Sweet Sonoran-Style Dreams
Story and photos by Kenneth LaFave
El Encanto Dos focuses on flavor, not heat
I dreamed the other night of a rambling hacienda, where
dozens and dozens of people gathered in celebration. At hardwood tables under
high ceilings, celebrants feasted on traditional Sonoran-style Mexican dishes.
Then my dream turned to nightmare: There was no place for me. Table after table
in sprawling room after room, and not a single chair to sit in.
Then I realized this was no sleeping vision, but wide-awake
reality. The hacienda was El Encanto Dos, and the cause for celebration was a
typical Saturday night in the far north Valley. Cave Creek dwellers, it seems,
know how to party.
My companion and I settled for seating at a booth in the bar
area, where a couple of sports-TV screens interfered only mildly with the
otherwise continued feeling that we had been transported to Santa Fe. Unlike
the situation at some bar seatings, we were well taken care of by our attentive
waitress. Our intent was to go as mainstream as one might go, starting with a
rich guacamole (not tableside, but hand-smashed and dense with ripe avocado;
$7.99) and a pair of margaritas: one regular, one prickly pear. The prickly
pear variety was quite sweet, but the tang of the cactus fruit came through.
In addition to the guacamole, we dipped our chips in three
salsas, two red and one green. The hottest was only jalapeño-hot, and the
others were quite mild. Chili pepper freaks might object, but I don’t. In my
view, the secret to great Mexican food is that flavor, not heat, is goal. Heat
is wonderful when it leads to or enhances flavor, but when the current chic for
hotter and hotter leads to something like the mouth-destroying ghost pepper,
the goal has been lost. The more acceptable heat of jalapeño, Anaheim and
poblano chilis dominates the El Encanto Dos menu, and the meal I enjoyed on
that crowded Saturday night was long on flavor and rich textures, not
heat-for-its-own-sake. (There was one exception – more on this below.)
(To answer the obvious question: Yes, there is an El Encanto
Uno, though it is called simply El Encanto, located in the heart of Cave Creek,
while Numero Dos is out toward I-17.)
For an entree, my companion took our waitress’ suggestion
for the restaurant’s most popular dish: pollo fundido ($12.99). Seasoned
chicken wrapped in a flour tortilla and deep-fried, topped with the melted
jalapeño-cream cheese mixture that makes it “fundido” – the literal Spanish
means “molten.” El Encanto’s menu refers to this as “fundido sauce,” and you
can order more of it on the side, which I recommend. The pollo fundido here is
such a famous signature dish that some patrons have been known never to eat
anything else, which means they miss a lot.
The chile relleno is my idea of a quintessential Mexican
dish that admits of many variations. (The bar favorite, jalapeño poppers, are
essentially a take on the relleno.) At its root, it is a chili pepper (usually
a poblano) stuffed with asadero cheese, coated in an egg batter and deep-fried.
But some versions add other fillings, and El Encanto Dos offers three
varieties: regular ($12.99), con carne (with green-chile meat, $14.99), and the
wildly overindulgent Carne Asada Relleno ($20.99).
Of course, I ordered the big one. Carne asada consists of
strips of sirloin, seasoned and mesquite-grilled. El Encanto Dos stuffs these
tender strands, along with mashed potatoes whipped with the “fundido sauce,”
into the pepper along with the asadero and, voila, you have enough food to last
you until next Tuesday. It’s served with grilled zucchini squash and other
veggies that vaguely recall the classic Mexican dish, calabacitas.
The sirloin was juicy and slightly smoky, and the mashed
potatoes fundido smoothly delicious. The only surprise was the chili pepper
itself, which registered much higher on the reliable heat index of my tongue
than any poblano in my eating history. The waitress assured me that, yes, it
was a poblano, but I came away with the sneaking suspicion that the kitchen had
inadvertently used a Hatch chili (a poblano lookalike), some varieties of which
can achieve the heat of a serrano. In any case, while it didn’t detract from
the overall enjoyment of the dish, I left much of the pepper uneaten.
Dessert is not on the menu but is available. We passed on
the fried ice cream and went for a shared bowl of simple, thickly delicious
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