Ocotillo Restaurant: Arizona Dining Done Right

The Place: Ocotillo Restaurant
The Location: 3243 N. 3rd Street, Phoenix
The Dishes: Mesquite Grilled Ocotillo Chicken, Summer Squash Varieties, Salt Koji Country Ribs
By: Anthony Wallace

With its family friendly, mimosa-filled weekend brunch, upscale weekday business lunch, and nightly dinner featuring unique pasta shapes and a constantly evolving wine list – Ocotillo Restaurant is finely calibrated to serve the needs and trends of its uptown Phoenix clientele.

The ‘compound-style’ restaurant was the brainchild of a trio of talented men: chef Walter Sterling, sommelier David Johnson, and architect John Lablam. The unique perspective and expertise of each of them shines through every aspect of the establishment. Named for the plant unique to our Sonoran desert, Ocotillo is distinctly Arizonan. Its creators conceived of a multi-faceted facility that would satisfy desert dwelling Phoenicians day and night and they brought that vision to life.

Compound-style establishments have thrived in Phoenix due to the larger plots of land our sprawling city offers. Upon entering Ocotillo’s expansive premises, visitors encounter the beautifully manicured beer garden featuring desert flora and ‘Lucy’s Lawn’ where kids can be found frollicing during weekend brunch. Tables are covered with a ramada that features heavy duty fans and misters that miraculously make the place tolerable in the summer. The beer garden (which doubles as a fantastic event venue) features a stage for live music and boasts its own dedicated outdoor bar.

The menu is constantly evolving and eclectic, only about a third of it is permanent and the rest changes with the seasons. There is an emphasis on local and seasonal ingredients, but nothing is off the table. The most Arizonan of their dishes is their famous Mesquite Grilled Ocotillo Chicken ($17). It features pecans, dates, citrus, chili, and local honey – all indigenous ingredients.

From the small plate menu I was happily coerced into trying the Summer Squash Varieties ($9.50), a delicious seasonal dish that consists of perfectly cooked slivers of squash and crispy polenta on a bed of greens, savory ‘smoked tomato jam,’ and a cool, refreshing buttermilk tarragon dressing. The polenta was irresistibly rich and the tomato jam and buttermilk tarragon dressing were fantastic. I will be returning for more.

My love of watermelon attracted me to another seasonal dish: The Salt Koji Country Ribs ($13.50). The ribs’ seasoning is Korean inspired and they are topped with a fascinating watermelon salad that includes fresh watermelon, pickled watermelon rinds, watermelon syrup, and Thai basil. The pickled watermelon rinds were surprisingly tasty, easily my favorite part of the dish.

The restaurant’s most prized and distinguishing piece of culinary equipment is perhaps their pasta extruder. It uses brass dies shipped from Italy, which produce an array of pastas of unique shapes, such as Spaghettoni, Orecchiette, and Pappardelle – each with distinctive ridges that catch more sauce than standard smooth noodles. Pasta dishes are available for lunch and dinner and include such eye catching ingredients as dandelion pesto, taleggio cheese fonduta, and red wine truffle sauce.

From Monday through Thursday the kitchen at Ocotillo is open from 11 AM – 9:15 PM and on Friday and Saturday until 10. Brunch on Saturday is from 10 AM – 3:45 PM and the kitchen is closed by 3:00 on Sunday. The bar typically remains open later however (partites in the beer garden can stretch deep into the night).

Ocotillo is truly Arizonan – sprawling, diverse, and well thought-out. It serves the whole range of its uptown Phoenix clientele with an expertise and specificity that has made them impressively successful. The environment is spacious, comfortable, and classy and the food is interesting, evolving, and tasty. What’s not to like?

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