Welcome to Sonoran Arcana, a column seeking to probe the margins of Arizona cuisine and define a more specific, novel cuisine that has emerged in America's great Sonoran Desert: New Arizonan. Here, we will venture into the arid wilds and culinary unknown to spotlight the chefs and foragers, the millers and brewers, the miso masters and palo verde pod-pickers who are pioneering New Arizonan cuisine, or simply rocking out the food of Arizona. So throw open the doors to your mind and enjoy.
The other day, I found myself staring down at a dinner roll.
It was round and lumpy, darkly colored, scaled almost like a football. Its walls were fiercely chewy, like you had to molar through shock absorbers. It drew its springy texture from its flour composition: Hayden Flour Mills White Sonora Wheat and red fife, both freshly ground. The best part, though, was this cool, earthy flavor, almost akin to maple syrup without the sugar, like hiking into a dim cave.
That flavor came from a third flour, mesquite. Mesquite was the touch that gave the roll depth, intrigue, and the taste of place. It was what ultimately catapulted the bread to some of the best I’ve had in recent memory.
The place you can eat this roll? Café Allegro. A museum eatery. That is, the cafeteria inside north Phoenix's Musical Instrument Museum (MIM).
Chris Lenza, executive chef and overseer of Café Allegro, has been tinkering with the roll recipe for 10 years. That is also how long the cafe has been open. Lenza, a sous chef with the opening team, took the reins of the ambitious program two years after it began.
When you consider that Lenza oversees a category of eatery not exactly seen as a paragon of creativity or even good eating, the hyperlocal, desert-hearted program he has cultivated is truly impressive. “We source as much as we can within 150 miles of the museum,” Lenza says. This includes heritage corn, flours, nopales, mesquite, and cactus fruit tonged from the courtyard. All find their way into a seasonal menu.
One week, there might be a meatloaf of grass-fed beef and Hayden purple barley. Another, there might be pozole swimming with Ramona Farms Pima 60-day corn and chicken-fragrant broth, served with grilled nopales tossed in prickly pear vinaigrette.
And there might be a simple, warming vegetable soup that channels the rainy desert spirit of tepary beans — which are also visible to guests, in dry form, along the buffet stations.
When Lenza speaks about desert ingredients, his eyes shine and his voice brims. “I would be really upset with myself if I wasn’t giving the guests local, regional cuisine,” he says.
Having nailed his mesquite sourdough roll recipe after 10 long years of editing, having developed a mesquite telera roll for special occasions, having bullseyed a salsa fermented from guajillo chiles and prickly pear fruit, Lenza has moved onto his next big project.
Big projects seem to be what animate culinary artisans who embrace the ingredients of the Sonoran Desert. As this year-long column closes with this story, it’s worth appreciating the Herculean efforts and grand visions of these artisans. Whether those advancing Arizona cuisine or those operating in the lanes of ageless tradition, these people are sweating to realize dreams and honor the quirky, elusive, singular, gemlike ingredients of our great North American desert.
They are giving fresh layers, shades, and trajectories of definition to the food of Arizona.
We’ve seen an urban forager and a miso dreamer, date hobbyists and winemakers. We’ve tasted one of the world’s most electric chiles (right at home!), brewed a beer in the wilderness (still brewing!), and toured one of the Southwest's most inspirational farms, where, as in many of our cultivated and wild dryland spaces, amazing plants emerge from the pressure cooker of intense weather conditions.
These projects have the potential to texture our food culture with a weave of Sonoran-centric elements, flavors, and forms you just can’t find on the coasts or in the other big cities between them.
But there are reasons beyond gastronomy to seek these ingredients. A chief reason is environment. Wild foods aren’t sprayed. They aren’t schlepped across the country, or overnighted in from the Sea of Japan, meaning their carbon footprint is low. They don’t require irrigation, as they naturally rise from the trees, the cacti, the slopes, the soil. This is crucial in the nation’s fastest-growing county, where water sources are shrinking and the very real possibility of water rationing looms. Not only can wild foods be sustainable when gathered responsibly, eating them helps to rekindle our brittle societal connection with the land.
Certain desert farmed crops, like tepary beans and Pima 60-day corn, do much better than nondesert crops when planted here. And on top of this, they bring more character than their more commoditized relatives.
Ultimately, though, there are obstacles to using these foods, and to wider adoption of them. Farmed desert heirloom crops can be expensive. Blue and red corn taste little like common corn, a hurdle for both cooks and consumers. How are French-trained chefs to know what to do with these kinds of corn (not to mention barrel cactus and palo verde flour), and how will they strike the palate of your average burger-ordering eater?
Foraging, too, takes time (though professionals can fill the gap for chefs). It takes hours, energy, and deep knowledge of place to foray into the wild, to learn how to cook these ingredients, and to explain them to the eating public of a state composed mostly of residents born in others.
Despite the field of obstacles, these foods have the capacity to level up our food scene. And it has been eye-opening to write this column and steal keyhole glimpses of what's possible, and gratifying to spotlight the folks doing the foraging, the farming, the jamming, the cooking, the dreaming.
Folks like Chris Lenza.
The MIM café chef’s new big project? Tortillas.
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“This is what I do every Saturday,” he says, his voice going low and furtive at one of his cafe's tables. “I’m trying to figure out a way to make Ramona Farms heritage corn into a corn tortilla. I’ve been milling it every week and trying to see if I get the perfect ratio … I’m using their red corn. I’m using their 60-day. I’ve even brought in other heritage corns from outside the state to see what they taste like [compared] to these ones.”
Lenza says he has these tortillas just about down. The last step is to strike a balance between the absolute unconventional beauty of a tortilla made from these heirloom corn strains, and what customers, especially those in from afar, are expecting.
He sits back in a cafe chair, his voice goes loud again, and he slips into a big smile, desert tortillas on his mind. He says: “They’re really good.”
Café Allegro at MIM.
4725 East Mayo Boulevard; 480-478-6000.
Hours: 1:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily