Cafe Reviews

Rita's Kitchen Makes the Best Red Sangria We've Ever Had

I'll go well out of my way for good food — I'll obsess about it, complicate my schedule, or drive too far for it, and maybe even eat ramen for a couple days to afford it. Whatever. The end justifies the means.

When it comes to beverages, I'm more a creature of habit, sticking closer to home for a cocktail or glass of wine and generally heading straight to my own fridge when I really want a beer. Destination drinking isn't often on my agenda because destinations involve driving, and you what that means.

So the fact that I'm thinking of booking a night at Camelback Inn just to hang out and drink sangria on the patio at Rita's Kitchen is really saying something. This is hands-down the best red sangria I've ever had.

While BLT Steak is the luxury steakhouse on the prominent front corner of Camelback Inn's main lodge, Rita's Kitchen is the casual eatery tucked inside, past the hotel lobby. It's the place where hotel guests can go for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and locals can soak up the Sonoran charm. The food here may not be innovative, but it's pretty good, and the appealing atmosphere and excellent drinks make up for any shortcomings.

In keeping with the resort's theme (on your way in, check out the piped-in Native American flute music and a statue of a chief in a feathered headdress), Rita's Kitchen is predictably Southwestern, although in a mercifully toned-down way. Adobe walls and terracotta tile floors feel modern with sleek furniture, dark wood and wrought-iron accents, and glass lamps that cast a warm amber glow on the dining room.

The adjoining bar and lounge area, called R Bar, is full of comfy couches around a crackling fireplace, and walls of windows look out onto the courtyard patio. Come sunset, a seat out by the fire pit is exactly where I want to be drinking that sangria.

What makes it such a heavenly concoction? It's got just enough fruit juice for sweetness, and the ratio of red wine makes it potent enough to drink on the rocks without too much watering-down. Bits of apple and grape give it a crisp scent. Better yet, there's the distinctive taste of vanilla and a whiff of cinnamon, which deepen the fruit flavors and enhance the wine's gentle spiciness.

Behold, destination sangria — if you're into that kind of thing.

The white sangria is also good, although not quite in the same league as the red. A mix of vermouth, white wine, club soda, and lots of citrus and tropical fruit, it's refreshingly sweet-tart.

I liked the house "Rita Rita" margarita, made with Patron Silver and Cointreau, and would love to see a reprise of one night's special rose-scented margarita. Hibiscus and fresh blackberries added interest to a well-crafted mojito. And although the minuscule handful of beers didn't interest me, 20 wines by the glass at least gave me some options.

As far as food goes, I would absolutely come back here for nibbles to go along with the cocktails. The food alone wouldn't merit a special trip unto itself, though, and the service was lacking. Everyone was as smiley as could be, but I did not like the way the waitstaff handled tables in teams.

Who was our server, exactly? Was it the gal who took our drink and dinner orders, then never appeared again? (That was annoying when we really wanted to send back some lukewarm sweet potato fries.) Was it the guy who dropped off dessert menus but didn't return for our order? Or was it the second lady, whom we had to flag down to ask for dessert? A small army of bussers busily set the tables around us, but for some reason it was hard to get anyone's attention to say, "Hello, we'd love to eat this soufflé, but you didn't bring us spoons!"

The best dishes were appetizers and desserts, although almost everything was decent. Hot, crispy corn fritters, studded with green chile and served with velvety Crow's Dairy goat cheese fondue, made a great first impression. A huge portion of tangy, chunky guacamole, prepared tableside, was simple but effective. And tender calamari rings, coated in crisp, golden batter, were light and tasty, served with marinara sauce and cool avocado-tomatillo salsa.

A skewer of grilled corn, embellished with cotija crumbles, was a scrumptious accompaniment to spicy, slow-cooked green chile pork, which came with warm housemade tortillas. I'm not sure why those tortillas were noticeably better than the ones used for the pulled chicken tacos — I think they got a little more time on the griddle, and therefore a little more flavor.

Shrimp enchiladas were a flat-out dud — I barely ate half of one. Somewhere, buried inside too much gooey queso suizo, I eventually found the shrimp, and they were rubbery little things. Ugh. And, sadly, the cheese even overwhelmed the green tomatillo sauce, which was in short supply. A much, much better seafood choice was a lovely, moist piece of salmon, slicked with honey mustard glaze and served with a heap of tasty grilled romaine, maple-roasted butternut squash, and creamy mac 'n' cheese 'n' Tasso ham.

Buttermilk fried chicken had a heavier crust than I prefer, but I liked the flavor and appreciated the moist meat. The burger was a pretty good one, with roasted poblano, pepper jack, bacon, and (the highlight) crispy onions squishing out with each bite. Now if only those fine sweet potato fries on the side had been hot.

Meanwhile, the NY Strip was juicy and beautifully charred. Plated atop a pool of smoky cowboy steak sauce and bacon-wrapped asparagus, with a dish of cheddary baked potato pie, it was a really great stick-to-your-ribs meal. The only catch is, if I want a steak, why would I bypass excellent BLT Steak for Rita's? I just wouldn't.

In keeping with the comfort food rundown, desserts were also down-to-earth. I couldn't get enough of the buttery, crunchy crumbles on the hot peach cobbler, and once I finally got my darn spoon, it was fun to sink it into a fluffy Mexican chocolate soufflé.

The thing heaved a soft cocoa sigh before drinking in a long pour of vanilla crème anglaise. Sitting in that warm, cozy restaurant, with red sangria in hand, I could relate.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig