Rain drummed all night on the eve of the Devour Culinary Classic’s Saturday extravaganza. As people started to flow into the Desert Botanical Garden at 10 a.m. sharp, the pace of the deluge slowed, promising a more standard festival Saturday. But that promise was soon obliterated by a gray onslaught so ferocious that me and Lauren Cusimano, this section’s food editor, thought at first the sudden noise was the explosive sizzling of a nearby grill.
It wasn’t. It was nothing but rain. And that rain lifted the 50,000 plants of the garden to high life. A soul-piercing odor of creosote and cactus lifted from the soil everywhere. The crowd mellowed, accepted the rain, embraced the hammering water.
And hey, it made the day as fun as any Devour event I’ve experienced. Despite the weather, local chefs brought some heat. Here were my five favorite bites from day one (in no special order!).
Goat Taco, Otro Cafe
In a day filled with tacos, none hit the spot quite like Doug Robson and Carlos Diaz’s goat on a chewy blue corn tortilla. The goat had a melting quality, born from cooking the whole animal for a long, long time covered in banana leaves. The source of this goat was uncommon: Crow’s Dairy out of Buckeye, which produces great cheeses but also superlative animals. These goats are hard to find, and Robson and Diaz did theirs right. A bit of purple cabbage and greens lent fresh, herbaceous accents. A deep red salsa kicking with chile de arbol and other peppers stood up to the goat's nuanced minerality. The key was how nothing distracted much from that beautifully cooked animal, so soulful on a cold gray day.
Lobster and Lengua and Rye Cocktail, JW Marriott Scottsdale
Chef Jack Strong of the JW Marriott in Scottsdale drizzled a snail’s shell so delicate it could have come from a jeweler with a bright, citrusy chimichurri made partly from cactus. Surprisingly, it wasn’t snail that awaited slick and steaming in the spiral shell. It was wondrously tender lobster. Also on this plate came a bite of lengua that just dissolved on your tongue, packed a wildly intense beefy richness.
The cocktails mixed at this station could hang, too. Their chief ingredients were rye whiskey and fat rendered from rib-eye steaks. There was also some Cynar, the artichoke-based amaro, imbuing the chestnut-brown libation with herbaceous notes. In a day of great drinks, this one had a lot of personality and adept balance, the kind of short pour unlikely to last for more than 60 seconds.
Pulled Pork Belly, Che Ah Chi
Che Ah Chi of Sedona’s Enchantment Resort is one of Arizona's under-rated restaurants. Chef Jose Martinez showed what his team can do with a pork belly pulled into melting shreds. This was the kind of brown-on-brown dish that Instagrammers are allergic to — meaning more for people who actually like to eat.
The selling point wasn’t a divinely tender pork belly. It was rich custard from which the bite-size pork tangle arose. This custard’s flavor veered wildly sideways. It was sweet, unexpectedly sweet, but not too sweet thanks to an ethereal, earthy depth from Ramona Farms corn treated right. It was the kind of bite that, if you didn’t have 30 more bites after to go after this, you’d scarf down two or three times before the next stand.
Grilled Strawberry Corncake, Proof Canteen
Generally, desserts play second fiddle to savory bites at Devour. Meandering up to a stand plating sweets, you almost come to expect something solid but not stellar. This low-key Devour trend evaporated one bite into Proof Canteen’s elegant wedge of yellow corncake. The cake itself had a rugged sweetness, the kind of campfire-meal rusticity of a robust cornbread. Strawberries and candied jalapenos lent a lot of depth. The jalapenos were especially brilliant, bringing not only the expected heat and sweetness, but a baroque vegetal intensity, the pepper-heavy note that made the whole thing great.
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PB&J Burger and Greenthread Saison, Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company
Maybe you’ve had the PB&J burger from Arizona Wilderness. But have you had this glorious burger as the rain gears to teeming and you’re huddled under a broad umbrella in the middle of the Desert Botanical Garden? With water freeing the oil smells of plants which are Sonoran cousins to the Navajo Tea imbued, in collaboration with DBG, by the Wilderness ladies and gents into the cold beer you’re drinking? That would be the Greenthread Saison, which contains as much dessert as the garden does.
Maybe we hit this stand at the right time. In any case, there was a synesthetic element to the Wilderness tent. The nuances of the saison, the notes of creosote-like flavor pulled into freshness by Meyer lemon, seemed to flow from the beer into the rain-saturated air also saturated with the morning's energy. The burger was hot off the smoking grill.
On a rainy day, man, you couldn’t do better.