Arizona Restaurant Week returns

Arizona Restaurant Association President and CEO Steve Chucri has seen the broadening of local palates and growth of the food scene firsthand.

“I always had this kind of running joke that I was born and raised here and for me we had two kinds of food — we had Mexican food and then a different type of Mexican food,” said Chucri, an Arizona native. “Now we have all of these culinary options that really, if you look, Arizona — in many ways because so many people are transplants here — is kind of a melting pot, which you see across the country.”

The Arizona Restaurant Association highlights that diversity with its Fall Arizona Restaurant Week, which returns from Friday, Sept. 17, to Sunday, Sept. 26, with a panoply of restaurants spanning the state — including Cave Creek — showcasing special menus.

As part of the 10-day event, many local restaurants will introduce three-course prix fixe menus at price points of $33, $44 or $55, the latter a new tier. Each restaurant’s specifics vary, with some offering individual meals and others crafting selections for couples or groups. Some restaurants may offer wine pairing selections at an additional cost. Standard menus won’t be affected.

“Some of your favorite and most well-known restaurants are on sale here in Arizona for 10 days,” Chucri explained. “And it gives people the opportunity to try a restaurant they may not have tried. It creates this enthusiasm about the culinary opportunities here and throughout the Valley that, you know, is exciting to have happen twice a year.”

More than 120 restaurants have signed on so far, with the event’s website allowing patrons to search menus by categories such as cuisine type, location and price, even accounting for vegetarian/gluten-free options and takeout. 

Among the choices is the Tonto Bar & Grill in Cave Creek, which is offering a $44 dine-in-only package. Taxes and gratuity are not included. 

The menu includes a choice of three appetizers: cup of golden corn chowder with Applewood bacon, pulled chicken, fresh thyme and Yukon gold potatoes; tortilla-crusted crab cake with fresh jicama and roasted chile slaw and smoked ancho chile aioli; or compressed arugula salad with manchego, candied Arizona pecans, sun-dried cherries, tart green apple and pistachio vinaigrette. 

The entrée choices are Mediterranean grilled salmon with tzatziki sauce and pickled red onions, Israeli couscous tossed with sauteed spinach, cherry tomatoes, mint and basil; coffee and port braised boneless short rib with brown butter whipped white yams, heirloom carrots and shallots, parsley and a port wine jus lie; or the manana veggie nosh with roesti potato cake, roasted heirloom cauliflower, charred broccolini, sauteed patty pan squash and housemade tomato jam. 

Dessert features chocolate fudge brownie cake or lemon lime prickly pear meringue tart with an almond graham crust, lemon lime curd filling, prickly pear Italian meringue, lime coulis, lemon curd, almond Florentine twist and fondant bumble bee. 

“Arizona is becoming more and more of a foodie-type place and venue, and I think what the restaurant week does is try to trumpet that to our guests and patrons around the state,” Chucri said.

Since it was founded 14 years ago, Arizona Restaurant Week has grown from a once-yearly event every fall to a biannual event also hosted in the spring, increasing along the way from roughly two dozen restaurants in its first year to now well over 100 per event.

New this year, the Arizona Restaurant Association is raising funds for the HonorHealth Desert Mission endowment to support those who are underprivileged, experiencing homelessness or affected by the pandemic.

Billed as the “Dine In. Help Out.” program, Arizona Restaurant Week is accepting donations through its website and QR codes provided with bills at participating restaurants. Funds will benefit Desert Mission programs and services, such as its food bank, early childhood learning center and adult day program.

“It’s a really unique event that diners have just come to love, and that’s what makes it worthwhile for us,” Chucri explained of the growth of Arizona Restaurant Week.

Due to the pandemic, Chucri acknowledged that the Arizona Restaurant Association was forced to quickly adapt. Moving to takeout options last year is one such way, though the event is now allowing in-person and takeout options. However, this varies from restaurant to restaurant.

“Restaurateurs, fortunately we’re getting back into our regular cycle, which is a good thing,” Chucri noted. “People have missed restaurants, which we’ll always be grateful for, and so we have seen our places fill up quite more than we expected them to.

“And so, you know, we’re still trying to help people — those who still aren’t comfortable to go into a restaurant — to still be able to take out, but at the same time, I think we’ll probably, come next year, we’ll likely just go back to our original platform, which is just dine in the restaurant.”

But first, Chucri has high hopes for this year’s fall event. He recommends people plan ahead and seek out reservations when possible, as demand tends to increase with restaurant week.

“The Spring Restaurant Week went well, actually,” he recalled. “We had a great turnout. … And so we’re optimistic. I mean, we’re getting more and more restaurants every day participating, and I anticipate that to continue.”

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