Published in Dreamscapes magazine
When Arizona chefs talk about local food, it’s no fad. The relentless expanse of the Sonoran Desert has yielded edible treasures for centuries, while the sunshine and dry heat that attract Canadians like a magnet in winter produce tractor-trailer loads of fruit and vegetables straight from the farm.
Desert ingredients hold special meaning at the native-owned Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa in Chandler, southeast of the Phoenix airport, where wild horses roam near the golf course and guests sip citrus-infused bourbon cocktails sweetened with mesquite bean syrup.
Michael O’Dowd, the resort’s French-trained chef, discusses menu ideas with Pima elders for Kai, Arizona’s only AAA Five Diamond restaurant. Flour from ground mesquite beans is mixed into round flatbreads, and the artichoke-like buds from the cholla cactus accent grilled tenderloin of tribal buffalo accompanied by smoked corn purée, merguez sausage, scarlet runner bean chili and saguaro blossom syrup.
Fresh From the Fields
Many local restaurants serve olives and extra virgin olive oil from Queen Creek Olive Mill, 30 kilometres from Chandler along the web of freeways linking the cities of the Greater Phoenix area. Owner Perry Rea owned an automotive parts business in London, Ontario, before being seduced by the Valley of the Sun. His mad scheme to plant a commercial olive grove and press the fruit the same way it’s done in Spain and Italy has come to fruition. Along with Arizona’s only EVO, Queen Creek produces an array of oils, the newest being bacon-flavoured. The mill, well-stocked boutique and deli have made Rea’s dream a popular tourist destination. Don’t miss the giant cupcakes made with chocolate or Meyer lemon-infused olive oil.
Even farm families with deep roots in Arizona, celebrating its 100th birthday this year, have embraced agritourism. When new home owners in east Mesa discovered 1,000 Holstein cows next door, they weren’t impressed. So third-generation dairy farmers Casey and Alison Stechnij threw open their barn doors to the public. Today you can take a wagon tour around Superstition Farm, feed baby animals and indulge in freshly-churned Udder Delights ice cream and more than a dozen flavours of milk at Mooster’s Moo-tique. It’s the perfect outing for visitors with kids or grandkids.
Saving the farm was also on the minds of Allen Freeman’s family in the late 1980s, when citrus prices were low and the city of Mesa built Highway 202 straight through their groves. Freeman’s mom came up with the idea of selling the family’s fruit directly to the public. A stop at The Orange Patch for sweet oranges, lemons, grapefruit and corn is a must for fans heading to Hohokam Stadium to see the Chicago Cubs play during spring training. You can taste every fruit in the store before buying, and pick up fresh-squeezed orange juice for breakfast.
In spring, the smell of peach blossoms fills the air at Schnepf Farms, the state’s largest organic peach grower. Buy a slice of fresh peach or peach blueberry pie from the country store and pick your own vegetables in the fields. Several times a year owners Mark and Carrie Schnepf invite guest chefs to cook a locally-inspired dinner right in the orchard.
Joe Johnston, the oldest of three boys in yet another forward-thinking farm family, transformed the Johnston homestead in Gilbert into Joe’s Farm Grill. This casual roadhouse is one of my favourite lunch spots ever. Joe makes ordinary burgers, fries, chicken pizza, salads, ribs and milkshakes extraordinary by choosing quality ingredients and making everything in-house, from barbecue sauce to pickles. Fresh greens and heirloom tomatoes are harvested in the Agritopia garden behind the restaurant. The Johnstons even grow Medjool dates.
Enjoy lunch at one of Joe’s outdoor picnic tables, shaded in the back by Arizona’s tallest silk oak tree. The rangy trees out front are pecan. In season, feel free to grab a low-hanging orange or grapefruit from one of the waxy green citrus trees.
After lunch, check out the Coffee Shop, where Food Network-winning cupcakes await. Still full from lunch, we bought a few to cut in half and eat on the bus. Big mistake. The salted caramel macadamia nut cupcakes proved so scrumptious, we craved another bite for days afterward.
For even more casual local fare, head downtown from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. for Food Truck Friday, organized by the Phoenix Street Food Coalition. Line up with resident Phoenicians and choose lunch from a dozen mobile trucks. There’s jambalaya, ribs, grilled cheese, a crème brûlée truck called Torched Goodness and another called Short Leash Hot Dogs, recently voted best food truck of 2012. Our favourite, named after a real dog called Igby, came wrapped in soft naan bread, garnished with coleslaw, blue cheese and barbecue sauce.
When the freeways threaten to overwhelm, escape to Quiessence, a rural refuge nestled within the Farm at South Mountain, eight minutes from downtown Phoenix. Every morning, the restaurant’s chefs create the day’s menu from the best food available from Arizona farmers and artisans. Start your evening with a spread of house-made salumi and cured meats with farmstead cheese, paired with Dayden (Apache for little girl) dry rosé from Arizona Stronghold, one of many state-produced bottles on the superb wine list.
Our quest for local food ended in a rather unlikely place, the Desert Botanical Garden. We strolled along the garden paths, past 15-metre tall saguaro cacti straight out of a John Wayne movie. There were deceptively fuzzy teddy bear cacti from the cholla family, spiky mesquite trees and flat cactus paddles that produce prickly pears in July, prized for their refreshing fuchsia-coloured flesh.
We left the gift shop with a bag of souvenirs—mesquite flour for baking, agave sticks to sweeten tea, prickly pear jam and a bag of the sweet, earthy tepary beans, which Hilton Phoenix East/Mesa executive chefRenae Hannum serves with Arctic char. These simple foods, which have sustained the people of the desert for generations, are inspiring a new breed of chefs and delighting a new generation of diners seeking a connection to the land.
For more information, visit or call:
Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau: visitphoenix.com
Mesa Convention & Visitors Bureau: visitmesa.com