Bobby Flay-slayer, Iron Chef Jose Garces oversees an empire of 15 restaurants scattered from Philadelphia to Atlantic City to Chicago to Scottsdale and Palm Springs. Pretty impressive for a guy who just turned 40.
Garces was in Scottsdale last week to introduce a new menu at just-over-a-year-old Distrito, the ultra hip Mexico City-style Mexican restaurant at The Saguaro hotel in Old Town Scottsdale.
I reviewed Distrito for PHOENIX Magazine last May, so when I heard he was switching up the menu, I wanted to find out more.
Looking at the pre and post versions, this is no small menu tweet. Half — or more — of the menu is different.
And it sounds mouthwatering. I’m tickled pink the guacamole is staying put (Distrito’s version is the best in town — one of the reasons is there are no tomatoes to water down the flavor of the avocados. The roasted jalapeño helps, too.)
So why the big menu change? Garces said he wanted do something that would differentiate Distrito even more. The Phoenix metro area is rife with hundreds of Mexican restaurants, from tiny taco dives to lavish, upscale, Mexican haciendas.
Garces is hoping to stand out from the pack with the new menu, which has “a lot more finesse, a lot more sophistication.”
The dishes are what folks in the business call “composed,” featuring multiple elements on the plate.
For example, Garces added pulpo al carbón under the small plates section. The octopus is simmered for 45 minutes in pickling spices, garlic and lemon. Before it’s plated, the octopus hits the grill to pick up smoke and char. Then it’s tossed in a garlic and herb marinade and it’s paired with confit potatoes (cooked in fat), a caper béarnaise sauce and a jalapeño plate “paint.” That’s a whole lot of something for a dish that’s priced at $12.
“We’re plating like we plate on Iron Chef,” he says. “There’s several elements that go on to the plate. I wanted to bring a little bit of that pizazz to the menu.”
How long did it take to replace more than half the menu?
“I’m lucky I have a great team in Philadelphia,” he says, “We’re calling it [the test kitchen] Garces Culinary Think Tank.”
Garces’s development department is composed of three to four chefs that focus on new dishes and products. Once they decided that a Distrito menu revamp was a go (Garces has four Distrito restaurants in total), they cranked out the new menu in a month of solid work, testing and retesting and writing recipes before traveling to train the local Distrito chefs on how to execute the new dishes.
Distrito has always featured small plates, but Garces has added a bar snack section, antojitos, with some tempting items: Pardiñolas (fried cocktail crab claws, $12); rellenitos (small Anaheim chiles stuffed with ricotta and served with smoked tomato sofrito, $7); chicharrón (fried pork skins, $7); grilled asadero cheese ($7) and habanero-tequila pickled vegetables ($6).
I’m excited about the lengua (tongue) taco ($4), too, served with a guajillo chile glaze and sala verde, not to mention the trendy octopus dish. What am I waiting for? I’ll see you later, maybe at Distrito.
4000 North Drinkwater Blvd., Scottsdale