Story and photos by Jeff Kronenfeld, February 2020 Issue.
Robert Frost once quipped that good fences make good neighbors. If the famous poet lived near chefs like James Fox and Eric Stone, he might have felt different. After all, what good is a wall against the scent of peppers slow roasting in mesquite smoke? Fox and Stone are the culinary brains behind Vecina, one of Arcadia's hottest new restaurants. Whether you live next door or across the Valley, its inspired takes on Latin classics are worth the trek.
Fox first thought of opening a restaurant as a student at Paradise Valley High School. His old friend Jamie Chapman, Stone and he would go on for hours about their dream. Fox and Stone both started working in kitchens. They each moved out of Arizona for a time. Fox lived in Mexico for a year. While there, he fell in love with that country’s culture and food. Eventually, he moved to New York City. Working in the Big Apple’s roughneck restaurant scene taught him to go that extra-mile to make a dish standout. Stone spent time working at restaurants in California. When Fox and his wife recently returned home to the Valley, Stone approached them with an offer. He told them Kitchen 56 on Indian School and 56th street was closing. Stone asked if they would want to take over the space with a group of friends. They accepted and Vecina opened its doors in September of last year.
The pair’s culinary philosophy is simple. The dishes they serve are anything but. Everything at Vecina — from a straightforward salsa to the most intricate elote — is filled with unexpected blends of ingredients and cooking styles from across Latin America, Asia and Europe. Fox estimates 85 to 90 percent of Vecina’s dishes have at least one item kissed by the mesquite wood-fueled flames of their Aztec Grill. The stainless-steel firebox allows for precise adjustments to radiant heat, conducted heat and high-velocity hot air. This moist warmth is perfect for slow cooking everything from chiles to fish filets. “It’s probably the best grill that I know of that you can purchase,” Fox said.
Elote is a good example of how Vecina uses the grill to create complex flavors. Their unique take on the Mexican street food classic crackles with at least a dozen discernable flavors. Fox loves the traditional style of a corn on the cob coated in butter, chile powder, cotija and served with mayonnaise. Still, Vecina’s chefs wanted to add their own interesting spin. They ended up making what I consider the Cadillac of corn.
They start by roasting the husked corn on the Aztec. Then, the husk is peeled, and the corn grilled again. Next, they shave and mix the corn with a house-made whipped chorizo butter. No, the butter doesn’t have actual swine in it, and yes, it is as delectable as it sounds. A spice mix with over 20 ingredients is sprinkled on top, as well as six kinds of toasted chiles, cilantro and cotijas. It is served with a crema made of blended cilantro, garlic and lime juice. The sting of citrus balanced nicely with the milky warmth of the corn as my molars effortlessly ground it into polenta. If you are entertaining guests from out of town, this dish would be a great appetizer, whether they are snobby coastal types or Midwest cornhuskers.
My dining companion and I returned from a trip to the beaches of Mexico only two days before our visit to Vecina. While south of the border, we consumed many meals of Sonoran style ceviche. Thus, we were somewhat reluctant to order it at Vecina. How could it possibly compare to something we ate literally on the sands of the Sea of Cortez? Our fears proved unwarranted. The restaurant’s ceviche proved as unique and enjoyable as their elote. Instead of finely chopped bits of shrimp and fish, it consists of hardy chunks of hiramasa, yellowtail kingfish. Its flown in fresh from Australia where it is sustainably farmed. This is soaked in lime juice for an hour and a half before being piled on a plate with pineapple, sliced red onions, and some seasoning. A little lake of coconut leche de tiegre is poured around the small mountain of fruity fish. The sauce’s blend of ginger heat, limey acid, creamy coconut and even a little umami kick is what really sold me on this dish. I closed my eyes with each bite and was transported back to that placid beach in fleeting moments.
We also tried the Faroe Island Salmon tacos. It was a color coordinated thing of beauty like an Arizona sunset. The pink salmon complemented the red hued citrus and the golden glow of the Aji Amarillo aioli. The lightly toasted flour tortilla was doughy and soft, almost like lavash bred. Each bite oozed with juices. I have seen some complaints about the larger size of the fish in this dish and the ceviche, but with such high-quality product, it be a shame to mince it. I enjoyed the hardy fish filets. Each taco was a tiny world of flavors. My fellow diner agreed, practically inhaling hers.
Last but not least was the grilled Duroc pork chop. Like the tacos, its presentation was top notch. There were spiraling green dollops, a bone aggressively jutting up and the charred, yet glowing exterior of the pork chop itself. I felt the primal carnivorous instinct ignited even before the first bite. My testosterone spiked with each hunk of meat candy. The deeply smoke crusted skin and sprinkling of chicharrons added a nice texture to the tender flesh.
The cocktail menu was curated by Miguel Mora, who like the pair of chefs is also a co-owner of Vecina. He burns Palo Santo wood before opening the bar to cleanse the space’s energy. It is a small but strong roster of cocktails, beer and wine, in spite of the mixed drinks seeming a tad overpriced. The happy hour menu is somewhat more affordable, but the house margaritas are still ten dollars a pop. That said, I had the rum based EL Santo and it was excellent. It came in a cute clay cup crowned with a laurel of fresh mint. My friend had a Mi Amado. The drink’s neon lavender color looked like something you could picture Harrison Ford swigging in “Blade Runner.” This one is very Instagram friendly. It proved a little too sweet for my friend, who ordered an El Santo for the next round.
Vecina means neighbor in Spanish. The restaurant seems dedicated to being a good one. The staff were friendly and helpful. The Latin music was pleasant and not overpoweringly too loud. We counted three separate Shakira songs during our visit. The food was exceptional. Be sure to make reservations in advance. The one complaint I have other than the cost of cocktails is how tightly packed some part of the restaurant’s sections are. At first, we were seated at a row of tables so close together it felt like a discount airline cabin. I was practically rubbing elbows with a guy who appeared to be waiting nervously for a blind date. The staff allowed us to relocate to the high tables beside the east windows, but our original one was far too close for comfort. Maybe that old poet was right about good neighbors and good fences after all.