Last night I was happy to attend a very interesting pop-up dinner put together by Tyler Burke and David Martinez, hosted in Downtown Phoenix’s Cartel Coffee Labs.
Tyler Burke is perhaps most well known for appearing on Iron Chef America, battle Balsamic. The special episode featured Tyler as sous chef, along with other accomplished culinary students from the Art Institute of Phoenix battling Iron Chef Michael Symon. Although the Iron Chef won the battle, the students performed quite admirably.
David Martinez is most well known for appearing on Season 3 of Fox’s Masterchef. He competed alongside other aspiring amateurs, under the judgement of Chef Gordon Ramsey, Chef Graham Elliot, and restaurateur Joe Bastianich. David had a very strong showing, finishing 6th overall of the 18 finalists, and being offered work by Chef Graham Elliot, who had been impressed with David’s cooking and progress throughout the competition.
David is currently in the valley working on completing a PhD in Education at ASU, and lucky for us, fate brought David, Tyler, and Cartel Coffee labs together to host the night Una Noche En Mexico(One Night in Mexico).
The pop-up restaurant operated for two evenings out of Cartel Coffee Labs’ kitchen and dining room, and boasted 7 courses with either Alcoholic or Non-Alcoholic pairings. As I found out, 7 turned into more like 12 courses with plenty of small additions before, after and in-between the official courses.
For transparency sake, I’ll mention that I consider David and I friends, having met just under a year ago during a PHXfoodNerd event. That being said, I’ll offer my most honest opinion of the meal.
Eisen & Meister:Una Noche En Mexico
The evening’s festivities didn’t begin until 8pm, and the actual dining started closer to 9pm, making this a very late evening. In fact, this was the only major gripe I witnessed through the dining room. Sadly, Arizona has a very early dining crowd, and finishing dinner at 11:45pm is not what most people are expecting. Not everyone was disappointed, but I saw some sleepy faces nearing the end of the evening.
The Cartel Coffee Labs staff, led by Jason along with David’s wife Beate, seated the tables close to their neighbors to allow the room to experience the meal with other diners and make new friends. I happened to know the guests seated next to us, but I really appreciated the idea of eating in a group and sharing your thoughts of the meal. Each course was served simultaneously to the whole of the dining room, as if we were all part of the same table. I’m sure this also helped the food flow from the kitchen in a timely manner.
When seated,the first bites of the meal were awaiting us, meant to be shared by several people. A series of pickled things, meant to be eaten in order of smallest to largest jar. The smallest jar had pickled cherries which were very tasty. The medium jar held pickled tri-colored cauliflower, which had lost most of its color, but none of its flavor. The final jar had pickled carrots, celery and jalapenos. Although the carrots and celery were tasty, the jalapeno seemed just barely pickled and after taking a large bite, my mouth was on fire for a good 15 minutes. Overall, this was a great way to start the meal, with my personal favorite being the cauliflower.
The first official course was a tasty ceviche of shrimp, octopus and scallop. The stacked ceviches were nicely acidic and accompanied with radish, micro greens, citrus and slow cooked garlic. In the center of the dish, there were accompaniments of caramelized shallot, avocado mouse, grated lemon zest and grated horseradish. When all of the elements came together, the dish popped with freshness, acidity and texture. The alcoholic accompaniment was an interesting cocktail of Akvavit, ginger beer and celery puree. The drink, by itself, was strongly flavored of anise and ginger, with a salty kick from the celery, but when paired with the first course, it all made perfect sense. This was a really strong start to the evening from both the kitchen and the bar.
After the first official course, we had a small bite that wasn’t on the menu. A salad of hearts of palm and diced green apple with a mayo and shredded crab. I’m not a very big fan of hearts of palm, and my dining partner is slightly allergic to crab, so this was a bit of a miss from the two of us. After the killer first course, this one ended up being a quick bite and a shrug while waiting for the next menu course.
The second menu course was listed as Chicken Tostadas, but this was definitely a quirky take on a traditional tostada. In place of the tortilla, the chefs presented crispy chicken skin. I didn’t get too much of a description, but I believe the skin was topped with some sort of beans, and diced chicken bits that may have been the hearts or gizzards. Accompanying the tostada was a shredded cabbage slaw and a quenelle of some sort of mexican cheese. Although rich, and maybe a little on the greasy side, this was a really fun and delicious dish. The pairing of a Page Springs white wine blend fit well with it’s high acidity and dryness complimenting the tostada’s rich flavors.
The third course, Huevos con Chorizo, was sliced discs of fried potatoes, topped with beef tongue, poached egg, crumbled chorizo, cucmber slaw and thin sliced toast point. The combination of the soft meaty beef tongue, creamy poched egg, spicy smoked chorizo and crispy toast was a knockout. The only real criticism I had was the sliced potatoes were a bit greasy and maybe unnecessary with the toast point. The pairing was a Coffee Brown Ale made in house by Cartel. Although the flavors of coffee and dark ale worked well, the pairing was a little bit too assertive and overpowering to the dish as a whole. Still, a well thought out course.
The fourth course was Barbacoa of short rib, served with corn puree and a slice of fruit(maybe peach?). The flavors of this course instantly reminded me of tamales, elevated in the best possible way. The meat was a touch dry, but when paired with the smooth velvety sweet corn puree, I didn’t care at all. The pairing was a German Hefeweissen which had nice acidity and a mead-like molasses finish. When enjoyed with the meal, it had a strange effect of being so well paired that you almost couldn’t taste the beer. When pairing food and drink, you either want to go for similarity, or difference to highlight flavor. On this course, the pairing was perfectly similar, like two notes played exactly in tune, canceling each other out. This was one of my favorite courses for the evening.
The next bite was something of a palate cleanser. Pickled cucumber and watermelon rind with a rosemary mango gelée. Taken in a single bite, the sweet mango hit first, followed by the acidic pickles. I was left with a bit of a strong rosemary flavor at the end, which I couldn’t decide if I liked or not. It definitely served it’s purpose of cleansing my palate and preparing me for the next dish.
Next, was the course I was most curious about. Chicharones and Churros. The left of this dish was delicious soft pork belly, topped with crunchy chicharones, and served with a mild sauce, akin to salsa verde. To the right were a dice of pickled peaches and a churro that wasn’t as sweet as expected, but instead bready with a slight cinnamon flavor inside.There was a slight service snafu at this point where we hadn’t received the wine pairing, due to some issues with the Dos Cabezas Red pouring slowly. After waiting for the wine, the churro was a bit tough, but the flavors on the dish were all there. I really enjoyed the textures of the crunchy chicharones and soft pork belly. The dish could have possibly used a bit more of the peach for added sweetness and acidity, but it’s such a minor complaint for a delicious dish. The wine pairing was alright, but not as much of a hit as the previous dishes. Also, for some reason it was served very chilled, which cloaked some of the oaky flavors of the fruity red wine.
The next bite was a take on a cheese course before dessert. Queso Chihuahua, a tasty Mexican cow’s milk cheese was turned into Chihuahua Panna Cotta, served with guava paste and I believe an arrope, similar to balsamic vinegar reduction. The texture of the cheese may have made the panna cotta a bit grainier than I’d have preferred, but it was a fun take on a cheese course, especially when eaten together with the sweet guava paste.
The first dessert course was a mole ice cream, served with a nut brittle and some sort of honey sponge cake. Although a few people didn’t enjoy the ice cream on it’s own, everyone seemed to enjoy this course when you mixed up the soft cake with the spiced smooth ice cream and the crunchy sweet brittle. This course really spoke to what the night was about. Interesting Mexican flavors turned on their head, and experienced in a new and different way. The whole table agreed it was great. The whole table also agreed, that the pairing was a bust. A triple smoked cherry liqueur of some sort was served with the dessert. I can see trying to bring a sweet, smokey element into the course, but this was so strong, and so smokey that it didn’t stand a chance in hell of matching up. Lots of full glasses went back to the kitchen, including mine.
The final course of the evening was described as a deconstructed coffee flan. Although I didn’t taste much coffee in the dish, it was a brilliant way to end the evening. The custardy flan in the center of the dish was surrounded with sugary cinnamon powdered crumb, and served with crispy sugar cinnamon strips, sour cream ice cream, whipped cream and chocolate wafers. I had a lot of fun reconstructing this deconstruction and trying all the elements together. The sour cream ice cream was the perfect complement to the sweetness of the rest of the dessert. Again, the pairing fell a little flat for me. A digestif of Mescal, Mas Mole Bitters and some sort of licorice liqueur was just too strong at the end of the evening.
Finally, on the way out we were treated to a traditional Mexican wedding cookie and a bit of El Salvadoran hot coffee. Topped with lemon zest. The cookie and the coffee were the final “wafer thin” bite to fill our full bellies and send us on our way. David and Tyler along with their Sous chef for the event, Joel LaTondress of HotDish Inc., walked through the dining room and spent some time with the happy diners, apparently no worse for wear.
Overall, the dinner exceeded my expectations and set a high benchmark for future events of Eisen & Meister. The two overbooked evenings didn’t seem to phase the chefs or the staff of Cartel Coffee, normally closed in the evenings. Apart from a minor gripe here or there, this was a fantastic evening, and the food was on par with any of the professional kitchens operating at an elevated level. The chef’s are off to a great start and I am eagerly awaiting news on the next adventure they take on.
What do you think of this modern take on a Mexican tasting meal? Have comments or questions? Please feel free to leave them below!