As for their cocktails? Until recently, they've been passively positioned behind freshly shucked oysters and, understandably, behind Arizona's largest selection of absinthes — a point of pride for the restaurant, and the headliner for one of the Valley's most underrated happy hours. If you haven't alternated sips of slightly sweet, herbaceous absinthe with slurps of rich, briny oysters, you should.
Before now, cocktails were a missed opportunity given the rest of the concept's strengths. For the restaurant's summer menu, however, Little Cleo's beverage manager Casey Dominguez worked closely with Fox Restaurant Concepts beverage director Mat Snapp to create a new cocktail menu that's well worth exploring.
A good place to start would be with the Currant and Honey, with a mix of blanco tequila and mezcal, shaken in with crème de cassis (blackcurrant liqueur), lime juice, and honey. It's built like a margarita, with a lime zest and salt rim, but the drink's sneaky secret is its flavor proximity to the original Tequila Sunrise, invented in Phoenix — which, minus the inclusion of mezcal and honey, and would be built tall in a collins glass with seltzer water. Fruity, smoky, and a touch sweet — but with some zip from the lime juice and balance from the salt rim — we can see why the drink is an early favorite among guests.
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Phoenix's history has influenced the cocktail menu in other places. The Trotting Park Sour is named after the town of Goodyear's infamous, abandoned horse-racing track of the same name, which has been dormant since the mid-'60s and is currently for sale. Spicy High West rye whiskey is mixed with honey, lemon and grapefruit juices, and angostura bitters to make for the kind of snappy, citrusy whiskey drink that takes the edge off a bad bet.
A couple of drinks on the menu veer tropical. One, less obviously so, is the Toasted Spaniard.
"I was looking for a vehicle for falernum that wasn't so usual," Dominguez says, falernum being the sometimes-alcoholic Caribbean syrup flavored with almond, ginger or cloves (or both), and lime. The syrup collides with a classic cocktail, the Sidecar, that's usually served in a martini glass.
The version Dominguez serves involves brandy instead of cognac, fresh orange juice, and grilled nectarine, and is served in a lowball over ice. Garnished with freshly ground coriander, the ice-cold Sidecar-inspired cocktail is delightfully aromatic and a tad more exotic than the source material. Thoroughly tropical, however, is the First Mate. Dominguez mixes the dark and heavy-bodied Skipper-brand rum with Torres-brand Gran Torres Orange Liqueur, nutty and floral orgeat syrup, lemon juice, and earthy cherry bark bitters. If you asked the bartender for a tiki drink, you'd get this number. And you'd really like it.