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A pork chop blackened.EXPAND
A pork chop blackened.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Cafe Review: Vecina Is a Damn Good Neighbor

At most places, elote has a few simple ingredients. Grilled corn. Some mayo and/or crema. Cilantro, cotija, chile powder, and maybe more, maybe less. Maybe a bright squeeze of lime to finish.

At Vecina, a new restaurant in Arcadia, elote has some 40 ingredients.

They begin on the heart of the kitchen: a mesquite-fired grill hovering between 800 and 900 degrees. The grill touches about 95 percent of Vecina’s dishes, such as tomatoes for vinaigrette, chiles for salsa, corn for elote. First, co-chef-owners James Fox and Eric Stone grill corn with the husk on. They then strip the husk and grill the corn again. From here, a compound butter containing chorizo spices (but not chorizo) and inputs as intricate as powdered vinegar coat cobs. There is also creme fraiche, made in house and spiked with lime and roasted garlic.

On the plate, the corn gets micro cilantro, cotija, and a custom blend of approximately 20 spices. Slick with compound butter, yellow kernels grilled to varying shades of brown, this elote detonates with startling flavor.

The most amazing thing? They aren’t even an outlier. Some 50 percent of Vecina’s dishes will surprise you in a similar way. Each comes from putting ingredients and culinary processes under a high-powered microscope, pondering each, and giving all as much velocity as possible.

This often requires a gastronomic detour to Turkey or southeast Asia. Fox and Stone cook food inspired by Latin countries with a special emphasis on Mexico. But they’re freely willing to reach beyond the Western Hemisphere of their core restaurant concept when it will better a dish. They go elote-deep across the menu — for example, using five kinds of tortillas, making spice blends that center chiles from as near as New Mexico, as far as Syria.

Fox and Stone opened Vecina, which translates from Spanish to “neighbor,” in early September, taking over the old Kitchen 56 space. For the past six years, Stone had been a private chef in Los Angeles; he went to culinary school here, worked at The Phoenician, and has cooked in Chicago and France. Over the years, Fox has cooked in a host of local restaurants, including Zinc Bistro, The Mission, Southern Rail, and Buck &Rider. The Vecina team has talent beyond the kitchen. Miguel Mora has curated a bracing roster of cocktails, anchored by a mezcal-tequila old fashioned relative that emerges from a smoky treasure chest. A third co-owner, Jamie Catlett, has assembled one of the rarest craft beer menus in town.

One of the best ceviche plates in townEXPAND
One of the best ceviche plates in town
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

At Vecina, you can eat and drink well. It’s pretty handily one of the most inspired restaurants to open this year.

The menu is largely small plates and driven by locally available produce. Fingerling potatoes with jalapeno crema. Grilled watermelon. Finely slivered Brussels sprouts with some sweetness and intrigue from a refreshing chile vinaigrette. There are also raw seafood dishes, tacos and tostadas with meat or fish, and a few large-format plates. In my visits, just about everything I tried was very good or better.

Nights begin at 4 p.m., after Mora blesses the minimal but classy space with palo santo smoke. The 40-seat patio is also a nice place to sit — string lights zagging, a view of Camelback’s hump, and glass candles flickering almost out of sight, perched on a black-painted concrete wall.

Start with chips and salsa, just $5 during happy hour. Though the roasted tomato salsa has depth and the raw tomatillo salsa tart nuance, it’s all about the stupendously creamy habanero salsa. The secret ingredient in this salsa, which highlights the unedited vegetal spirit of the pepper in an uncommonly transparent way, is butter. Fox has been making this salsa for 10 years. He served a version of it at his wedding. It’s one of the most unique and memorable salsas in town.

From here, the plant-based plates form a sharp constellation of New American dishes pulled south of the border. And/or south of the continent. And/or east of the hemisphere.

Cauliflower gets torched on the grill. Brainy florets with char are embedded in a Romanesco that incorporates more customary Spanish elements, like roasted tomatoes and toasted nuts, but also Middle Eastern touches, like cumin and Aleppo pepper. The sauce is creamy yet coarse, with a tide of fiery flavor that washes over the florets, turning even the chimichurri on top into a footnote. I could eat four.

The grill char helps balance the Romanesco. It is also pivotal in a squash dish that would be sleepy without its hard mesquite kiss. Delicata squash practically radiate smoke, highlighting earth tones in beets, the pepper of arugula, the barnyard nuances of the cheese.

Mora helms a thoughtful cocktail.EXPAND
Mora helms a thoughtful cocktail.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

And though peripheral, it’s key to dishes like ceviche. The best dish I had at Vecina was ceviche. It’s so good that it broke my ordering philosophy. When I order a food once, I almost never get it again, spurning even a great known for the promise of the unknown. At Vecina, though I’m an aguachile fiend and there was an aguachile on the menu, I skipped it in favor of, yes, ordering ceviche again. A tight cairn of Chula Seafood hiramasa centers a plate pooled with lush, mint green. The green is leche de tigre, a Peruvian ceviche sauce, drawing on coconut, cilantro, and pineapple given a grilling.

But there’s also a touch of fish sauce. And shallot and garlic, ginger and lime. None of these final ingredients will be very discernible. They each work by tiny degrees to push the ceviche, ever so slightly, to its flawless final form. Dragging snappy Mama Lola tostadas through and scooping that cool fish is fantastic.

One area where Vecina has room to grow: tostadas and tacos. On salmon tacos, the fish is capably cooked, but a little boring. The chicken in a smoked chicken tostada gets lost under a rainforest of greens. And though short rib barbacoa packs intensity and melt, a potato puree mires its texture and occupies too much valuable tostada real estate.

But all said, the kitchen puts out some beautiful, fiercely original food, the kind you would be proud to show a friend from a coastal city. And all said, the pork chop with the gorgeous inky char and spice-twanged escabeche courses with vivid life. Yes, all said, the high style and creative genius of Vecina flex full with an ice cream sandwich for the ages: on a concha, with brown-butter “cornflakes” and freeze-dried strawberries.

All said, Vecina is the kind of restaurant you always wish Phoenix had — and now does.

Vecina
3433 North 56th Street
602-675-2000
Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday

Elote $9
Cauliflower $12
Hiramasa ceviche $15
Barbacoa tostada $14
Pork chop $28

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