, unexpected, sometimes unsettling, but always exciting. It's among the things I love about Arizona.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet