Recently, unexpectedly, I had a moment while eating at a dark restaurant bar. This was not long after using crisp, greasy tortilla chips to shovel a surprisingly pleasant mild salsa into my mouth. But then I had to stop with the chips. I was here for a two-pound smoked beef short rib, after all.
I was sipping sotol when my plate came: Two stark bones clad with deeply burnished beef, one propped on the other, both looking cut from the femur of a mastodon. I knifed into the glacier-like slab.
The flesh parted as if it were an omelet.
The music was fast. Strings. Drums. Howling voices. Made for that first rush of hickory-perfumed beef, which was webbed through with hot fat, the flesh melting on the tongue like top-notch shredded barbacoa though it was a thick mass, like brisket smoked for 12 hours.
I sipped my grassy spirit, made from a shrub in Chihuahua. It wiped away the beefy husk like a Zamboni. Then I went in for more of the two-pound slab. It wasn’t just intense and fantastically tender; it was brightened by drifts of limey gremolata, by tamarind barbecue sauce, and by dollops of cool yogurt jazzed with poblano.
The flavors, the sound, the motion in the dim room! They had swung into a kind of warm harmony.
My utopic state descended as a surprise. Not just because I was eating gremolata and yogurt at a Mexican restaurant. Not just because I was doing this in metro Phoenix, where serious progressive Mexican cooking is rarer than dinosaur bones. Not just because I had paid $49 for barbacoa when I could have paid $7 somewhere. And not just because the $49 version was, against all odds, worth the price.
I was surprised, rather, because of what had come earlier: a healthy dose of chaos.
The Mexican restaurant was La Hacienda, one of the many immodestly priced eateries in the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. It is old, but newly renovated. Completed at the end of summer 2018, an extensive remodeling has enhanced La Hacienda’s lounge, stone patio, and high-end Mexican menu. The tequila cellar, sporting more than 240 bottles, has been tricked out with more mezcal and fringe spirits. And the food, brainstormed by Richard Sandoval (the globe-trotting chef with his name on the menu) and Forest Hamrick (the day-to-day executive chef), has a few progressive additions that might miss with the hotel guests from Wisconsin, but should intrigue locals.
Most of the these live in the new “grill & barbacoa” section of the menu.
That said, once in the dim lights and long shadows of the baroquely furnished dining room, you may find a full new menu elusive. In mid-December, there was only a truncated version due to the hotel’s Christmas festival. It took me four tries and two broken promises to get my hands on the new full menu a month later. (Tip: Around big events like Christmas, call to ensure they’ll be serving the full lineup.)
New menu open, fingers damp with chip grease, I ordered a reposado sotol. Five minutes passed before my bartender said to another, “Hey, where’s the sotol?”
They didn’t have the bottle in question — the menu wasn’t updated.
Man. Unless you stick to Mexican and Mexican-American staples like fajitas, guacamole, and big-box tequila, you may hit an ordering snag or two at La Hacienda. This can be frustrating for an eatery where prices sail high, but the severs are kind, attentive, and well-intentioned to the point that, to some extent, you don’t mind.
Besides, it’s worth some harmless hassle to get your lips around some progressive Mexican food in this town, where, but for outlying exceptions like Barrio Café Gran Reserva, CRUjiente Tacos, and Roland’s Market, old-school Mexican and Mexican-American food is the way.
Even at La Hacienda, most of the food leans traditional, with varying touches of ingenuity. Caldo de pollo, chicken soup, has little of the wintry vibes native to chicken soup, even though chipotles give the broth some early dusk. Big pieces of chicken, creamy avocado swaths, barely cooked zucchini, and fragrant masa molded into mushroom-cap shapes (chochoyotes) come together as a vivid whole, like the swirling brushstrokes of a painting. Not many chicken soups are so nimble and elegant.
Shrimp and purple octopus — ceviche — rise from a bright, spicy pool. The platter is clean and bracing, though its thin marine liquor may seem more like aguachile than ceviche. Another heady opener is the Mexican wedge, as in the 1980s wedge salad. Piquant, salmon-hued chipotle ranch zags atop romaine segments arrayed centripetally, like sunflower petals. Pomegranate seeds, corn, and queso fresco snowed on like TV static add bursts of color, texture, and flavor. It’s a little too sweet but a lot of fun, especially when your knife rends tight strata of pale lettuce.
As your meal progresses, however, things may get thorny.
Skip a forgettable fajita, an item meant for out-of-towners. The carnitas, touted with a winding description, braised for more than a day, shaped like a brown Rubik’s cube, simply aren’t worth the price tag ($37).
Many of the tome-like menu’s backstreets prove to be sunnier. Shrimp with an airy fry fill the majority of a warm, chewy flour tortilla. In Scottsdale, fish tacos with mayo-like sauces should be avoided like uranium, but this pink dressing leans toward remoulade, embellishing plump breaded shrimp nicely.
At La Hacienda, drinks also tend to enhance food. You can fall down a deep hole into the world of elite tequila. You can stick with well-made margaritas, ice jammed into a stemless glass under salt-frosted rims. You can opt for one of the recently added smoked cocktails, an optical and olfactory circus as much as a gustatory show.
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These begin with a bartender lighting that looks like the bowl of a pipe. Smoke travels down a hose into a message-in-a-bottle-looking glass, transmuting the cocktail mixed inside. When that bottle thrums open again, smoke billows, pluming theatrically as your cold drink is poured. In particular, a smoked tequila cocktail with lavender and lime has the understatement of a spring gin libation.
At La Hacienda, there are misses. There are tourist traps. There are new dishes with slim dazzle, like grilled sea bass with serrano aioli. There are plates like a fancy pork chop that may be good, but not much more revelatory than the sweet corn tamales, which feature the same three moles at one-third the price. That said, when things go really well and this eatery's pieces puzzle together, like they do for the caldo de pollo and barbecue short rib, you get a Mexican meal of rare finesse and vision, a meal worth even the crater in your wallet.
7575 East Princess Drive, Scottsdale
Hours: Sunday to Thursday 5 to 9 p.m.; Friday to Saturday 5 to 10 p.m.
*Note: hours may vary seasonally.
Mexican wedge $16
Caldo de pollo $16
Sweet corn tamales $16
Tacos de camaron $30
Short rib $49