Grill Instructor

"The problem in Phoenix, the way I see it, anyway, is that there is a real separation of the Latinos and the Anglos."

Mad Coyote Joe isn't talking about bilingual education versus English immersion, or South Phoenix versus North Phoenix. He's talking about restaurant culture.

"You go to Albuquerque, New Mexico," he says, "and you drive down to Sadie's down on, I think it's Fourth Street, and you've got the Latino culture and the Anglo culture in there, they're all mixed up, everybody's havin' fun, they're all eating. But here, there are so many people that I mention places I think are cool to, and they go, 'Oh, I've never been there.' They know about the chains, and you know what? We got a few chains that do a good job. But that's not the point. The point is there's little places like this one. These guys have been in that back room makin' the same good food for years on end. You know what? I bet they're not millionaires. But they've got a good restaurant."

The TV chef, host of Channel 15's Sonoran Grill and a regular on the same channel's Sonoran Living, is referring to Adrian's, a small Mexican eatery just west of 24th Street on McDowell. It's one of Joe's usual haunts for the midday meal he calls breakfast, but the rest of us call lunch.

His usual order there is the breakfasty machaca and eggs, which he calls "the best in the city." But he's had it "like 50 times in a row," so today he tells the waitress, who knows him well, that he's torn between the carne asada, the chile rellenos and the breaded shrimp. She recommends the chile rellenos. I order the machaca and eggs. Then he returns to the subject of where -- besides Adrian's, that is -- one can get authentic Mexican in the Valley.

"There's a place on Camelback called Pepe's Taco Villa. I think it's got the best mole in the city." He repeats this pronouncement, slowly, for emphasis.

"There's a place called El Nopalito on 24th and Thomas. Tacos there are, I dunno, a dollar twenty-five, maybe a dollar ninety-five. You get two tacos and rice and beans, two people at the table, and if you spend 12 bucks you had a big lunch. The food is over the top, and it's absolutely the food you get in Mexico."

Then, of course, there's the other side -- the chains. "I went to a place in Scottsdale," says Joe. "I won't mention the name of it. Me and a friend had a couple tacos, had a couple drinks, and guacamole and chips, and our bill was 35 or 40 dollars. I ordered guacamole made tableside, and the way they made it was, they brought out a frozen avocado product and mashed it in front of us. It was all very impressive looking, but the food tasted terrible."

The trouble, of course, is money. "You get consultants involved, you get statistics, all of a sudden, ingredients change," laments Joe. "You're in a restaurant where you're serving a thousand plates a night, and some guy walks in and says, 'Look, how'd you like to never throw out an avocado again? I'll give you a frozen guacamole product, your customers won't know the difference.'"

For all the vigor of his opinions about dining out, however, Mad Coyote Joe's true passion is for cooking and eating on your own turf. For the past four years on Sonoran Grill, the Falstaffian grillmaster has been preaching, in his incongruously mild, almost nebbishy voice, the gospel of backyard cuisine with a Southwestern tinge. "My thing is, anything that I think is good, I'd like to figure out how to do it on the grill. I've done cheesecake, pecan pie, I've done baguettes on the grill, I've done chicken cacciatore, just on and on. The shtick is, we live in Arizona, the weather's great, go outside and have some fun. Get the kids to cut the vegetables, and have grandma make the salad dressing."

The son of a successful steel contractor, Joe Daigneault was born in Washington state, but came to Arizona with his family as a child. He vividly remembers his first attempt at grilling -- when he was about 6, he made a grilled cheese sandwich. "I remember peering through the window of the oven, and watching the cheese melt, and I waited, 'cause I wanted the cheese to be bubbling and starting to crust, and the bread not to be white, not to be tan, not to be black, but to be dark brown. I waited 'til it was perfect. And it was!"

His interest surfaced again, less successfully, in high school. "I went to the shop teacher and said I want to make a barbecue, 'cause we didn't have one. You remember they used to sell industrial-size salad oil to the schools in a square can? The shop teacher, not knowing anything about barbecues, got one of those cans, and some tin snips, and let me cut a hole in the side, and then he took and strung some thick wire across it, and he gave me an A on the project.

"Well, I took it home and put some charcoal briquettes in it, poured some lighter fluid on, and lit that baby up, and about 10 minutes later it just sort of imploded into a little pile. It melted and fell over. My Dad came out and squirted it with the hose, and about a week later he bought a barbecue."

After college at Scottsdale Community College and Northern Arizona University, where he studied theater and music, Joe spent years as a steelworker, and also in a variety of restaurant jobs. He quit to found the Mad Coyote Spice Company.

It was during this financially lean period that Joe, who has been married for 25 years and has two grown kids, evolved the persona and pseudonym by which he is now known. A comedy sketch called "Cooking for Rednecks," which he wrote and performed for a local TV program co-hosted by his friend Bob Boze Bell, was the modest seed whence grew, two years later, Sonoran Grill. "They told me in my first meeting, 'You get 6,000 viewers, buddy, you got a show,'" he says.

The series, which just completed its 95th episode, now snags about 125,000 viewers a week, he says. His book, also titled Sonoran Grill, is doing brisk business on A second tome, A Gringo's Guide to Authentic Mexican Cooking, is now in the works.

As I devour my wonderful machaca and eggs, I listen to Joe explain the secret of his show's success. "If you watch Jacques Poupon or whatever, on PBS, well, here's a guy who's got a degree in cooking, he's used to cooking with the finest equipment there is, he's used to cooking with a staff, and constantly they're talking about things that, while they're very interesting to watch, they're a little beyond you.

"They want me to be the guy down the street who loves food. That's all. There are better cooks in the Valley, much better cooks, but that's what they do. What I do is, I talk about food on a level that people can understand. I try to keep it on a level of, 'Hey, I know how to make this cool thing, y'wanna know how to do it?'"

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M.V. Moorhead
Contact: M.V. Moorhead