Chef Jeff Smedstad is one cool cat. The bandana tied around his head keeps his curly, salt-and-pepper locks out of his eyes. Dressed in chef whites, he’s rocking out at his temple to corn, the Elote Cafe in Sedona, Arizona.
Smedstad has a tight-knit band of brethren (others might call them employees) who understand and execute his vision. As a result, Smedstad’s four year-old, casual Elote Cafe is one of the best Mexican restaurants in the state — possibly in the whole U.S. People are starting to notice.
Tourists are mesmerized by Elote. Locals are charmed. Mention dining in Sedona, and Elote bubbles to the top.
Smedstad, tall, handsome, and rather Zen-like, isn’t fazed by awards or accolades or whatever. He’s just doing his thing. His “thing” drives people in droves to the second floor of the King’s Ransom Hotel, only to cool their heels because a drove of others arrived before them.
Elote Cafe — without apology — doesn’t take reservations, and when the doors open at 5:00 p.m., there is only so much a 70-or-so seat restaurant can do. Waits ensue. People don’t seem to mind too much, though, because Smedstad doesn’t take those waiting to feast on the king’s corn for granted.
The bar, just left of the hostess stand, is ready and waiting with a bowl of spiced popcorn and a margarita or a local beer (or Mexican beer), or a glass of Arizona wine.
If you like ginger, try the ginger margarita. It’s biting — in a good way — with reposado tequila, fresh ginger-lime juice, and a rim of salt mixed with ground ginger.
Like that spice on the popcorn? You can pick up a jar from the wooden case next to the hostess stand. Smedstad is laid back, but he’s also savvy. He’s successfully packaged Elote in to-go mementos, such as the spice mix and his Elote Cafe Cookbook, now in its third printing. He’s even working on a second cookbook, which he says will be more personal, but still grounded in the cuisine he’s loved and cooked for more than 20 years.
Elote, the Mexican word for cob, generally refers to a hand-held street snack of grilled corn on the cob, slathered in mayo, rolled in tangy cotija and sprinkled with ground chile.
Smedstad’s twist is deconstruction. He cuts the corn from the cob, mixes it with mayo and a splash of cream and hot sauce, and cooks it in a seasoned skillet until it’s thick and creamy. The kitchen makes gallons of it every night. It looks rich but it’s not heavy, unless you eat the whole bowl yourself. Easy to do.
Although he doesn’t shout it from the rooftop (or even splatter it all over the menu), Smedstad embraces seasonality, sourcing local products like heirloom tomatoes and sunflower sprouts from a farmer down the road in Cottonwood.
Oaxacan cheese, layered between juicy tomato slices in his tomato salad, is pulled daily in the kitchen.
Forgive my blurry pictures. I couldn’t adjust the camera in time to capture the fast pull-and-stretch and ultimate gathering-in-a-ball of this mozzarella-like cheese.
Back at the table, my hand is much steadier. But not for long, as I tear into smoked pork cheeks sitting on top of a corn pancake, surrounded by a fresh tomato sauce tinged with Mexican oregano, the whole thing drizzled with a lime aioli.
Succulent doesn’t even begin to describe the fork-tender meat. It practically melts in my mouth.
Smedstad sends out a butternut squash soup with an aged sherry reduction, salsa verde and toasted pepitas. The flavors silently scream, or was that me?
If the elote dish is the signature appetizer, the lamb adobo is the signature entree.
The magic starts with a slow smoke outside the restaurant in an old commercial banquet cart that Smedstad rigged as a smoker. After the smoke, the lamb shanks are simmered in a sauce of chiles, garlic, a touch of brown sugar, cinnamon and clove until the sauce is as thick as molasses. If you can only order one dish, this is the one.
Of course you must save room for dessert, and Elote’s chocolate tamal and pumpkin flan are exquisite. We took advantage of a special dessert, blackberry ice cream made with blackberries foraged nearby.
Sedona is Arizona’s second most popular tourist attraction, after the Grand Canyon. And while there are several noteworthy restaurants in Sedona, there is only one Elote Cafe … well on its way to becoming the third most popular attraction, and well worth the wait.