Devour 2019 Was a Strange, Beautiful Feast of Head Cheese and Pork Ice Cream

Black mole tacos on blue corn tortillas.
Black mole tacos on blue corn tortillas. Jacob Tyler Dunn
Devour is the perfectly named food festival. During the two days of the main event, the Devour Culinary Classic, there is plenty to, as Webster’s defines “devour," “eat up greedily or ravenously.” Black mole tacos on blue corn tortillas. Tequila drinks the color of raw tuna. Pickled orange squash. Jammed cactus fruit. Pork-sprinkled ice cream. Toasted insects.

Arguably, though, the chief thing to devour at this year’s Devour, the 10th, was scenery.

The Desert Botanical Garden, home to the festival for the second year, has almost 1,000 plants per planted acre. As the crowd flowed down the pathways and into its corners and concavities, you would often stop, the cold brew and IPA and iced wine rolling through your head, the food through your soul, and marvel at Sonoran nature.

click to enlarge Roka Akor finishing wagyu. - JACOB TYLER DUNN
Roka Akor finishing wagyu.
Jacob Tyler Dunn
There are countless species of cactus, some fruiting.

There are drifts of agave, used for medicine in these parts for time out of mind.

There is a tree called boojum, maybe the strangest I have ever seen. “Boojum,” according to its plaque, “is from a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll.” Its pale green trunk soars some 40 feet into the desert sky, almost looking like the trunk of an elephant, tracing a slight arc like a bottle rocket. It is in the same family as the ocotillo, and has the same kind of verdant growths sprouting from its body, but outwardly, in seemingly random geometric patterns.

click to enlarge The boojum tree has a trajectory like a bottle rocket. - CHRIS MALLOY
The boojum tree has a trajectory like a bottle rocket.
Chris Malloy
The best food at Devour is like the boojum tree: strange, nuanced, and bewildering.

On the Saturday and Sunday of the main event, some chefs go with bites from on or near their menus. This is understandable. The capacity for each day is 1,500 people, and each day it sells out (aside from Sunday VIP, at least). That’s a lot of potential customers. But some chose to depart from the menu and plate novel creations. That's where the real dance is.

All in all, I ate a lot of great food. The routine-shattering snowstorm of last week added coolness and excitement to the food and atmosphere. So, of course, did all of the wine and beer that coated, again and again and again, the bottom of your bottomless glass.

But these were the five best dishes.

First, Restaurant Progress served a buttered radish rained with crushed pistachios. This was contrarian and brilliant. At Devour, some chefs massaged ingredients for several days, nudging great complex bites to slow completion, and Restaurant Progress plates a half-naked root vegetable. But it was a Blue Sky Farms French breakfast radish with herbed butter and a bracing vinaigrette you just barely noticed: a clean, crisp bite not that far removed from the dirt and crust of the land we live in. There was also a duck tartare for the taking, brightened by pickled carrot and edited nicely with allium, chile, and soy, cool and mineral, together a nice start to a long second day.

click to enlarge Wagyu brisket webbed with fat. - JACOB TYLER DUNN
Wagyu brisket webbed with fat.
Jacob Tyler Dunn
Second, Roka Akor plated beef with the spare beauty you would expect of a Japanese restaurant. There was a dark fold of black-edged, fat-larded wagyu brisket small in the plate’s center, a drop of I’itoi onion emulsion, and a sloping sliver of pink pickled radish part, spaced out on opposite diagonals. You didn’t need either addition. The brisket, sprinkled with coarse salt, melted in a rich rush of Platonic beef.

Third, the Larder + the Delta’s pimento cheese and Benton’s bite on grilled Noble sourdough was a cataclysm of deeply porcine and tomato-powered flavor, continuing this restaurant’s torrid sprint since reopening last year. This was simple: a classic Southern combination lifted by lifting all the elements individually, tomato jam bringing the concentrated essence of the cool red fruit in the hugest way. It was like a two-handed sandwich packed into a single bite.

click to enlarge Welcome Diner's toasted squares of head cheese. - CHRIS MALLOY
Welcome Diner's toasted squares of head cheese.
Chris Malloy
Next, the good folks from Welcome Diner were doing their thing: going way beyond diner food. They toasted squares of head cheese on a smoking grill until mahogany and thinly crisp on the outside, hot and soft in the thick middle. The pig’s melting odd head parts just kind of made you stop and enjoy their luxurious intensity, perfumed by a Cantonese-style char siu treatment, richness offset by the acid and wild tartness of kumquats and the brightness of onions and daikon tangled on top.

click to enlarge JACOB TYLER DUNN
Jacob Tyler Dunn
Fifth, the jamon iberico ice cream from Talavera was the best bite I had all weekend. It is more than 24 hours ago now that I tasted this cone of lushly creamy ice cream topped with sprinkles made from the world’s best pork, and the flavors are still unspooling in my head. The kicker was the kumquat, studded on top like a wet orange jewel from another dimension. It opened a portal that led into a strange but bright world of intense fruit and acid and burnt sugar alphabets and the Spanish meadows where heritage pigs eat acorns — but in the form of ice cream, one with a squid ink cone.

This dish was the strangest, the wildest, the one that isolated you the most completely from your past reality. And that’s saying a lot for a weekend whose purpose is to leave reality behind. It was, yes, the boojum tree.
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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