Cafe Reviews

Cafe Review: An Arizona Icon Shuffles Its Menu Yet Remains Great

A vivid new plate of fish three ways.
A vivid new plate of fish three ways. Jackie Mercandetti Photo
The defining ingredient at Kai Restaurant might be corn. Its chefs use white corn and pink corn, red corn and blue corn. They use whole corn, fried corn, and corn roasted out in the picking fields; corn ground to ancient forms like ga’ivsa and pinole; corn smoked, pressure-cooked, and treated many other ways. On white-clothed tables under paintings by local artists like Akimel O’odham master Amil Pedro, corn has come in focaccia, pozole, lobster souffle, cactus pie crust, a blue tamale, and pureed under Kai’s signature buffalo steak.

But this past fall, something happened at Kai Restaurant. Kai’s sixth chef in 18 years, Ryan Swanson, was fine-tuning the most sweeping menu changes “in recent memory,” when, suddenly, he had to see corn anew.

In fall’s first days, a hard frost came early to the fields south of Phoenix. A drive down dusty roads southeast from where Kai stands in the Sheraton at Wild Horse Pass, the restaurant’s primary supplier, Ramona Farms, had entire cornfields killed. The Button family, who founded the 4,000-acre farm in 1974, called Swanson. Could he use the farm’s heirloom indigenous corn varieties, leveled young, usually harvested and roasted over mesquite fires in their own picking fields?

click to enlarge Squash soup (Ha:l of the Tohono O'odham). - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Squash soup (Ha:l of the Tohono O'odham).
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Why yes, he replied, of course he could.

These days in the Kai dining room, on Gila River Indian Community land, under a warbling flute and the spell of the most attentive service in greater Phoenix, you will find Ramona Farms baby corn. It has been salvaged via pickling, appearing in the Pee-Posh Garden dish. This “garden” of rotating “plants” recently contained bull’s blood beets, hedgehog mushrooms, pickled sweet potato, purple and green asparagus, and confit potatoes that could fit on a dime. The compact “garden” rises from a “soil” of pumpernickel, puffed amaranth, and black garlic.

Sauces dot the plate. Vinaigrettes and foams touch the garden. Your server scatters ramp pesto frozen into BB-size spheres atop the colorful tableau. The dish is a complex, thoughtful, bracing window into Arizona’s farms at one slice of time, as well as a window into the spirit that animates Kai.

Kai is owned by the Gila River Indian Community, by the 14,000 people who live south of Phoenix on a tract 67 square miles bigger than the city. Kai long has been a leading light of the greater Phoenix dining scene. It has earned its particular renown by harnessing and transforming thoughtful farmed and wild ingredients — many dating back to the ancient foodways of the Akimel O’odham, Pee-Posh, and other central Arizona tribes; many furnished by GRIC farmers and foragers and by indigenous sources from beyond the state; and many coming from providers Native SEEDS/Search and the San Xavier Coop.

click to enlarge Recado rojo compressed lamb on ceme't. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Recado rojo compressed lamb on ceme't.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
More specifically, Kai long has dialed in a cuisine founded on hyperlocal Arizona ingredients and global culinary influences. The restaurant has helped inspire a diffuse cadre of younger culinarians, who, like Kai, celebrate ingredients of our Sonoran Desert.

Cactus fruit and jojoba. Wolfberries and mesquite. Saguaro syrup and cholla buds. On top of these Sonoran ingredients, Kai excels with crops from afar that thrive here, like citrus and dates. Swanson and his chefs also have a facility with indigenous staples from beyond the region, like heirloom rice and bison.

At Kai, the “three sisters” receive special attention. Little-known varieties of heirloom desert squash. Pima 60-day corn. And of course, the tepary bean.

After the fall 2019 frost hit Ramona Farms, Velvet Button came to Swanson with killed tepary bean vines. Swanson burnt them to ash. A pivotal ingredient in indigenous foodways, ash brings necessary calcium — and flavor to a new Kai squash soup.

click to enlarge Pee-Posh Garden. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Pee-Posh Garden.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Swanson turns this ash to paste, which he “paints” onto a bowl. Onto this bowl, too, he sets a pesto of pumpkin seeds and sprouts, a glob of crisp rice grown by the Ojibwe tribe of Minnesota, twin dots of red currant meringue, and other touches. Tableside, a server pours in the steaming orange body of the soup, made from TOCA squash and butternut, both with intense smoke from a charring over mesquite.

The soup warms you in many ways. It carries the spiced, roasted, layered depth of a long-stewed red or green chile.

Swanson and his team take a protean approach. They give ancient ingredients modern style, and in highly technical ways that honor their (mostly) desert roots. In addition to the vitality of Kai’s local-staples-meet-global playbook, the great service, mountain views that at sunset turn you to pudding, and ability to improvise all make Kai excellent. Though already masterful, Swanson’s team still treats desert-rooted foods with a beginner’s enthusiasm. They never settle, never stop learning.

And given the history, people, and edible bounty of the Sonoran Desert (more than 250 plants), how could anyone?

A new plate at Kai unites three fish: halibut collar, a sausage of scallops that retains the jiggle and marine dissolve of the whole bivalve, and an octopus leg that looks lifted from the Greek Islands. But the leg is about as Sonoran as a sea creature can be. Its curl is blanketed in a sauce of wolfberries, chiltepines, and jamon iberico fat. One taste, and my eyes swing open like gates. The sauce has sweetness, enigmatic fruitiness, and an incandescent heat that anchors you exactly where you are, sitting in a northern basin of the world’s most vibrant desert, jagged mountains silhouetted under a melting sun out the window.

Another new dish brings indigenous flavor from beyond the region. Kai’s bison creme brulee is richer than a crooked CEO with 17 offshore bank accounts. Its custard, made from bison bone marrow, detonates with an elusive flavor vaguely like that of bone broth, but wildly concentrated, rounded by fat, and as creamy as soft butter.

Another example of ingenuity: The Kai kitchen wings its amuse bouche. Recently, this meant fried blue corn (crisp like corn nuts) and simmered red corn (deeply nutty and tender-but-toothsome). Plump kernels hunch in inky huitlacoche, the corn fungus. Pickled shallot brings a trace of electricity. It made for a stellar opener.

click to enlarge The sensory course of Navajo tea poured over creosote, desert broom, and jojoba. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
The sensory course of Navajo tea poured over creosote, desert broom, and jojoba.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
In this vein, dinner at Kai blissfully unspools. The incessant, meandering flute subtly helps to transfix you. Ordering a la carte, you still get unordered small courses, like an amuse-bouche, a sorbet intermezzo, and a final tower of chocolate truffles. There’s also a sensory course of Navajo tea poured over creosote, desert broom, and jojoba, pluming smoke and kindling the soul-piercing odor of desert rain.

That sensory course knots all the disparate Sonoran threads. Under its influence, you can see differently.

You might see, for instance, that the earlier ceme’t (a local indigenous bread) infused with I’itoi onion happened to be round, but that the one beneath the tender compressed lamb, coated with annatto rub and cooked for 16 hours, was flat as a tortilla (more traditional). The desert incense seals new courses and clear thoughts in your memory.

And looking back on them, you might realize that as good as Kai can be, as exciting as even the new dishes are, the place isn’t perfect.

Date leather around bison pemmican takes too much muscle to cut. The pemmican is simple, too much like basic beef jerky. Though service is great, it may feel too doting in our post-recession moment of casual dining. The only major error is that none of Kai’s current cooks have indigenous roots. At least one past head chef, Jack Strong, has. In the past, too, Kai has also partnered with the Ak-Chin Community and worked with indigenous cooks as part of a training program. None were cooking as of this review.

click to enlarge Chef Ryan Swanson. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Chef Ryan Swanson.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
At Kai, strengths vastly outweigh any minor foibles. And the major one is surmountable as well, provided that Swanson can, as he’s hoping to, recruit more indigenous cooks.

When viewed broadly, the deeply Sonoran cooking that Kai has pioneered is hugely important. This strain of deeply local cooking, which we’ve called New Arizonan — the approach of making key lime pie from four kinds of cactus, of using jojoba in vinaigrette — has the capacity to give the greater Phoenix food scene a singular spin. Kai and like-minded restaurants couldn’t exist anywhere else on our mostly blue planet. Not on the trendy Pacific Coast. Not beneath the gray towers of New York.

The use of these ingredients in old and new ways has a warm intimacy, an allure deeply rooted in place. It taps into the rugged beauty of this part of the world, into its ageless land formations, resilient people, dogged animals, rain-changed colors, and hardboiled history. Embracing these hyperlocal ingredients — and not even at Kai’s depth — might be the fastest way Phoenix could vault into the top tier of American dining cities.

We pass these marginalized ingredients in cars, on hikes, when walking our dogs. We tend to think little of the Sonoran bounty, if we know it exists at all. Swanson has a studied understanding of Sonoran ingredients and foodways, and not only of what has been done in ages past but, what, if you let your mind fly, could one day be. To eat at Kai is to commune with the dusty heart of where we live in an exhilarating way.

Though dinner for two will range from one to many multiples of $100, you don’t feel like you’re being ripped off. It’s never: How did my bill get this high? It’s more: Okay, that hit me pretty damn hard in the wallet, but I get it. Though out of the way, though a special-occasion place if you’re lucky, Kai remains one of the best and most important restaurants in Arizona. Not only for the past and present, but for one potential future.

Kai Restaurant
5594 Wild Horse Pass Boulevard
Hours: 5:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday; 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Friday to Saturday; closed Sunday to Monday

Squash soup $20
Pee-posh Garden $20
Great Plains bison $28
Kachk $46
Compressed lamb $50
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy