Cafe Reviews

May Day

On paper, the whole concept of tapas must seem a boon to money-grubbing restaurateurs everywhere, which is why nearly every upscale nightclub you waltz into these days serves what they refer to as "American" or "International" tapas, basically a catchall meaning, "Tonight, we'll be serving you a third of the portion, but at the same price as an entree. Sucker!"

In Spain, tapas are really, really excellent bar snacks. Sometimes, they practically give 'em away to keep you in the bar drinking. But we're in the States, and our standards are lower. That's why way too many of us will go to see M:I:III and eat at the Cheesecake Factory more than once. (Even once may be too much, come to think of it.) And that's also the reason so many of these red-white-and-blue attempts at tapas suck harder than a Hoover upright. The quality is not there, and for some weird reason, noshers give it a pass. Gimmicks work, I reckon.

Yet the tapas over at the stylish new Sol y Sombra at DC Ranch are a perfect example of how complex and rewarding these Spanish snacks can be, if done right. Not that everything I tried at SYS wowed me. It was more like a solid 70 percent, and I do wish it had been closer to 100 percent considering the fact that several of the tapas go as high as $12 to $13. That's a lot if you have to ingest four or more to feel satisfied, plus whatever you pay for drinks.

But Sol y Sombra, which translates as "Sun and Shade," does deliver on its proffer of "Spanish kitchen and lounge" often enough to make it worth the ride to DC Ranch, assuming you've got the dough to blow. Seeing that most SYS customers are the type to have a Merc or two in the driveway, I don't think dropping about $150 for din and libations will fret them much. And, in any case, it's not like DC Ranch caters to starving students and penny-pinching pensioners.

A Saturday night on the SYS hacienda means none other than the Mighty Pete Salaz on the decks, spinning house in the dimly lighted environs. On one end, there's a bar, a common table, and doors leading off to a breezy patio. The other half is more dining-friendly, with booths, and tables bookended by over-large comfy chairs. In the middle is this little lounge area that sits up from the floor and kinda-sorta recalls that room in the Scottsdale nightclub SIX that features beds, if SIX still has it. This effectively becomes the stage for the evening's entertainment, watching the Scottsdale MILFs show off their new headlights to one another as their boyfriends or hubbies look on, pie-eyed, Scotches in hand. Well, there are worse things to witness.

The pitchers of sangria are straight from a Spanish bottle rather than made in-house, and I have to say that after the second one, the grog grew on me -- though I would've liked a bit more fruit in mine, and a bit more vino, though I know it was pretty much served as packaged. The initial gulp was still a lil' too close to spiked Kool-Aid, I'm afraid. Also, the lack of bread and olive oil did make me think fondly of Lola Tapas on Camelback Road, east of Seventh Street, where the proprietors dutifully bake their own bread daily, and offer it gratis to guests. I mean, if Lola Tapas' indie, DIY owners Daniel and Felicia Ruiz Wayne can afford a little something like bread and olive oil, why can't the big shots at DC Ranch do likewise? Pony up a ramekin of olives or something, boys. You know you can afford it.

I'll grant that owner/chef Aaron May does know how to amuse your bouche when he wants. May's done stints at Deseo, and at Food Network screen-hogger Mario Batali's Gotham tapas palace Casa Mono, which is impressive and does make you want to ask May why Batali always wears those unsightly clogs. Right now, I have to award May Day props for hitting homers on some Spanish standards, like patatas bravas, spinach with chickpeas (garbanzos con espinacas), gazpacho, and jamon croquettas, all of which were stellar.

I could sit in a corner with a plate of patatas bravas, and a big ol' pot of garbanzos con espinacas, and snarf myself into oblivion. May's patatas bravas are crispy chunks of hot potato made spicy with pimenton (smoked Spanish paprika), and, at $5 for a nice-size plate, they are also one of the better values on May's menu. Another is the Popeye grub, the spinach and chickpeas, prepared in a tomato broth, with sherry and shallots, and served warm. Peasant cuisine from the old country, perhaps. But from peasants who know how to put on the feedbag.

May's gazpacho is the real deal, with a slight vinegary twinge, and a sliver of shaved bottarga, tres fishy tuna roe that makes for an intriguing match with the smooth, cool gazpacho. Weirdly, when I had the pinxos de chorizo (chunks of Spanish sausage stewed in hard cider) right after having eaten the bottarga, the combo of flavors was a close match to cannabis. I mean, the flavor's unmistakable, though it's been a while since my last bong hit. Certainly, a rare fluke of noshing, though not an unpleasant one.

The jamon croquettas were magnífico. Brown, crispy spheres that could pass for meatballs, but once you bite into them, you discover their hot, oozing innards made of Spanish ham and tetilla cheese, the only cheese I know that's been named for its resemblance to a woman's breast. Google "tetilla," and you'll get the picture. The croquettas are served atop a brilliant, smoky tomato alioli (the Catalan version of aioli), which made licking the plate loads of fun.

There were a few buzz-kills. The snails perched atop an artichoke purée were horrible. Perhaps the worst snails of my existence, dull and savorless, a labor to consume. I'd peg it on the quality of the gastropods themselves, not necessarily on the prep. And the only dessert selection, a collection of truffles, seemed oddly uninspired, but there were other items that made up for these and then some: a savory chicken stew with olives called pollo al ajillo, and minty lamb chops atop a lima bean salad tossed in grain mustard, to name a couple. Like I say, May's doing about 70-30 with his tapas, but that's better than most chefs in the PHX.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons