Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Elote Cafe

Sedona's streets bleed tourism as much as its rock formations bleed red. Just from looking around the town's kitschy souvenir shops, I expected equally kitschy restaurants. You know, the ones with sombreros hanging on the walls and skeletons wearing headdresses and holding beer mugs. And that's not far from what I saw. The nice thing about a town that capitalizes on kitsch, however, is that the restaurants worth going to separate themselves from the pack as clearly as oil and water do.

Elote Cafe is not nearly as corny as its name suggests. Sharing a building with the Kings Ransom Sedona Hotel, Elote Cafe serves up inspiring, rich, and comforting Mexican fare in an equally comforting setting.

With wait times as long as three hours, plan to get there nice and early to put your name down. The good news is that the front of the house is equipped with a small bar featuring tequilas, local beers, and tasty margaritas. To top it all off, you can munch on unlimited bowls of their Popcorn generously seasoned with chipotle powder, ancho chile, salt, cumin, pepper, garlic powder, and a tap of sugar. Savory, barely sweet, and definitely satisfying, the popcorn disappeared as fast as it took for my friends and I to ask for more.

From left to right, and from least favorite to favorite, The Ginger, the Guava Pineapple Margarita, and the daily special Prickly Pear Margarita. They were all delicious in their own rights, but the prickly pear stood out because it was so vibrant and refreshing. The guava pineapple was predictably sweet and the ginger was a bit too literal. I love ginger-based cocktails, but this one just didn't do it for me as much as the prickly pear.

The last thing I was expecting to see in Sedona was local brews. Okay, obviously Deschutes is not an Arizonian local brew, but the other three we had were.

The Grand Canyon Brewing Company Sunset Apricot Ale was unimpressive and a bit too sweet. The Oak Creek Brewing Company Pale Ale and Hefeweizen, however, were both delicious. Both were relatively light, but both were full of flavor and body. Way to go, northern Arizona.

After a reasonable amount of booze and two relatively painless hours of waiting, we made our way into the main dining room. The whole room is smartly decorated and beautifully colored, all with a sense of casual dining with attentive service. Since we had plenty of time to make decisions while we were waiting, we cross-referenced our list with the waiter's suggestions and placed our order minutes after we sat down. We might have ordered a few more drinks as well.

Like any smart Mexican restaurant that serves people who might have been waiting to eat for hours on end, Elote Cafe starts off the meal right with a refillable basket of warm tortilla chips and a tasty bowl of housemade salsa. The salsa was fresh and a little bit smokey while the chips were perfectly crisp.

Our appetizers came out all together with guns a' blazing. First up, Flautas de Pato. I love flautas, and I loved the idea of putting duck in them. The duck was seasoned with adobo (another plus) and the flautas came topped with some veggies and cotija cheese. Underneath the flautas were green chile and crema, which worked really well together, in the same way jalapeños and cream cheese go really well together. The crispy shell cracked open to reveal slightly sweet and intensely savory duck meat. The green chile added a mild amount of heat that was easily tempered by the crema. The greens on top seemed a little bit unnecessary, but in a way, they were nice to eat after the heavy flauta. The scattered pico de gallo was a better way to brighten up the dish.

Next up was their signature dish: Elote. I love elotes, but there was something special about this bowl of corn. I could taste the char from the fire-roasting process, but the taste was never overwhelming. The spicy mayo, lime, and cotija all blended really well with the roasted corn to create a whirlwind mixture of spice, acidity, sweetness, creaminess, and overall satisfaction. The dust on top also contributed in making this bowl unbelievably addictive. I'm pretty positive it was the same seasoning that they put on the popcorn (chipotle powder, ancho chile, salt, cumin, pepper, garlic powder, and a tap of sugar).

I figured the elote woud be a hard act to follow, so just to be safe, I reserved a spoonful of the elote to eat after trying the last appetizer: Seafood Tacos. This was probably my least favorite appetizer, but it was still pretty darn tasty. Each taco came topped with acho glazed snapper, scallops, rock shrimp, spicy cabbage, lime aioli, and avocado. My favorite part of these tacos was the lime aioli. It's one of those things that just makes sense. Unfortunately, like most seafood medleys, the individual flavors of the scallop, fish, and shrimp got lost in the combination. Thank you, reserved spoonful of elote.

Because we didn't order the Tacos de Mole that I was eyeing, I asked for a small cup of their mole. It was very earthy, sweet, spicy, and rich. I could see this going really well with chicken, which, is exactly what they do. I wish the mole were thicker though.

After some really solid sides, we delved into our first main: Smoked Chicken Enchiladas. These were awesome. The chicken had just the right amount of smoke to it to not make it too overwhelming. The chicken was tender and juicy, and each bite of the enchiladas came smothered in a pulpy salsa verde and a relaxed chipotle crema. The mix of peppers added a ton of flavor to the chicken. Like some of the other dishes, I found the garnish on top unnecessary, though I think the pickled onions did go particularly well with this plate. I still wonder what some pickled radishes and pickled jalapeños would do to elevate this dish. Yum.

Our last main of the night was, by Yelp's and the waiter's suggestion, the Lamb Adobo. In a word, this dish was sweet. Too sweet. Overwhelmingly sweet. The kind of sweet you get when you get teriyaki chicken doused in teriyaki sauce, and then some. While the lamb was perfectly cooked and fell off the bone, the adobo made the meat tough to handle. With only a baby blanket of pickled onions, there was nothing else to balance out the heaviness of this dish. Because I know this is supposed to be one of their most famous dishes, I'm going to assume that this was just the one excessively sweet needle in a very large haystack of deliciousness.

Each main came with a side of Rice and Beans. The corn-laced rice was a nice touch, and black beans topped with cotija is never a bad idea.

A little random, but our meal also came with some Fresh Tortillas. Don't mind if I do. Light and fluffy, the fresh heat that emanated from these tortillas was intoxicating.

By the time we left, the place was nearly empty, signaling the end of another busy night.

Just as Elote Cafe is exceptional and distinguishable from a slew of uninteresting restaurants, I would imagine there are shops that have just as exceptional and distinguishable Mexican and Native American art. But souvenirs and food aside, Sedona is worth a visit. It's a popular destination for a reason, and you really can't beat some of its scenic landscapes, and at the very least, Elote Cafe's elote.

Elote Cafe
771 State Route 179
Sedona, AZ 86336
(928) 203-0105

GET: Free Popcorn; Prickly Pear Margarita; Elote; Flautas de Pato; Smoked Chicken Enchiladas.


  1. Oh so corny... But seriously, that looks insanely good. I'll bet it's not that hard to make either.

  2. I'm definitely going to try my hand at the elote at some point soon.


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