Cafe Reviews

The Territory's Treasure

I have no political authority to do this, but I am hereby nominating the Wigwam Resort's Arizona Kitchen to be our official state restaurant. Here is an ultimate dining experience; one that unites authenticity with artistry, pride with imagination, style with comfort, and fabulous flavors with visual panache in a glorious gustatory rendering of the spirit of Arizona at its best. What a wonderful achievement!

The Arizona Kitchen is only a small, if fabulous, fraction of a recently completed and splendid $28 million renovation of the Wigwam Resort and Country Club, this year celebrating its sixtieth anniversary. Located way on the west side of the Valley, in Litchfield Park, this authentic Arizona treasure will never seem too close to Los Angeles again. The entire expense of the I-10 expansion is entirely validated by bringing east Valley residents closer to the Arizona Kitchen's appetizer menu.

All right, all right, I know. Too hyperbolic. But if you're a serious fan of Arizona, romance and dining excellence, you must invest in a couple of gallons of gasoline and go check this place out.

Not drenched in the misplaced and tiresome opulence of other southwestern-themed resort dining rooms, the intimate ninety-seat Arizona Kitchen looks like an idealized territorial home. There's a display kitchen with a wood-burning oven, an adobe fireplace and a brick floor. Arizona-themed artistic enhancements are understated, and the dress code is casual, so that a feeling of museum lifelessness is entirely avoided.

Furnishings and appointments run toward the masculine, with the room's prodigiously thick and stable parquet tables dominating the decor. I particularly love the restaurant's glassware, hand-blown Mexican blue bottle, hefty handfuls with no two pieces exactly alike. Similarly, the plates are oversize hand-painted Italian ceramics that are nearly as colorful and appealing as the food they embrace.

To be frank, this is a culinary effort that makes facile description impossible. It's so much more than the sum of its parts: Native American, Mexican, contemporary Californian and just the right touch of European continental. Ultimately, the menu is such a fascinating breakthrough amalgam of all these. In a single visit you will never be able to explore every temptation.

This becomes apparent as early in the meal as the bread service. How does one resist massive consumption of warm fry bread, blue cornmeal onion rolls and sourdough biscuits? As if these wouldn't do enough damage with butter alone, they're also presented with cruets of garlic olive oil and cardamom-flavored honey. Oh, my.

Regretfully, my guest and I pass over such appetizers as Scallop and Shrimp Ceviche in Relleno with Red Chili Vinaigrette, Pheasant Tamale with Citrus and Pine Nut Sauce, and Rattlesnake Fritters with Tomato Salsa. It makes me smile when our waiter describes the farm-raised rattlesnake as tasting "just like calamari." Prior to the late 1980's, of course, rattlesnake tasted "just like chicken."

We settle upon Pikki Pouches, which are chili- and corn-flavored Indian paper bread crepes stuffed with chicken mole and served with vanilla sauce. As wild as this sounds, it's just as wonderful. The pouches are like white paper roses singed at the tips of their petals, and the combination of vanilla, butter, vinegar and mole is fragrant, flavorful and entirely fascinating.

Our other appetizer, Smoked Corn Chowder, is fairly described by my dining companion as "the best corn chowder I have ever eaten." Ears of corn are smoke roasted in the wood-burning oven, and the kernels are then combined with whole hominy, carrots, potatoes, onions and green peppers in a cream and chicken stock base. At service the chowder is laced with hot pepper oil. Our waiter confesses that at the end of each evening the first thing he does is rush over to see if any of this soup is left in the warming kettle, and it's incredibly easy to understand why.

Again regretfully, because of the constraints of appetite, my guest and I pass over an appealing list of southwestern-themed pizzas that are baked in the wood-burning oven. We opt instead to split a grilled vegetable salad. This turns out to be a lovely combination of grilled tomato, baby corn, chayote and yellow squashes, jicama, zucchini and fresh greens wrapped in leek-tied tortillas and bedded down in a perfectly complimentary basil butter sauce.

Entree selection is another near-to-impossible task. My recommendation is that the first time you patronize the Arizona Kitchen you go with about a half-dozen hungry friends who share. That way you won't have to miss Grilled Jumbo Shrimp and Arizona Grapefruit, Lime and Orange Linguini with Jalapeno Vinegar Sauce, or Grilled Red Snapper with Tomatillo and Smoked Red Pepper Salsa, or Roast Loin of Venison and Braised Nopal Cactus with Black Muscat and Pink Peppercorn Sauce, et cetera.

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Steven Weiss