Cafe Reviews

Doug Robson Nails It Again at Otro Cafe

Like a beautiful woman, the mole negro at Otro Cafe is stunning enough to silence your inner monologue.

Richly intense yet delicately sweet, deeply comforting yet smoky and spicy, its seamless blend of dozens of blended, ground, roasted, and slow-cooked ingredients — chocolate, several kinds of chiles, nuts, onions, garlic — makes for a thick sauce as dark as sin and as seductively clingy as the little black dress. Spooned over pieces of juicy chicken steamed in banana leaves and served with a rustic mix of plump rice and roasted root vegetables for a kind of Thanksgiving by way of Oaxaca, Mexico, it's as likely to leave you speechless as it is wanting for more.

Blame Otro's pollo en mole negro, as well as several other very good Mexican dishes, on chef Doug Robson, who has never let Mexico's Distrito Federal stray too far from memory.

Born and raised just outside Mexico City, Robson moved to San Antonio before coming to the Valley to attend Scottsdale Culinary Institute. After graduating, Robson took gigs with James Beard Award winner Robert McGrath as well as Matt Carter (currently of The Mission, Zinc Bistro, and The House in Scottsdale) before opening Arcadia's La Grande Orange as its executive chef in 2002. Seven years later, Robson realized his own restaurant in the form of Gallo Blanco, his Mexico City-style eatery with the tongue-in-cheek name (Mexican slang for "white guy") in the Clarendon Hotel in Phoenix.

In March, Robson opened his newest and second Mexico-inspired venture: Otro, a name meaning "other" in Spanish, in north Central Phoenix,

It could be said Otro is a complement to Gallo Blanco in the way of very good, deftly prepared, and affordable traditional Mexican dishes made with local ingredients. In another sense, it's a more elevated companion that can hold its own — a kind of Tom Waits to Billy Joel: both piano-based singer-songwriters, but one with a few more eclectic touches.

Consider the El Español.

Lightly earthy, a little spicy, and entirely refreshing, this shareable plate of thin-sliced ham, serrano peppers, avocados, olives, and red onion in a savory citrus dressing ready to be scooped up with crunchy pieces of bolillo bread could have come out of any tapas-style café in Spain.

There are more traditional starters as well. Although satisfying, the elote (Mexican corn on the cob) seems too basic to be bothered with here, and you can probably name at least three spots in the Valley where you've had a better Mexican shrimp cocktail. Better to kick up the complimentary crispy chips and satisfying and spicy tomatillo and chile de arbol salsas with a bowl of chunky guacamole topped with cotija cheese.

Like its small but thoughtful menu, Otro's libations let you get as fancy or as familiar as you'd like, without taking too much of a bite from your billfold. Perhaps the occasion calls for a bottle of Negra Modelo, a glass of rich Spanish red wine, or the Cuba Libre, a do-it-yourself cocktail made up of a glass of ice, a Mexican Coke, and a small carafe filled with the rum of your choice.

A visit to the menu's taquería section brings gratification in the form of tacos filled with (in order of my favorites): spicy achiote-marinated grilled shrimp and slaw; heady seasonal veggies such as squash and kale; tender rib eye kissed with citrus and topped with cilantro, onion, and guacamole; and delicately sweet al pastor with chunks of pineapple and tomatillo salsa. Bulked out with fresh ingredients piled onto housemade flour tortillas, they'll do in a pinch as a snack, a light meal, or simply until you're satisfied.

The tacos' pork, carne asada, and seasonal vegetables also play a starring role in a few of Otro's tortas — neat, densely packed, and paper-wrapped Mexican sandwiches layered with top-notch accouterments like pineapple relish and a mildly spicy aji aioli between soft telera bread. They probably won't have you abandoning your favorite neighborhood torta shop for good, but they're filling and flavorful nonetheless.

For the best torta of the bunch, skip the uninspired egg, bean (a lot of bean), and chorizo creation and head directly to the Tocino con Rajas. Robson's version of the B.L.T., this torta turns up open-faced and layered with slices of thick bacon, dead-on flavorful tomatoes, lettuce, chunky slices of avocado, and pickled jalapeños for fresh, peppery bites with a kick. Delicious.

You'll want to order a salad, where Robson runs his love of Mexican and Spanish flavors through a staggeringly fresh garden of vegetables and with a near-perfect blending of tastes and textures. There is a lightly earthy Ensalada Española featuring pieces of dry-cured Spanish ham, olives, and goat cheese tossed in a lively vinaigrette, and an even better creation called the Inca. Featuring minuscule orbs of quinoa grains interspersed with nearly a dozen other ingredients — fresh kernels of corn, dried cranberries, nutty pepitas, crunchy yulu seeds, and mint — you may not be sure what the next bite will be, but it tastes like harvest time in South America all the same.

A notable difference between Gallo Blanco and Otro is the latter's small category of shared plates that can double as heartier entrees should hunger or poor manners arise. You might wish for a spicier rendition of Robson's rustic Mexican paella made with chicken, pork, and vegetables, but then there's the exquisite pollo en mole negro (whose inclusion of a single tortilla may warrant re-examination) to consider, as well as what may be one of the best chilaquiles offerings in the Valley. A compact stack of round, crispy corn tortillas layered with chicken or veggies, spoonfuls of red ranchero sauce with a taste that starts off tomatoey-sweet before progressing to a steady, even heat, and topped with a fried egg, it's the popular Mexican breakfast gone the way of Otro's lunch and dinner service — and delectably so.

And for dessert, because you should have dessert at Otro, why not a refreshing lime tart or the stellar postre de coco, a delicate creation of creamy coconut pudding topped with shavings of chocolate that's reminiscent of a Mounds bar gone gourmet.

Located near Seventh Street and Bethany Home Road, an intersection that's heating up as a dining hot-spot thanks to The Yard (Sam Fox's massive 53,000-square-foot hangout and dining space that opened in February, housing a Culinary Dropout as well as the restaurateur's first seafood restaurant, Little Cleo's, which opened in May), Otro is decidedly less splashy — and features easier parking — than its better-known neighbor. It's a welcoming space of wood and brick, with a small front patio and a cheery entrance leading to an open kitchen. A comfortable dining area of generously spaced tables and chairs, a few leather booths, and local artwork on the walls is easy to settle into. The service is as laid-back as the scene, although sometimes too much so, especially toward the end of the meal when servers' table visits become rare.

My favorite time to be at Otro is around sunset, when the sun cuts across the western sky and spills its light through the windows to mix with the aromas from the kitchen and the din of the bustling restaurant. I can almost hear Tom Waits' "Downtown Train" playing in my head.

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Laura Hahnefeld
Contact: Laura Hahnefeld