To conclude my visit to the Valley of the Sun on a proper note Saturday October 1st would culminate with another meal and another meet-up with another local – or, well, a recent local I guess – in the form of a blogger whose words I’d been reading as far back as I’d been writing a blog of my own; Dominic of skilletdoux.com. Having utilized his blog for much of my planning to the desert it was with some discussion that we eventually settled on a relatively ‘new’ restaurant for our meal in the form of The Mission – a second visit for him (the first being a brunch) and yet another non-traditional take on Southwest flavors for myself.
Having already noted the restaurant’s location during my afternoon travels around Old Town Scottsdale and having agreed on a late hour of dining given Dominic’s schedule and my driving in from the Coyotes game in Glendale I arrived at the Mission well past dark and with ample parking available made my way to the restaurant’s door. Having heard Phoenix dining doesn’t often extend past 10pm I was admittedly surprised by the people waiting out the door but judging from the number of halter-tops and guys wearing sun glasses at night I quickly realized that The Mission was not all about “dining” after all and on my new friend’s arrival we exchanged greetings and made our way through the crowd, across the patio, and into the dimly lit room.
Greeted on entry by up-tempo music and a pleasant hostess who confirmed our reservation before leading us to a nicely sized two top along the right wall the mood and feel of The Mission instantly caused me pause; it felt like a “scene” more than a restaurant, yet with nearly every seat in the dining room full and the bar likely past fire code capacity I assumed there had to be something to the place. Setting aside prejudices and continuing our conversation from outside it would be mere moments before my colleague was greeted by one of the waitresses (known to him from a former restaurant) and shortly thereafter we were greeted by our own waitress, a friendly young woman named Jenna.
With menus in front of us and adult beverages declined it was at this point of the evening that Dominic deferred to my ordering stating that he could “come back any time” and after I confirmed that he could indeed keep up with my appetite (no small feat I’ve been told) Jenna returned to take our orders – 3 appetizers and a main course to be brought out in a 3-course progression (1-2-1.) Confirming that this would work well we would once again return to our discussion of all things food and culture, two Midwesterners in the middle of the desert chatting (or perhaps yelling) over the din as we sat in the glow of candles and ambient light from a Himalayan Salt Block wall.
With the kitchen moving surprisingly quickly despite (or perhaps because of) the late hour it would be perhaps fifteen minutes before our first course of the evening would arrive and although something I’d not have traditionally ordered the Almejas Al Vapor would prove to be well worth its “best in the valley” designation. Described as Peruvian in origin and served in a large low-bowl along with dense “pan de yucca” bread with a good sponge for dipping this complex amalgam of spicy aji Amarillo chile powder, tender clam stew, rock shrimp, chorizo, roast corn, basil, garlic, and turmeric was everything its ingredients suggested and then some – hot and spicy, smoky and garlicky, sweet but saline, and all the while complex without being overwhelming. While I personally could have stood for just a bit less salt and a touch more sweet to temper the spice this was a small quibble balanced nicely by the sweet rolls.
With my water not particularly doing a good job at quelling the aji amarillo’s punch I was glad to see that the kitchen continued to move things along swiftly for our second course and within 15 minutes of finishing the clam stew we would see two dishes set before us; the two strongest plates of the evening, in my opinion. Beginning first with the lesser of the two, “Crispy Cola Pork” was presented as three gem lettuce wraps cupping a heaping mound of pork belly braised in coca-cola, pickled red onions, chopped peanuts, chiltepin, and a squeeze of lime. Having heard of chiltepin before but having never actually experienced the wild pepper I half expected this dish to be too hot for my delicate Ohio born n’ bred taste buds but surprisingly the chef used a very delicate hand with the slightly funky and smoky heat allowing it to shine without crushing the rest of the ingredients. From fatty pork to pungent onions right down to the crunchy peanuts this was a dish where everything contributed to the whole in a very necessary way.
For the second of this round of appetizers my favorite plate of the meal would be presented as “Duck Carnitas Empanada,” an invariably upscale take on the traditional empanada with a golden flaky shell harboring orange glazed duck confit and an admixture of habaneros, mushrooms, cilantro, and queso Oaxaca. Delectable on its own but certainly open to further adornment the empanada was subsequently topped with a chunk of seared foie gras and finally with a foie fortified queso Oaxaca pan sauce and a drizzle of tamarind oil with the end result sweet, savory, and totally decadent.
Left with a bit more time to digest and a lot less noise as the restaurant’s population had literally dwindled by half a mere forty-five minutes after we were seated the final savory of the evening would arrive just after 11pm and as I was doing the ordering it just so happened to be a second round of my favorite fowl, this time the “Green Chile Duck Confit.” Ample in portion and more so in flavor this pile of two legs and two thighs featured a whole lot of duck for the dollar but unfortunately was just a bit less crispy than one would have hoped – a small quibble as it was not greasy, but not “textbook” confit by any means. Again spicy without being “hot” the duck subsequently topped with sultana serrano peanut mole and paired on the plate with savory “cheesy fried hominy” that tasted something like a cross between popcorn and corn nuts plus smoked mushrooms to help ground the rest of the flavors.
Not full by any means and largely impressed by the flavor profile Chef Carter’s food to this point dessert was prerequisite (and all the more so once I looked at the options.) Deferring on the fried bananas and opting for two desserts it would be a short while before they would arrive in tandem, both looking top notch and served with serviceware for sharing. Beginning first with the Churros, in this case espresso and cinnamon dusted before being lacquered with Ibarra chocolate, the crispy doughnuts were good but certainly not on par with Barrio café’s. Served alongside a cocoa and coffee milkshake and slightly spicy but mostly sugary the infusion of coffee tones was a unique touch but overall this was probably the weakest course of the evening – a shame as they seem to consider this their “signature” (and most expensive) dessert.
Fully admitting my biases the second dessert would prove much more appealing to me than the first and where other bread puddings on the trip were a bit hit and miss The Mission’s Pumpkin Bread Pudding with Scotch, Caramel, Pepitas, Pomeganate, and Chipotle seasonings was quite outstanding. Beginning first with the pudding, almost a steamed sticky pudding in texture, the flavor of the pumpkin, cinnamon, and clove was present in spades and the scotch tones blended nicely with the sweet caramel giving it all a heavy handed boozy bite. With a touch of spice from the chipotle cooled by quickly melting dulce de leche ice cream I additionally found a lot of appeal in the pumpkin seeds and pomegranate with their respective salty and sweet crunch adding some texture.
With conversation continuing well after dessert plates were empty Jenna returned and asked us if there was anything else we would like and on declining the check was left with a “whenever you’re ready” before she departed. A modest tab, particularly when split, we opted to divide the bill down the middle and with that we made our way to the streets where, as I’d been told, few people were to be found at 11:30pm even on a Saturday. Saying our goodbyes and contemplating the possibility of meeting up for some ethnic eats in Chicago just over a month later I made my way to my car satisfied with my meal at the Mission and realizing that perhaps my bias against “scene restaurants” was a bit unfounded, much like my preconceptions about “Southwest cuisine” – a fitting conclusion to my first trip to Arizona and a bit of reassurance that I could undoubtedly live here. Sure the city shuts down early but to be completely honest by the time we left The Mission it was already nearly 2 hours after my typical bedtime anyway.