Thanks to TripAdvisor and Chowhound folks, we knew to be at Café Elote early (reservations only available for parties of five or more): we parked twenty minutes before the 5 p.m. opening and there was already a decent line in the hot sun. Chef Jeff Smedstad (pretty recognizable from the website photos) walked past as my wife and I were heading up to the line and offered a genuine friendly greeting – gotta love a chef who’s happy and gracious on his way in to deal with Saturday crowds.
It was good that we’d arrived early. The hostess took pity on the folks waiting in the hot sun and let us in and started seating about ten minutes before the actual opening time. (When has THAT ever happened before?) During our short inside wait to be seated, the line grew and grew and the hostess and manager started telling people that it would be a forty-five-minute wait before they could be seated. This was at five o’clock. There were people stacked to the rafters by the time we left an hour and a half later.
Since it was a hot day, we opted to sit inside for what was my celebratory birthday supper. This might have been a mistake – while it was hot (mid 90s) outside, the misters were really cooling things down. We were about dozen people back in the line, and we wound up seated right next to the window. While the blinds cut the sun, enough light got in to make it uncomfortably hot – probably 85° F. There was air conditioning inside, but it didn’t really reach to the window; a small dual-headed rotating fan hanging from the ceiling in the center of the restaurant moved cool air our way every once in a while, but to be honest, the breeze from the door to the patio provided most of our cooling.
Which wasn’t really a bad thing. Café Elote, while simply decorated (Middle America and Mexico Lindo orbiting around a corn theme: old seed company signs and cobs of indian corn standing up in empty handblown tequila bottles) with comfortable modern furnishings, is located in sort of a vaguely seedy-feeling motel (the Kings Ransom Hotel, right next to the Kings Ransom Inn, 771 HWY 179 Sedona AZ 86339 (928) 203-0105). The night that we were there, the air conditioning (which could be felt best over by the entrance) carried with it a distinct smell of sewage. (I should note that I have a pretty sensitive nose.) Our table by the front window remained away from the cooling influence of the AC, but also was almost entirely away from the smell (I got a couple of whiffs through dinner, but nothing I couldn’t handle).
Thank Heavens everything about the food and staff could not have been better. The bussers, waitstaff, hostess, manager and chef (just for a quick minute here and there) bustled around the room in constant motion. No one was intrusive, but if we needed something, it was THERE, right away. And they were uniformly friendly, helpful and enthusiastic – something impressive to see during a busy weekend crush.
They brought water immediately and without it being requested (gotta love that, somewhat unusual in the desert SW), along with crunchy house-made chips and a very interesting salsa. (The subtle spices in the salsa really made it memorable – and the chiles had both good warmth, nice pepper flavor, and an appreciable roasted taste.) I started with a flight of Chinaco tequilas (their silver, resposado and añejo) – generous shots of each backed up with a nice sangrita chaser (a value at $10) and the cuitlacoche-corn soup ($8.5). My wife had a glass of Oregon’s A to Z Riesling ($7) and the special Elote salad ($7.5, or something like that). I grew up in Indiana and detassled sweet corn as a teen – I also hated mushrooms as a kid. If you’d have told me that I’d grow to love eating fungus, let alone what we used to call “corn smut,” I’d have looked at you like you had grown an extra head. Nevertheless, I’ve really come to love the stuff. And Chef Smedstad’s cuitlacoche-corn soup was the best I’ve ever had. Better than any I’ve had in Mexico, even. The man is a genius. The corn was fresh, fresh, FRESH (this from a Hoosier who used to RUN sweet corn over to the boiling water to beat the sugars from turning to starch once the ears were picked), crunchy and sweet, the subtle fungus was sublime, and underlying it all was the perfect spice of chewy soft poblano chiles. Ah! And atop it all was a wonderful drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, with the fresh-tasting mouthburn a good oil brings. I’ve never had better – just wonderful. Oh, and my wife liked her salad – I sort of impatiently waved away her offers to let me try it (though I was good enough to make sure she tried the soup) in order to happily obsess over my own plate.
For mains, my wife had the halibut en mole verde ($20), which made her very happy. So happy that she forgot to offer me a taste. I’m not a big seafood eater, but I probably would have taken a taste – except that I was so happy with my entrée that I forgot to ask for one (I made sure she had a bit of mine). I got the special carnitas ($17.5). Now, the corn country where I grew up was also pork country, so I rarely have a piece of pork that really impresses me. This plate certainly did. The pork was lightly brined and then smoked. It was then slowly cooked: the result was that the fat melted through the meat, leaving the individual strands of pork chewy and exploding with flavor. A lightly spiced chile de arboll/tomato sauce, pico de gallo, pieces of avocado and – of course – corn accompanied the carnitas. Both entrées were so large that they were completely filling – and we’re not light eaters. The entrées were served with a very flavorful (if disappointingly soft) rice and a wonderful black bean refrito – both of which contained happy crunching kernels of sweet corn.
To finish things off, I had a pastel de elote ($8)– as others have noted, it was big enough for four to share for dessert. A lovely sweet corn cake with fresh kernels inside, topped with whipped cream, house-made vanilla bean ice cream, raspberries and toasted sweet corn kernels (these just sort of annoyingly deflated in my molars – they might have been more interesting with sort of a jalapeño-lime praline coating to give them a bit of a crunch), it was a delicious and fun little birthday cake for me. (No espresso was available, so I had no coffee.) We struggled gamely and wound up eating less than half of it – we were just stuffed to the gills.
One noteworthy thing is that every dish we had was gentle on the salt. Not your usual Mexican restaurant situation – but the chef’s delicate touch allowed all of his other spices to appear more vibrantly. It really was perfect – again, the man is a genius. Another is that corn silk appeared in several of the dishes – just wanted to give you a heads-up: don’t gross yourself out mistaking it for hair (I can imagine that happening).
Before our visit I was tickled to read a Chowhound review calling Elote “one of the least overrated restaurants in Northern Arizona.” While I still appreciate that as a wonderfully amusing turn of phrase, it really doesn’t do justice to the superb dining that we experienced there. The building in which the restaurant is housed could be so much better than it is. The restaurant itself is simple but pleasing to the eye. The staff were amazing. And the food that we had was absolutely top-notch: we would have happily paid double what we did. I can see going back to Sedona just to visit Café Elote.
771 State Route 179, Sedona, AZ 86336