What is Arizona cuisine? The answer, 500 years ago, was easy. It was the patchwork of foodways that varied by tribe, limited to land that would become Arizona. Since then, things have gotten complicated.
Lately, a few strains of Arizona cuisine have come more into focus. At Arizona cuisine's core is blend of native practices (saguaro fruit harvests, c’emet making, squash, and beans) and the wide-ranging riffs using Sonoran ingredients that you see at progressive restaurants like Cotton & Copper, Cartwright’s, and Kai.
But there is more to Arizona cuisine than its Sonoran core. Among the forces that shape Arizona cuisine more on the fringes is southwestern cuisine, a cuisine arisen in arid, cactus-marked parts of this country and northern reaches of Mexico.
Ghost Ranch, the South Tempe restaurant Aaron Chamberlin opened on Monday, looks to bring novelty to southwestern cuisine. Ghost Ranch, thereby, in a small and oblique way, is helping to define Arizona cuisine.
Chamberlin, who masterminds four restaurants including Taco Chelo, says his newest serves food “from Baja California to Texas.” His two chefs, Rene Andrade and Roberto Centeno, are both from Nogales, Mexico. The range of food and players isn’t strictly Arizonan, but food broadly southwestern can help to define Arizona cuisine, especially when that food is cooked here under the flag of an ambitious local restauranteur, one evolving away from new American food and toward something closer to home.
The chefs at Ghost Ranch cook enchiladas with chile Colorado. The dish speaks to how Chamberlin and his crew hope to jolt southwestern.
The tortillas are corn. Pressed in house. Fried to a thin, crunchy bite that highlights, by virtue of its difference, the softer one you expect.
The toppings are slivered. A forest of purple cabbage, onion, and radishes. Crema provides a link to the time-tested schematic of enchiladas that are all creamy, all melting.
When slurping the chile, you expect a roasty haymaker. But this chile wins you over differently. It has a gentle heat that seems to respect the more elusive qualities of the rare Chimayo that Chamberlin sources. The vivid red chile pooled thinly on the plate has a fruity, garden-type nature, almost tasting as if made with ripe summer tomatoes.
The lighter backbone of this sauce is a calculated decision. The chefs achieve this lightness by, instead of braising the pork in the chile sauce, adding the sauce at the end. As a result, the chile Colorado isn’t married with meat drippings released as the pork braises. This is just one example of the approach at Ghost Ranch, an approach geared toward airier zones of southwestern flavor.
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“I love this type of food, but [traditionally]... it’s like a gut bomb with very little vegetables,” Chamberlin says. “I wanted to lighten that up and make it more modern. I wanted a clean crisp environment, airy with lots of sunlight.”
He will be sourcing vegetables from the usual top farms. He and his crew will be lightening food. They will be starting more so with “dishes people can understand” but aim, in time, to “change things up.”
For now, we will take these nice enchiladas, developed by Andrade. And we’ll look forward to seeing how they and this restaurant change over time, refreshing southwestern cuisine, and helping to etch away at Arizonan.
Ghost Ranch. 1006 East Warner Road, Tempe; 480-474-4328.
Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.