If Portland is where young people go to retire, then Sedona, AZ is where people who have outgrown Portland go to retire. I have never been surrounded by so many free-spirited people of a certain age who are still playing in bands and creating art with such passion and energy. I had no expectations of Sedona other than as a stopover for the Grand Canyon, but I was pleasantly surprised by how quirky and unique the city and its denizens were. Maybe there’s some truth to the legend that Sedona’s energy vortexes can cast a magical spell on those who step into the city—I’ve never encountered a group of people with a happier outlook on life. The beautiful indigenous red rock canyons that make up the city landscape are visually intoxicating on their own. It may sound like hocus pocus, but I know for a fact that I was completely bewitched by this charming city.
But what about the food? Can free-spirited bohemians attract good chefs to their part of town? Unfortunately, I was disappointed to learn that this city was known more for its spirituality and less for its cuisine. The one bright spot on this otherwise unremarkable culinary scene is Elote Cafe, a popular restaurant renowned for its Mexican cuisine. This restaurant is in such demand that customers from near and far are willing to endure 2 hour waits to try the legendary food. I’m a little leery of unpredictable wait times, but I’m only in Sedona once, and there must be a reason why people put themselves through this torturous quest for a table, so I decided to put my name down for a Friday night seating.
The restaurant is strangely adjacent to a cheap looking hotel. After putting down your name (“about an hour and 15 minute wait!” chirped the hostess), you can line up to buy some drinks and eat popcorn at a separate counter to wait it out. Margaritas seemed to be the drink of choice here, so we ordered the Tradicional, a light and refreshing blend of tequila, triple sec and fresh sour. The margarita was quite lethal, in that the drink initially seemed harmless, but halfway in the alcohol hits you like a ton of bricks. Good thing I had the popcorn to counteract some of these effects, otherwise I might have passed out before dinner.
The wait ended up being 1.5 hours, which wasn’t too far off from the hostess’ ETA. For some reason, it felt longer, because everyone was trapped together in a small lounge, tensely waiting for their name to be called while hugging their margaritas. I was so weak from fatigue and annoyance when my name was finally called, but as soon as we were seated, my second wind kicked in and I wasted no time putting in our order. The house special elote was a must, as was an order of the seafood tacos, along with the highly recommended smoked pork cheeks. “Bring them as soon as they’re ready,” we commanded the waitress while grabbing a few tortilla chips from the basket to stave off a hunger rebellion.
The food came out surprisingly fast. The elote, which came out first, can best be described as a Mexican rendition of creamed corn. Only the corn used in an elote is bigger and more flavorful than a typical kernel. The fire roasted kernels have a firmness that provides the rich and thick cream sauce with some extremely satisfying texture. Elote’s namesake appetizer is fresher and homier than any cream corn you’d find at a steak house or in a can. I nearly ruined my meal sneaking in spoonfuls of this addictive substance while waiting for the other items to arrive.
The seafood tacos didn’t have the same mesmerizing effect. I was expecting something a little less heavy-handed in the preparation of the seafood. A little bit of salt and lime juice, maybe, but not much else. Fresh seafood is so extraordinary in its original form, and I think that these natural flavors should be emphasized as opposed to being masked in very heavy, smoky sauces, which is what happened with Elote’s tacos. Objectively speaking, the tacos were well prepared, but I would have preferred a little more simplicity in presentation.
Pork meat, on the other hand, is a hearty and robust protein that shines when paired with in-your-face spices and smoked flavors, which is why the smoked pork cheeks were so successful. I was impressed by how tender the cheeks were, a cross between fall-off-the bone braised meat with a little more firmness akin to traditional loin. Who knew the sides of a pork’s mouth could yield such tender and flavorful cuts of meat? The pork cheeks were arranged on top of a corn cake, served with a chile-based sauce. The mealy corn cake prevented the dish from being too heavy and salty, and it also absorbed the smoky flavors of the sauce extremely well.
At the end of my meal, where I was under the spell of a satisfying food coma, I didn’t regret my decision to wait for a table at all. I’m convinced that Sedona not only has spiritual powers but gastric ones as well, channeled by the nourishing, soulful cuisine at Elote Cafe.
771 State Route 179
Sedona, AZ 86336
**If you do decide to make it out to Sedona, please consider checking into the Lantern Light Inn (http://www.lanternlightinn.com/). This bed and breakfast is run by Ed and Kris, an extremely hospitable couple who are so kind and welcoming. The rooms here are extremely reasonable at $119 per night for a two-person room.