Fried: Sweet Shrimp Po'Boy Sliders at District: American Kitchen and Wine Bar

A happy experience at the lounge at the new downtown Phoenix Sheraton ... who would have thunk it?

By Sarah Fenske

I totally wanted to hate District: American Kitchen and Wine Bar, the brand-spankin'-new restaurant at the brand-spankin'-new downtown Sheraton.

In my other life, the non-food-blogger one, I am a crusty old hard news reporter. I am also, coincidentally, a libertarian. And that combination means I spend most of my time inveighing against government waste. Which means I was not one bit in favor of the city of Phoenix subsidizing a new Sheraton hotel to the tune of 350 million frickin' dollars. If this was a good business venture, can't we all agree that the private sector would have stepped up?

For another, I am an ornery bitch, and I get sick of the Arizona Republic trying to tell me that the big ugly boxes downtown signify something "new" and "hip" and "classy." Reading reporter Dawn Gilbertson's piece last week about staying overnight in the Sheraton, I almost lost my lunch. "The Sheraton has been derided for its bland exterior. But there's nothing bland about the interior," Gilbertson wrote -- just before calling the rooms "Pottery Barn meets Sheraton purchasing." Frankly, I've never read a better description of "bland."

So I went into the place on Monday with guns blazing, figuring I'd write something nasty -- or, at minimum, a parody of Gilbertson's prose. I figured I'd sit at the bar, order something to eat, and then write up a first-person account of government excess and boring chain hotel eats. (See what I mean about being a bitch?)

The problem is, I really loved the place.

Admittedly, I thought I had them at first. My friend Mike wanted to order Scotch, but there was no Scotch in the bar, nor was there a list of scotches in the drink menu. No tequila either. The bartender helpfully informed us that the concept for the bar was "American food and drink" -- which translates, apparently, into only stocking liquors of American make. Turns out a Scotch made in the U.S. can't call itself a Scotch for trademark reasons, kind of like that whole champagne-must-be-from-Champagne thing. Who knew?

If the bar isn't busy, they'll take the time to get you something international from the lobby bar outside, but otherwise, Scotch drinkers are out of luck. And, on closer perusal, I realized that meant not only no Scotch, but also no Bombay Sapphire. (It's British.) Hello? A bar without Bombay Sapphire??!? This gin drinker was ready to walk out.

But Mike and Bill refused to respond to my under-the-bar kicks and continued to chatter away. (Something about mixed martial arts. Remind me again, why do I ever do happy hour with guys?) So I figured I might as well order something. Regular readers of this column know that seldom means a salad, and sure enough, the three of us ended up with an order of french fries, an order of sweet potato tater tots, crab cakes, jerky, and something called "sweet shrimp po'boy sliders" -- and we cleaned our plates for every single one of them.

I wasn't a huge fan of the tater tots. (Sweet potato simply doesn't work with ranch dressing, which is what they served as a dipping sauce.) But I liked the french fries. If nothing else, kind of cool that they serve them with a side of nacho cheese ... how American is that? And I liked the jerky, with its side of radishes and scallions. The crab cakes were yummy, too.

But I was utterly gone when it comes to the sliders. This wasn't just love at first taste -- this was lust, and adoration, and grand passion, all wrapped up in one little sandwich.

On paper, it sounds simple enough: Shrimp, andouille sausage, and celery root slaw on a little bun. But in reality, it was perfection.

The main reason, I think, is the shrimp. As it turns out, these are Arizona pond raised shrimp from the Desert Sweet Shrimp Farm. It sounds yick, I know: Arizona shrimp? But, swear to God, these were actually the sweetest, moistest, and incredibly clean tasting version of the little buggers I've ever eaten. They're like the raw shrimp you get at high-end sushi bars: an entirely different animal from the chewy stuff you get in most shrimp cocktails. Amazing.

Beyond that, they serve them at District in the most wonderful buttery buns -- and with the sausage, and celery slaw, it all comes together in the way that only the best sandwiches do.

I don't know if it was just my new sweet shrimp infatuation, or that our bartender was excellent. Or whether it was because I tried a nice gin from Oregon, and gin is guaranteed to put me in a much better place, no matter its origin. But by the time we'd knocked off all the food and Bill had to leave for a hockey game, I was grinning ear to ear.

If you're a cynic like me, you probably don't want to give the Sheraton a chance; who hangs out at a Sheraton, after all? But if you're open minded enough to try the bar area, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. You'll also probably find me lollygagging there, a martini of American province in one hand and a shrimp slider in another. For once, I suspect, I won't even be bitchy.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske