Cafe Reviews

Cafe Review: Another Step Forward for Cocktails in Phoenix

A Vengeance and Fashion cocktail, bacon board, and a tome-like cocktail menu.
A Vengeance and Fashion cocktail, bacon board, and a tome-like cocktail menu. Jackie Mercandetti
At first, it feels like pushing through a heavy bead curtain. Then it feels free: the long changing shape; the cocktail-loose voices; the dark wood and white lights and blue upholstery. As you cut for your seat, it may feel weightless, gravity erased by the fourth-floor view of evening or night spread over Chase Field and the sweep east. Cracking open the heavy bound, custom-illustrated menu, it feels original and maybe galvanizing. And then it feels cold, because most drink glasses at Little Rituals are frozen.

But space constraints of the area’s latest cocktail attraction, inside the Residence Inn/Courtyard by Marriott downtown, keep some glasses out of a chilled environment. So bar owners Ross Simon and Aaron DeFeo create one. Sparkling wine flutes go onto a device that — holy shit! — deafens you like a door being ripped off a plane. Just blasting the glass with chilled C02. Turning it frosty.

Now, your glass will keep your bubbles polar for longer.

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The Vengeance and Fashion cocktail from Little Rituals.
Jackie Mercandetti
This simple trick is in keeping with Ross Simon’s style: Mix the impractically practical with the theatrical.

Simon’s cocktails have been in the downtown spotlight at Bitter & Twisted for five years now. For Little Rituals — his second bar, open on the same block as his first — he partnered with Aaron DeFeo, who left his mixology post at Tucson’s Casino Del Sol and moved to Phoenix to dive into the project. Little Rituals is more intimate than B&T’s large-format setup, allowing them to focus on the kind of microscopic details that make Simon’s drinks great.

“Bitter & Twisted is the gateway drug to where you can start drinking cocktails,” Simon says. “And then Little Rituals comes in, where the drinks are a little bit more delicate and nuanced.”

That’s saying something. Bitter & Twisted has earned a heap of accolades. From local press. From national industry awards like Tales of the Cocktail. But already, just this past spring, Little Rituals scored a Tales of the Cocktail nomination for best new cocktail bar in the region. So I went. I saw. I drank.

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The dining room has a view of Talking Stick Resort Arena.
Jackie Mercandetti
One evening, I started with the Italian-leaning Triple Bitters, a mountain of foam rising from the brim. As you lower to the glass, the foam sticks to your nose like above-water bubble bath. The smell is spume and brine and thin citrus from the lemon soda below, and you might be vortexed to some beach party from your past. Salinity tempers the cocktail’s two amari and one bitter — Campari, Cardamaro, and Martini & Rossi bitters — into lush, refreshing zones, perfect for summer. If only that salty “air” lasted longer.

One drink in, a night at Little Rituals feels like something else: square one of an adult Candyland gameboard. Some drinks are low-ABV, designed to be enjoyed at gentler velocity as you navigate a trove of liquid options. But before you fall into the matrix of the well-described, helpfully illustrated drink menu, get some food.

Bob Tam, the whimsical culinary mind behind Bitter & Twisted, consulted on Little Rituals.

Food is meant to be shared. Food is meant to be fun. Wings are a standout. The truffle on their panko comes through softly, and their sticky sauce is burnt-sugar-sweet. Chicken is fried to juiciness. Drag your triangles of Noble bread through the sauce leftover when the wings are history.

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Claypot wings with Noble bread.
Jackie Mercandetti
The melted-candy texture of that sauce is rivaled by the pure and beautiful gooiness of the grilled cheese. People riff on grilled cheese all the time. When they mess up, the sad feeling can reach back to childhood. Not the version at Little Rituals. Cream cheese, asadero, and Jack make one comforting trio. Green tomato “soup” for dipping marries tomatillos and green tomatoes in similarly rich velvet goodness.

You’ll also want to try the French dip sandwich built with elements of pho. Instead of dipping in au jus, you dunk a bolillo roll in pho broth. Thin brisket folds neatly and a little sparely between the bread. Pickled chiles and cilantro accent. The sandwich is memorable, but could use more brisket and bolder flavors. It won’t totally dazzle you in a town where good sandwiches are plentiful.

Not everything is on point. “Carbonara” lo mein looks exciting, but loses itself between Europe and Asia. A bacon sampler features too many condiments rather than focusing on a few that rock. The sampler isn’t a bad bet, but lacks the mastery of the cocktails.

Aperitivo and Digestivo hours bookend service. They offer a suite of negroni relatives (sbagliato, Americano…). But if you like to keep it weird, the standard menu, which tends to evoke faraway places and travel unusual flavor arcs, is where to camp out.

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French dip gets a pho-centric remix.
Jackie Mercandetti
One cocktail called Fleur de Lis is intensely floral. Intensely floral? What, like a shampoo? Kind of. This cognac-and-port-based drink with pebbled ice to the brim has the flavor potency of Jamaica, the Mexican hibiscus juice, straight out of the clear-plastic machine. Its layers of florality, though, are like complementary geologic strata: elderflower liqueur, strawberry-rhubarb syrup, Creole bitters — all seeming to expand but cut back on the main thrust of the drink, all nicely aligned.

Vengeance and Fashion is the lushly purple favorite of the photo-taking crowd. The foam that crowns its glass is made from aerated Velvet Falernum. Foamy creaminess imbues, on some level, every reposado-tequila-fragrant sip. It’s fruity without being sweet, spiced like fall with pear and maple but earthy enough to divorce those flavors from that season.

Cartographer, an islands-style drink built on Wild Turkey 101 bourbon and overproof rum, brought a soul-tickling tiki tropicality and fine balance, but not the 11/10 Simmons-DeFeo banger the other drinks tend to deliver. Still, this one could probably headline a cocktail menu elsewhere.

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Phoenix's most interesting daiquiri.
Jackie Mercandetti
The best drink I had spotlighted … curry. Curry? Curry!

DeFeo has been playing with curry syrups for years. With one, he warps a daiquiri that has all the bright, fresh, citrusy hallmarks of the Cuban staple. Colorful dots of Sichuan pepper oil wobble on the surface, and through the marginal edit they provide, perhaps, the seemingly incompatible curry melds right into the structure of the daiquiri.

The result and beauty of it just kind of floors you then, there, four stories up in the sky. It’s almost as if two Jenga towers have been somehow pushed together without the insecurity, even for one moment, of a single block.

It’s the kind of drink that, decades later, you might suddenly recall again in a random thirsty flash.

It’s the kind of drink that makes Little Rituals a step forward for cocktails in Phoenix.

Little Rituals
Residence Inn/Courtyard by Marriott Phoenix Downtown
132 South Central Avenue, Fourth Floor
Hours: 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily

Daiqurry $12
Vengeance and Fashion $13
Fleur de Lis $13
Poblano grilled cheese $11
Claypot wings $13
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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