And I suspect that this place won't stay a neighborhood gem for long — people might actually drive for this food.
I say this because it's New Mexican cuisine that's already quite near and dear to the hearts of Phoenix food lovers.
Remember Richardson's, the longstanding favorite in North Central Phoenix, famous for hosting Dubya on one of his presidential stops in Phoenix, serving up outstanding (and ass-kickingly spicy) Southwestern food, and ultimately succumbing to a three-alarm blaze last summer? If you're at all acquainted with that legendary spot, then Secreto will feel like a blast from the past.
(It's important to note that although the original Richardson's is no more, its spirit lives on at one sister eatery, Dick's Hideaway, while the actual menu is served at another, Rokerij. Next door to Rokerij, at a former Dairy Queen, a brand-new Richardson's will make a comeback later this year.)
Secreto brings the same kind of seductive dining experience to a part of town that's clearly eager for another indie restaurant to rally around, and the similarity is no coincidence.
Co-owner Barbara Brown is the ex-wife of Richardson's founder Richardson Browne (she dropped the "e" from her name), and during the 15 years she was married to the restaurateur, she handled the front of the house at Richardson's and collaborated on subsequent concepts.
"We opened Dick's and Rokerij together," she says. "He had Richardson's before we got married." About the split, Brown will only say that "it wasn't the most amicable." Browne declined to comment.
In Secreto, Brown has recreated an environment she's clearly fond of. What used to be a bright, stark Havana Café on Chandler Boulevard is now dark and intimate. The heady smell of burning pecan wood hits your nostrils as soon as you walk through the door. There are pale saguaro spines covering the windows, booths set into high, adobe-like nooks, and specials scribbled on chalkboards. And whether you're waiting for a table or just relaxing over a salt-rimmed prickly pear margarita, the cool copper bar is an inviting place to hang out.
Sound familiar? Indeed, Secreto is so reminiscent of Richardson's that the food is even served on heavy metal plates, often topped with a big tortilla. Call it a formula, if you will, but it works.
The only thing that doesn't quite make sense is the name itself. According to the menu, Secreto was inspired by the secret grapevine plantings of Franciscan monks who "could do without all worldly possessions . . . but not their wine," and defied Spanish law by smuggling vines into New Mexico in the late 17th century.
It's a great story, to be sure, but based on that, I'd expect a very extensive wine list, if not a flat-out wine-centric concept. On that front, the limited offerings came as a letdown. I hope that Secreto expands its wine cellar along with its clientele.
While I'm on a tangent, I'll get the other minuses out of the way: servers who needed a bit more polish, and side dishes that were pretty useless, especially compared to the stellar entrées they were paired with.
Why bother with a huge house salad of Romaine and watered-down ranch dressing? Or mushy mac 'n' cheese that hardly hinted of the promised green chiles? Or, worst of all, a stuffed "red chile potato" that was utterly bland, not thoroughly cooked, and made with a green chile? All of these should've been to die for.
My complaining ends there, though.
Generous appetizers started things on the right note, and threatened to spoil my appetite. How can I stop eating when I'm staring at a fire-roasted stuffed poblano oozing flavorful Mexican cheeses, chorizo, and cilantro crème fraîche? I just can't. And didn't. It was very tasty.
"The Stack," a plate covered with beef, chicken, and chorizo enchiladas, was luscious topped with a fried egg, while different dips made the bacon-wrapped shrimp a great starter. Five big blackened shrimp were fanned out over excellent Spanish rice and smoky pinto beans, surrounded by spicy barbecue sauce, wonderfully potent red chile sauce, sweet, smooth tomato salsa, and a comparatively bland Hollandaise.
I also enjoyed the Southwestern crab cakes, which were so meaty they were almost falling apart. Blobs of creamy, mild chipotle aioli added an even richer taste to the sweet crabmeat, while a bed of fresh greens and a roasted corn and tomato salsa kept it light. An ahi tuna salad, with greens, jicama, and avocado, was tossed in a summery citrus vinaigrette, but not enhanced by a lackluster, verging-on-fishy piece of sesame-crusted tuna.
Pork was a much better direction than tuna. Several entrées either contain it or are based on it, and the ones I tasted were well prepared.
Carne adovada was my favorite, with huge, moist, fork-tender chunks of smoked meat in red chile sauce, slightly browned on the edges from the oven. While I recall Richardson's version was smothered in sauce (and extremely spicy), this was less about the sauce (and, therefore, the spice) and more about the glory of pork. I enlisted my friends to help me eat it, and everyone was more than happy to oblige.
A bit of smoked pork also made an appearance in the Tuccumcari Tamales, a duo of pork and green corn tamales topped with green chile — a great blend of spicy, sweet, and smoky flavors. And as if a succulent pork chop isn't already a beautiful thing, at Secreto, they fill it with chorizo and pair it with chutney. Good stuff.
I was torn between rack of lamb and a steak, and I went with the former because it's not as typical. Mint jelly on the side? That didn't grab me at first, but when the rack turned out to be plump with juicy pink flesh, and the jelly had a jalapeño kick and a not-too-sweet complexity, I was really into it. Turns out, that jelly tasted good on other things, too.
At the end of the meal, flan was the only option, and I almost didn't get a chance to try it when my server one night showed up with the check.
Not offering us coffee or sweets?
"Oh, we have flan, but most people don't know what that is," said our handsome, charming, and totally green server.
We do. We want that.
He scurried off to get us some, and we were glad we insisted — it was some of the tastiest, richest flan I've had in many months.
Secreto has so much going for it, and I think it will only get better.