SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA – It isn’t everyday that you meet a Tequila Goddess.
But that’s precisely what I did at La Hacienda, the restaurant featuring the recipes of Chef Richard Sandoval, considered the father of modern Mexican cuisine, at the stunning Fairmont Scottsdale Princess resort in Arizona.
“Here at La Hacienda we offer one of the largest portfolios (of tequila) and one of the most exclusive… in Arizona,” says the tequila expert known as the Tequila Goddess, whose real name is Katie Schnurr.
Drinking tequila, she tells me, is all about breathing.
“With wine, you’re breathing all that in. With tequila, you drink, you swallow, and you breathe out with your mouth.
“So when you take that nice exhale and you breathe out with your mouth, it’s going to take away that big alcohol bite… you’re just a little bit more in the zone with your palate.”
Tequila pairing, notes Schnurr, who is certified by Mexico’s Tequila Regulatory Council, is similar to wine pairing, with fish requiring something crisp and refreshing like a “blanco,” while meat calls for an “oaky” tequila.
Schnurr makes the rounds of tables at La Hacienda, offering advice on tequila, while diners enjoy Chef Sandoval’s intriguing flavors from a menu that draws upon memories of his grandmother’s meals.
“In my grandmother’s house,” he tells me, “when I was a child, every Friday and Saturday, 20 or 25 family members would gather at her house. Food would be free-flowing.
“I wanted to create this kind of home atmosphere (in La Hacienda), where you come in and really enjoy the nice courtyard… the wood beams on the ceiling, the tile floors…. I think that was our main goal – being at someone’s home, enjoying a meal.”
Sandoval doesn’t believe that food should necessarily be fancy – but it should have what he terms “intriguing flavors.”
“I have always said that food does not have to be complicated,” he notes, “as long as it has great balance and great flavor. So when I cook, if you look at some of my recipes, there’s not many steps, but again, it’s all about the ingredients and the flavors.”
For dinner, the lovely Pescado Zarandeado (barbecued seabass) is served with a tasty charred serrano aioli, heirloom tomato and avocado. The guacamole is not only very tasty, but entertaining to watch being made right by tableside!
For dessert, La Hacienda’s perfectly-light Cinnamon-Dusted Churros are amazing – a real testament to Chef de Cuisine Forest Hamrick’s familiarity with the food markets of Mexico.
“Sometimes I close my eyes,” says Sandoval, “and I eat one of his dishes and feel like I’m in a market in Mexico.”
The AAA Five Diamond resort is where I also learn about Arizona’s intriguing wine story from advanced sommelier Jason Caballero, who guides guests through wine with meals at Bourbon Steak, the Fairmont restaurant led by James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Mina with on-site executive chef Sara Garrant.
Arizona wines are pushing the envelope on quality and Bourbon Steak’s large, impressive wine collection includes some Arizona labels, too: Rune Wines, Caduceus Cellars, (the latter owned by rock band vocalist Maynard James Keenan), plus Dos Cabezas Wine Works and Callaghan Vineyards, both of which have been served at the White House.
Caduceus, by the way, is located in Jerome, a fun little historic copper mining town well worth visiting.
“I think we’re making some incredible strides (with Arizona wine),” Caballero says, “and I think there’s a lot of really exciting wines we’ve been putting out, which is really cool….”
Arizona has 106 licensed wineries and three high-desert viticulture areas: Verde Valley, north of Phoenix at 3,500 to 4,000 feet in elevation; Sonoita, an AVA south of Tucson at 4,800 to almost 5,000 feet; and Willcox, an AVA also south of Tucson, at 4,200 to 4,600 feet.
At Bourbon Steak, with its clean design and subtle lighting, the dinner menu offers something for everyone, including American Kobe beef, poultry and fish, slow-poached in butter, grilled and finished over seasoned wood-fueled flames. Duck fat fries can be a fun treat as an amuse bouche, while other favorites include ahi tuna tartare and lobster pot pie.
Cocktails are offered at the bar or on the two-level outdoor patio with fire pit tables.
Above and beyond the food and the drinks, outside my third-floor balcony I can see one of six pools at the resort. Among these, by the way, is the 7,000-square-foot Sunset Beach pool with 830 tons of soft sand to mimic the beach – complete with colorful beach chairs, believe it or not!
I also discover the Fairmont’s Well & Being Spa, a 44,000-square- foot retreat, where I experience standing under miniature “waterfalls” inspired by the Grand Canyon Havasupai Falls, and I find the eucalyptus inhalation room a nice experience, too. The spa also includes a rooftop pool with private cabanas, co-ed waterfall grotto and a “healthy spa cuisine” menu.
For golfers, the resort has two 18-hole TPC Scottsdale courses, home to the PGA Tour’s Waste Management Phoenix Open.
Of course, when talking sports, it’s good to remember that the city of Scottsdale is the popular site for baseball’s annual spring training schedule.
During Hanukkah, the Fairmont resort was planning a nightly menorah lighting, accompanied by latkes and applesauce in the resort lobby. The resort’s Lagoon Lights also featured an eight-meter-high menorah, a 1.5-meter dreidel, and 1.5-meter gelt.
Through December 31, the resort is also planning, among many attractions, an outdoor ice skating rink made of real ice, and a four-story Christmas musical tree that plays 17 songs to 70,000 synchronized lights.
It’s all made for celebrating, of course, under the Arizona sun.