A Mind-Blowing Spin on Chocolate From a Top-Shelf Scottsdale Shop

Truffles from Zak's.
Truffles from Zak's. Chris Malloy
Welcome to the 2018 edition of The Essentials, our catalog of indispensable and quintessential Phoenix food and drink. From now until May, we'll be sharing 50 dishes, drinks, and food experiences that make up the culinary backbone (and personality) of metro Phoenix. This list is highly eclectic, mixing classics with newer and lesser-known favorites. But all The Essentials have one thing in common: We think they're required eating (and drinking) in metro Phoenix.

41: Single-origin Papua New Guinea Bar at Zak's Chocolate

The single-origin Papua New Guinea bar from Zak's Chocolate tastes smoked. Can a chocolate bar be smoked, you wonder? Nope, you answer yourself, the smoke would melt the bar.

But cacao beans can be smoked. And, in a way, these beans have been.

In a dry year, Papua New Guinea gets 80 inches of rain. That's 10 times more than Phoenix averages. A wet year could mean close to 200 inches. Papua New Guinea is an exceptionally soaked place, and that's why the cacao farmers that Zak's uses dry their beans over fires. Without fire's help, beans would stay too moist. One consequence is that the beans' flavor swells with wood smoke.

That smoke can be tasted in the finished bar. At first, it flirts with the baroque flavor of dark chocolate, making itself known subtly, lurking on the edges of the dark current. Okay, okay, you think — this is a cool touch. But then, confusingly, the flavor steadily intensifies. As the morsels melt around your tongue and collapse into a rich, creamy state, the full funk drops on you like a meteor out of the sky.

The flavors of smoke and hay are strange, but so good. There's also some dry cherry and cranberry action on the side. This stuff is unlike any chocolate you've tasted.
click to enlarge A chocolate bar with smoke enough to rival a young Scotch. - CHRIS MALLOY
A chocolate bar with smoke enough to rival a young Scotch.
Chris Malloy
Jim Elitzak, who owns Zak's with his wife, Maureen Elitzak, says he can tell when people are trying samples of his single-origin New Guinea based on their surprise. He also says that the batch of beans he recently got in from the tiny Pacific country was his smokiest yet.

Jim handles most of the chocolate-making duties. Zak's crafts bean-to-bar chocolates. You can see them being made in the Scottsdale shop through windows behind the display case, showing a lab-like room of grinders and molds and polished steel contraptions.

Maureen is the chocolatier, the one who sculpts chocolate into artful creations. Truffles gleam like jewels in the glass display case. Some are swirled with color, some molded like hearts, some both. Flavors range to expected and unexpected pockets of the gustatory spectrum: coconut, coffee, cinnamon-plum.

Zak's cacao-based delights are legit. They are, however, expensive. A bar will set you back $10. So will a mere four truffles.

This isn't the place you go to get Halloween candy. This isn't a place to get chocolates for someone you like only marginally. This is a place to score badass chocolates for someone who digs the brief, ephemeral beauty of brilliant food, or for someone who rocks your world.

The 70 percent Papua New Guinea chocolate's rare spirit is possible because it's single-origin. If this were chocolate made from a mixture of beans, the personalities of each bean would be squelched. Zak's has single-origin bars from other places. Some taste like raisins and citrus. Some taste like blueberries and stout. None taste quite like the New Guinea, exploding with visceral barn-like flavors that take you outside, to a crackling fire under dripping trees, to chocolate's dark heart.

Zak's Chocolate. 6990 East Shea Boulevard, Scottsdale; 480-607-6581.
Tuesday to Friday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; closed Monday and Tuesday.

The Essentials so far:
50: Soul food platter at Lo-Lo's Chicken & Waffles
49: The Bear at Short Leash Hot Dogs + Rollover Doughnuts
48: Grilled squid and other specialties at Andreoli Italian Grocer
47: I-10 Nachos at Cocina 10
46: Coffee made from ROC2 beans
45: The Haturo Sub Sandwich at Cheese 'n Stuff
44: Zookz at Zookz
43: Jade Red Chicken at Chino Bandido
42: Tasting menu at Quiessence at The Farm
41: Single-origin Papua New Guinea Bar at Zak's Chocolate

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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy