But the heart of downtown Scottsdale — magnet to hungry tourists and nightclubbers alike — is not where I head when I'm looking for good Mexican food. While there are a few Mexican eateries in the vicinity of Old Town, you'd have a much better chance of tracking down a gourmet burger or a plate of sushi. So for that reason alone, The Mission fills a welcome niche in this 'hood.
The two-month-old restaurant, tucked into the neat old building that briefly housed Union Wine Bar, doesn't serve straight-up Mexican, though. Instead, its menu is a broader, more modern take on Latin cuisine. So along with tacos, you can dine on Chilean salmon with huitlacoche crema or, perhaps, a steak. Barrio Café is a fair comparison for the price point.
That's not to say that Tacos Jalisco wasn't an influence. According to his Zinc Bistro bio, chef Matt Carter — who opened The Mission with Zinc business partner Terry Ellisor and Brian Raab from Merc Bar — is hooked on Jalisco's tacos al pastor (spicy pork tacos). For the longest time, rumors floated around in foodie circles that Carter would open a traditional taquería in downtown Phoenix, but since he stayed in Scottsdale, the dining experience corresponds with the ritzy real estate.
If you've ever been to Zinc Bistro, this won't come as a surprise. Zinc is an über-stylish French eatery at Kierland Commons in north Scottsdale, less an onion-soup-and-salad spot than a place to splurge on cassoulet and Gruyère fondue and oysters on the half-shell. By night, the place is dark and sexy, filled with candles and the buzz of wine-fueled conversation. I can see the similarities at The Mission — a dim, candlelit vibe and a lively bar scene.
What they've done with the space is impressive, especially when you consider the décor at Union Wine Bar. In my review of it last year ("State of the Union," September 19, 2007), I compared it to a hotel lobby. Now the space has a kind of glamorous decadence, thanks to more than a dozen ornate chandeliers and huge mirrors that make the whole room look like it's draped in crystal and jet. Nailhead-trimmed furniture gives it an antique feeling and, better yet, the walls have a dark, faux-aged patina that makes The Mission look stained by centuries of candle smoke. Outside, there's a cozy fireplace on the front patio.
The bar here is happening, although don't expect to catch a buzz without your credit card, because cocktails run up to 15 bucks apiece. Ouch! I loved the sweet-tart Yuzu Bath, flavored like Japanese citrus, but nursed it until the ice melted. On another visit, the margarita didn't impress me at all — I could hardly taste tequila. I suppose I should've tried another one to make sure it wasn't a mistake, but I was nevertheless happy with an alternative suggested by my waiter, a remarkable avocado margarita that I would certainly order again.
(To be fair, I overheard two ladies at the next table make the same complaint about their watery Mission margaritas, and Brian Raab came over to apologize and serve two new ones that he personally mixed himself.)
There were a lot of fun nibbles to start, from crispy, puffed tostadas topped with chicken, ham hocks, black beans, spicy aji rocoto (Peruvian chile) sauce, and cotija cheese, to traditional guacamole, prepared tableside and served with hot, thin chips. Roasted five-chile pepper soup was spicy with a touch of sweetness, embellished with shreds of chicken, sliced avocado, red chile bits, and crispy tortilla strips, while pozole, filled with hominy and smoked pork, had a nice savory flavor but could've handled more red chile wallop. And mango-jicama salad was terribly bland — a plate of iceberg lettuce, basically.
Side dishes were decent but could've used a few tweaks — more gooey crema and cotija on the grilled street corn (these should be sloppy), more rosemary and green chiles in the creamy frijoles blanco. But believe it or not, the standout side wasn't even Mexican; crispy French fries, a mix of regular and sweet potato, were better than the celebrated fries at Delux.
One noteworthy item didn't make the dinner menu, unfortunately, but was worth a try at lunch: the Kobe dog, as in Kobe beef. Ever had a Sonoran hot dog? Then you know the joys of a good bacon-wrapped dog. This one was a juicy, delicious mess, slathered in grilled onions, green-chile-studded pinto beans, and cotija cheese. They got the sloppy thing right on this one.
And what about those tacos? Thankfully, those were available all day. Served on tiny handmade corn tortillas, they were more filling than they looked. Pork shoulder was my favorite, cooked until tender and buttery, although chicken was far better than expected, with moist pieces of meat in a rich, tangy chile sauce. And juicy, lightly battered mahi-mahi tacos, drizzled with olive crema, were a delight simply because the fish was so fresh.
As for the entrees, I came away with mixed feelings. Chimichurri-marinated, grass-fed Uruguayan rib eye, teamed with fluffy green chile chilaquiles (tortilla casserole), was perfectly cooked, while chorizo porchetta paired melt-in-your-mouth pork with rosemary-tinged chorizo. But my seared scallops were overdone, and greasy fried octopus and yuca only amplified that fact. There was also a fine duo of fork-tender short rib and luscious pork belly that was ruined, incredibly, by a glob of creamy peanut butter.
Peanut mousse made much more sense with the fried-banana dessert, although after that jarring experience with the short rib, I couldn't bring myself to eat it. In any case, the bananas were crispy and buttery, drizzled with dulce de leche — more interesting than they sound. Pumpkin bread pudding was easy to love, but espresso-chocolate churros were even better. A plateful of these hot, crunchy nibs was a wonderful contrast for a frothy cinnamon milkshake.
Churros and tacos — what else do you need? The Mission may not be firing on all cylinders yet, but at least it has its priorities in order.