The Why: Generally one to seek out European cuisines before those of Latin America or elsewhere I sometimes do crave Mexican cuisine and having been largely impressed by Barrio Café and La Condessa in the past I’d been planning to make it part of my eating agenda for another food-centric Saturday. Glancing through the usual (and unusual) suspects from friends and palates I trust I noted the name Distrito amongst the offerings and it jarred a memory of the time I stood gawking at a line of ~100 trying to get into Jose Garces’ taco and street food shop in Philadelphia. Could this be the same place, I thought – and sure enough, apparently the owners of Joie de Vivre hotels had tapped Garces to head the dining concept at the Saguaro in Old Town Scottsdale.
Having been impressed by the food (if not the company) at Garces’ Amada in Philadelphia and also by the coffee at his eponymous Trading Company I google’d the information and in the process also noted a $20 off certificate through localdines.com that (when paired with a menu that looked excellent for both brunch and dinner) further sweetened the deal.
The Reservation: With opentable reservations available but a rumored ‘breakfast buffet’ menu on the website I next set to contacting the restaurant through their website just to see what the buffet was all about and within an hour received an e-mail from GM Niels Vuijsters explaining the setup and asking if I’d like to make a reservation – an offer I took him up on and after a few other questions (and time changes) set for 8:30 on Saturday night.
The Space: Say what you will about hotel restaurants, Distrito is a fantastic space. Set in a swanky hotel that is a bit difficult to find, and where valet is pretty much the only option (complementary to diners) I walked into the Saguaro to find a rather hip crowd of well dressed (or underdressed and cosmetically enhanced, depending on your viewpoint) falling out of Garces’ Village Whisky (and their halter-tops) as I entered but after making it past the scene I found my friend Aileen waiting near the front desk while the sign for Distrito glowed to the right along with a wall of painted skulls.
Checking in at the hostess stand I was pleasantly surprised to find Distrito 1/3 the volume of the lobby and led swiftly through the dark bar up front (do pay attention to the impressive selection of Tequila and custom stemware) to a roomy 4-top (for 2 people) we were seated amidst perhaps an 80% filled room just next to the kitchen entrance. With lively (but low decibel) music playing overhead and brightly colored tables, chairs, and decorations studding the room Distrito begs your attention – from the clothespin light fixtures and bungee cord dividers to the wall of felt balls and El Dia de los Muertos coffins it is definitely worth a stroll around the space.
The Service: In a word, superb. With Niels stopping by to say hello at the start of the meal and our server Michael taking time not only to explain each dish, but also to assist with my friend’s food allergies and tell us about his time with the Garces empire in Philadelphia we were never for want of anything during the 2:15 meal (except perhaps more stomach capacity) and when I mentioned my fondness for Chef Garces’ GTC coffee Michael, a former employee at the Philadelphia outpost, even went so far as to gift me a bag of the Reserva blend I’d not yet tried. To be fair, even if the food had been awful (*spoiler alert* it wasn’t) I’d be going back to The Saguaro for pounds of coffee for some time to come.
The Food: Chef’s Tasting ($45/pp) – 15 different plates, plus tortillas and chips.
Chips and Salsa Mexicana with Traditional Guacamole topped with Cotija and King Crab (+ Flour Tortillas): This is what happens when you fry up thick and perfect tortilla chips, lightly salt them, and serve them along with cool and creamy avocados kissed with a bit of garlic, a dash of lime, and some cumin before topping it lightly with cheese and heavily with fresh picked crab. Generally not one to attack the chips at a Mexican restaurant my friend’s aversion to avocado led to me eating every bit of this myself – something I’d have probably not done if I knew 14 dishes were to follow (okay, I’m lying, it was delicious and I’d have eaten it all either way.)
Angelica’s ensalada de fresa – Strawberries, spinach, melon, cabrales, serrano-balsamic vinaigrette, poppy seeds: I don’t know who Angelica is, but I get the idea we would get along as each of the aforementioned ingredients here was fresh, flavorful, and simply prepared with a dressing that was at once spicy and subtle. Generally not one to fancy melon I’ll particularly point out the use of the ingredient in this dish as it was a cryovac’d compressed version laced with simple syrup – a perfect foil to a touch of black pepper added to the salad prior to presentation.
Ceviche de Camarones – Shrimp, Spicy Tomato, Avocado, Plantain Chips: Beginning at its base with an avocado espuma and moving upwards to snappy shrimp dressed in boldly spiced tomato sauce before finishing with crunchy sections of plantain and a slice of ripe avocado this savory parfait was light and well balanced – an exploration of textures as much as flavors – and quite stunning to the eye. Knowing full well that (like most things spicy) that this was a dish my mild Midwestern palate would enjoy in the short term but regret later on I tried my best to only eat a few bites but in the end the glass stood empty and I made sure to take some prophylactic antacids before bed.
Hurache de Hongos – Forest Mushroom, Huitlacoche Sauce, Queso Mixto, Black Truffle, Corn Shoot: As my friend could not partake in this dish I wish I could say it was unmemorable, but unfortunately it was the best dish in a night of mostly outstanding cuisine. Beginning first with a pliable soft corn tortilla and then stacking on layer after layer of aromatic mushrooms plus a mixture of cheeses both mild and slightly briny this was a dish that greeted the palate well before the tongue and while the top notes of truffle were certainly notable, it was the intensity of the corn smut sauce that really put the it over the top. Seriously, if Chef Garces or anyone at his restaurant group ever reads this – bottle that stuff up and sell it at the Trading Company.
Queso Fundido – Duck Barbacoa, Poblano Chile Rajas, Queso Mixto: Transitioning from the salads and small plates portion of the menu to the tacos, the first to arrive was a DIY affair with rich and unctuous pulled duck meat buried beneath a layer of still bubbling cheese. Slow cooked and tender with spices including (but certainly not limited to) cumin, oregano, cloves, garlic at the forefront plus plenty of heat from the mixed pepper this was an ample serving to say the least but arriving with plenty of fresh tortillas it didn’t even last long enough to cool off completely.
Pollo – Chicken Ropa Vieja, Queso Fresco, Crema, Radish: One of a quartet of tacos, and the weakest of the four in my opinion, featured tender chicken finely shredded and mixed with onions and tomatoes on a dainty flour tortilla. Sharp and acidic but nicely balanced by the combination of cheese and slightly bitter radish it was a good two-bite dish, but not nearly as memorable as the others.
Mahi-Mahi – Chipotle Remoulade, Avocado, Red Cabbage, Lime: Having heard that this was ‘the best dish on the menu’ by the valet as I parked the car I have to admit I’d probably not have ordered this dish a la carte simply because I’ve never once had Dolphinfish that wowed me…and that would have been a mistake. Featuring the mildly flavored fish lightly fried inside a delicate plantain batter the key to this dish was actually the juxtaposition of its accoutrements – the lightly pickled cabbage foiled by the creamy avocado while a light touch of lime brought all the flavors to a point.
Carnitas – Pulled Pork, Black Beans, Pineapple salsa: One of two pork tacos – and the first of three swine based dishes – this dish married tender shredded flesh and crispy skin with a nice balance of earthy beans and sweet salsa quite nicely. Served with a lime to add extra citrus if desired I refrained on my first bite, instead allowing a touch of bitter from the shredded radish and jicama to come to the fore and on my second bite a small spritz – a good choice that served to bring out a bit of carnitas’ smoky notes.
Chorizo – Refried Beans, Tomato, Radish: A slight modification in the menu offering to accommodate my dining buddy’s shrimp allergy brought this dish to our table and while I gather it would have probably been better with the camarones this overstuffed taco was still quite excellent as the spicy chorizo was wet met by the tart green tomatoes and creamy frijoles refritos.
Cochinita Pibil – Berkshire Pork Shoulder, Achiote, Pineapple BBQ: For our ‘main course’ of the evening a large bowl of smoky pork would arrive with an ample description from Michael and with aromatics abound I only wished I had saved more room. Reportedly roasted for nearly eight hours wrapped in banana leaves and subsequently braised with achiote seeds, oregano, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, sour orange, and more this was the sort of Mexican cuisine we simply don’t have back in the Midwest – incredibly complex, nicely nuanced, and literally melt-in-the-mouth tender…the sort of dish that makes me want to explore the region’s cuisine more and more.
Espancas Con Manzana – Garlic Spinach, Granny Smith Apple, Toasted Peanut, Anejo Tequila: The first of three side dishes to arrive with the Cochinita and certainly the most complex this large bowl featured a lot of disparate flavors and textures nicely melded by the aged tequila. A bit too garlicky and filling for so late in the meal I admittedly only ate a few bites of this but along with the remainer of the Cochinita a box was packed up for Aileen to take home, certainly enough for a light meal.
Plantano Y Crema – Sweet Plantain, Queso Fresco: A dish that Aileen had been hoping would make an appearance on the tasting this was probably the most ‘simple’ dish of the evening yet at the same time it was also one of the best as the still young plantains were so lightly breaded that it was almost as though the coating was simply a product of caramelizing the intrinsic sugars. A sweet dish without being overly so we both additionally commented on how nicely the light cream served to smooth out the more saline notes of the cheese thus allowing it to compliment rather than overwhelm.
Arroz Con Crema – Creamy Poblano Corn Rice: Think rice pudding but make it intensely savory with plenty of spice – now make it so rich and texturally refined that all but the best risottos would pale in comparison. At $5 this is the steal of the menu and I’m disappointed even now that I couldn’t eat every bite of the cast iron pot.
Tres Leches – Cornmeal Cake, Roasted Pineapple, Coconut Sorbet: Moving to the sweets we would unfortunately find the first sub-par dish of the evening – a testament to the first thirteen dishes without a doubt, but a disappointment none the less. Generally a fan of tres leches cake this presentation would unfortunately fail in the very thing I’d hope would make it unique; the use of cornmeal simply dried things out rather than adding texture or nuance. Disappointed a bit but heartened a bit by the high quality of the sorbet which when taken in the same bite as a piece of cake actually worked quite nicely I would like to go back and try the Dulce de Leche French Toast (on the brunch menu) at some point, but I’d probably take a pass on this version for future visits.
El Fuerte – Flourless Chocolate Cake, Spicy Peanuts, Chocolate Peanut Butter Mousse, Vanilla Bean Flan, XO Caramel, Espresso Ice Cream: Reportedly a dish for two and although I’d have questioned this statement under normal circumstances it was not only enough for two at the end of such a long meal, but after taking my first bite definitely more than one person should rationally eat. Essentially three squares loosely stacked and topped with GTC Espresso Ice Cream and candied peanuts dusted with chili before a tableside pour of caramel spiked (liberally) with what I believe was Patron XO Café this was one rich dessert. Dense on the bottom and light on the top with subtle differences in each bite depending on the various components sampled both Aileen and I worked on this dish slowly and bite after bite it seemed neither of us could stop until I finally threw in the napkin…at least until Aileen left a single bite on the plate and I took the bait, recollected my spoon, and finished it off.
The Verdict: While some may piss n’ moan that “Mexican Street Food” should be served on the streets of Mexico using less esoteric ingredients than Berkshire Pigs, Hudson Valley Ducks, and Black Truffles I’ll simply beg to differ and continue my belief that any cuisine can benefit from top quality ingredients in the hands of a skilled and passionate kitchen. Sure some may question the authenticity of Garces’ restaurants or the choice location in a fancy hotel but to those of us who value things like impeccable service, comfortable environs, and the ‘experience’ of fine dining at a veritable bargain basement price I whole heartedly recommend giving Distrito a look – along with Bayless’ Michelin starred Topolobampo it is the best Mexican food I’ve had to date.