First Taste

First Taste: Alter Ego Might Be Too Fancy for Downtown Tempe — but Also, Damn

Alter Ego, the new hotel restaurant in downtown Tempe, really knows how to put a menu together.
Alter Ego, the new hotel restaurant in downtown Tempe, really knows how to put a menu together. Lauren Cusimano
When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out, 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 — an occasion to sample a few items and satisfy curiosities (both yours and ours).

Restaurant: Alter Ego
Location: 108 East University Drive, Tempe
Open: About three weeks
Eats: Wings, American dishes, and vegan options
Price: $9 to $30
Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., daily

Full disclosure: I love hotel restaurants. They have a way of making you feel like you’re on vacation, like you can splurge and abstain from checking email, even if you’re just doing takeout on a Thursday night. Alter Ego, the new restaurant on the ground floor of the Canopy by Hilton Tempe Downtown, had this same affect on me. It's located less than a mile from my house, but I ached to stick around and get a room.

click to enlarge Alter Ego is found on the ground floor of the new Canopy by Hilton Tempe Downtown. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
Alter Ego is found on the ground floor of the new Canopy by Hilton Tempe Downtown.
Lauren Cusimano
Still, by the time we got our orders home, I was glad I could moan and groan and shout my compliments to veteran Valley chef Ken Arneson in the privacy of my kitchen.

A few bites into the skirt steak chimichurri, and I knew I’d made the right choice. The menu item combines steak slices, a salad of arugula and slivered radish, papas bravas (or heavily seasoned little potato chunks), and a green, pesto-like chimichurri sauce that is as salty as it is thick and textured. You want to get a little bit of everything into each forkful.

Even in the age of takeout, I highly recommend you pause the movie, get the lights up, and pay attention to this dish as you dissect and chew/evaluate, working your way to the sauce-stained bottom of the compostable (extra points) takeout container.

click to enlarge The skirt steak chimichurri. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
The skirt steak chimichurri.
Lauren Cusimano
But do save room, and some of that chimichurri goop, for your other dishes.

There are several interesting flatbread choices here, but we went with the three cheese and aged pepperoni: jack, mozzarella, and Parmesan cheese, spicy pepperoni, and some arugula tossed on for color, looks. The flatbread pizza looked as though it might have been an unfortunate casualty of the travel time home, but a bite of it gave me my second surprise of the night. No travel time could take away from the intensity of this flatbread.  I always want to salt pizza, to dip it into something — to not let the bread win. But that was not the case here. The salt made the flavors pop.

click to enlarge The three cheese and aged pepperoni flatbread. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
The three cheese and aged pepperoni flatbread.
Lauren Cusimano
At the bar, the incredibly helpful guy I ordered from by phone had informed us the kitchen was waiting for our arrival to “fire up the peppers" — our sweet Thai Shishito peppers. The peppers were several inches long, slightly shriveled, and topped with chunks of sesame toasted ginger.

They came with a bright-yellow turmeric coconut yogurt sauce. Thank goodness this sauce came in a larger cup. I found myself reaching for pieces of the flatbread and leftover papas bravas to get more of this yellow yogurt goo into my face.

Unable to finish the peppers, they spent a night in the fridge. Both the peppers and sauce held up well — at least until lunch the following day.

click to enlarge The sweet Thai Shishito peppers, - LAUREN CUSIMANO
The sweet Thai Shishito peppers,
Lauren Cusimano
The other main we ordered was the katsu chicken sandwich, a dish that stands out in one simple way: It’s sweet, like a savory dessert, where most everything else on the menu is salty and intense. The chicken is topped with agave, Asian pear cabbage slaw, and drizzlings of Gochujang sauce, but a bite into the sandwich puts up zero fight. It’s like a cloud despite the weight in your hands.

The house fries were, unfortunately, an actual casualty of the travel time. Nobody’s fault. The few steak fries that did manage to stay close to their ideal form were crispy on the outside, soft and starchy inside, and barely needed the complimentary ketchup.

click to enlarge The cloud-like katsu chicken sandwich. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
The cloud-like katsu chicken sandwich.
Lauren Cusimano
Dessert options at Alter Ego include a chocolate tres leches cake and the In “The Pot” Cobbler. The cobbler is a fantastic-smelling plop of apple chunks and sugar cookie crumblings. Wisely, for takeout orders Alter Ego packs separately the star ingredient, the goat cheese gelato.

I’ve had better cobbler — it could have used a little more texture — but maybe I was just cranky because I just wanted more of the goat cheese gelato. I want to date this gelato. I want to take a bowl of it to all my favorite spots in town and introduce it to my family. In the future, I will kindly ask if I may have a full-assed pint of this to take home.

We didn't try any of the cocktails. When the time's right, I think I’ll come back and try the Alter Mi-Tai (Mi Campo Blanco Tequila, Kula Dark Rum, Ancho Reyes Ancho Chile Liqueur, pineapple and lime juice, and cinnamon simple syrup).

click to enlarge The In “The Pot” Cobbler sans the incredible goat cheese gelato. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
The In “The Pot” Cobbler sans the incredible goat cheese gelato.
Lauren Cusimano
I wish Alter Ego the best, but I do worry for its future, given the pandemic it has opened into. It's an upscale restaurant that may be a bit too pricey for the students and now-struggling industry workers that make up downtown Tempe’s nightlife scene. Still, this is a neighborhood where people like to treat themselves, so I hope not to see only visiting ASU parents (its campus is directly across the street) in the dining room when heading down University Drive in the future, hungry for another go at that chimichurri sauce and goat cheese gelato.
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Lauren Cusimano was the Phoenix New Times food editor from 2018 to 2021. Joys include eating wings, riding bikes, knowing everyone at the bar, talking too much about The Simpsons, and falling asleep while reading.