Awed by Arizona’s Indigenous Ingredients

Kai 01My favorite dish of 2014 (so far…)

I am always delighted when I am taken by surprise on a culinary excursion. I am relatively spoiled to live in Los Angeles, a city where fine food options crop up practically weekly and represent a plethora of my favorite cuisines from Japanese to Italian to French all within thirty miles of my home. But there is a price to pay for living in a foodie metropolis that is written frequently about in the annals of serious bibles such as Zagat – you tend to find the trendy bandwagon full of similar experimentation across restaurants with chefs all simultaneously expounding poetically on the latest hot ingredient such as charred Brussels sprouts, chunks of linear pork belly, squid ink pastas and cold uni amuses. Not that I am complaining, all of these things are delicious. It’s just nice to be jostled out of the usual tempo and thrown into something unexpected and unusual.

Which is what occurred for me on a recent trip to Arizona. Of all the places in the world, little did I think I would discover my favorite dish of the year, strange surprises, as well as a cornucopia of new Native American tastes in a state that boasts dry bush, desert land, a petrified forest, the saguaro cactus, and one of our seven natural world wonders over any real foodie notoriety. We traversed the southwest for a week and boy, did we eat well. Surely we were a tad bit more gluttonous than normal knowing that at the end of the trip, we would be scaling the Grand Canyon on the hike of our lives—a once in a lifetime opportunity to burn about 5,000 calories in one four hour period. This made for happy tasting and an adventurous spirit that comes when one is on the road.

IMG_1709Pine butter

The best part of the journey was discovering the ingredients of the indigenous peoples and seeing them respectfully incorporated into our meal experiences from the low brow to the high brow and everywhere in between.

Some highlights:

The bizarre Sonoran hot dog in Tucson—a unique frank stuffed into a pita-type bun and filled with normal tomato and mustard condiments but then also loaded with Mexican adornments like chopped onion, black beans and crema. Sounds disgusting yet both the Cute Gardener and I admit to latent cravings that still linger.

We enjoyed an exquisite butter studded with verdant pine flecks from the renowned forests surrounding Flagstaff in the surprising environs of a French bistro’s bread course.

IMG_1811 Pork Belly

Also in Flagstaff was dinner at Tinderbox, which paired odd foods together in ways that, once tried, seemed completely natural like caramelized pork belly (hands down the best version of this dish I have tried yet) on blue cheese grits and pork tenderloin spiced with Asian elements and then laid atop a bed of whipped sweet potatoes.

We spent an evening in five-star glory at a restaurant in Chandler called Kai where I found my FAVORITE dish of the year in a seared Hudson Valley foie gras with Sonoran spiced funnel cake and the most decadent, thick whipped banana cream I have ever had which will surely haunt my dreams for years to come. We also took advantage of being outside the California border by eating two more foie gras dishes on our trek since it is no longer legal in our home state. The Kai bread plate alone touted several local ingredients that caused the traditional base course to become elevated and special. This included a doughy, plains flatbread and a grainy muffin studded with nuts and pipian seeds. Other first-time-ever-tasted additions over the course of the evening were tepary beans, spiced pepitas and cholla buds.

The experience reminded me that it’s nice to step outside your comfort, cultural zone every once in a while, leaping with a palate’s blind faith into the realms of something entirely perhaps new to you, but regionally historic—and for good reason.

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