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Food and Travel

In a Sedona motel restaurant, Mexican flavors flourish

Chef/owner Jeff Smedstad started the 80-seat Elote Cafe in Sedona, Ariz., more than two years ago. He previously ran the popular Los Sombreros in the Phoenix area. Chef/owner Jeff Smedstad started the 80-seat Elote Cafe in Sedona, Ariz., more than two years ago. He previously ran the popular Los Sombreros in the Phoenix area. (Rick Scuteri/Associated Press)
By Amy Sutherland
Globe Correspondent / January 27, 2010

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SEDONA, Ariz. - Motels, even motels that call themselves hotels, aren’t known for their restaurants. So first-time visitors to the Elote Cafe here can’t be blamed if their hearts sink a bit as they pull on to the King Ransoms Hotel’s stretch of black tar. It doesn’t help that the ramp that leads from the parking lot to the restaurant’s plain entrance is covered with indoor/outdoor carpeting, and passes kids hooting and waving water noodles in the pool.

But then Sedona is a city of incongruities. Here, rugged red rocks catch fire in the setting sun as SUVs back up along the town’s strip-mall-lined roads. New age pilgrims mingle with families in matching Capri pants on holiday. Trail after spectacular trail loops this small city of 15,000. But good luck finding even basic hiking gear in the shops hawking manacle-sized turquoise cuffs, pastel-colored cowboy shirts, and coffee cups shaped like barrel cactuses.

At the Elote Cafe you will stumble upon yet more incongruities. In this festive yet humble room you will find creative spins on traditional Mexican dishes, such as chocolate tamales stuffed with dried cherries, a smoky carne asada paired with velvety Shaft’s blue cheese, and a quesadilla stuffed with braised beef short ribs. You will find great food at moderate prices (a rarity in Sedona) and an extra friendly staff unfazed by the army of marauding tourists. And you’ll find Jeff Smedstad.

The former chef-owner of the Phoenix area’s popular Los Sombreros went temporarily AWOL from the Arizona food scene after he and his then-wife split up. He resurfaced here in the fall of 2007. The 80-seat room had previously housed a series of failed restaurants. Not long after Smedstad signed the contract, “Someone e-mailed me from Sedona to tell me what a grave mistake I had made,’’ he says with a laugh.

Smedstad, like celeb chef Rick Bayless, takes traditional Mexican recipes and updates them to great effect. Before he began playing with tradition, though, Smedstad got his Mexican food chops from traveling extensively around the country for 15 years. Oaxaca, where he studied at cookbook author Susana Trilling’s school, was his key inspiration, but now he says his cooking is pan-Mexican. His style has also become “more Jeffrey’’ as he calls it, especially in Sedona where he finds diners are willing to experiment.

The restaurant’s namesake is an outstanding example of this. A popular street food in Mexico, Elote is roasted corn on the cob smeared with cheese, chili sauce, and mayonnaise or lime juice. Smedstad has remade it into an addictive dip, a kind of luxe, spicy corn chowder. Smedstad gets requests for the recipe every night.

“There’s something people connect to in that bowl of corn, ’’ he says.

The simple bowl of corn has put Smedstad on the map here the way his lamb adobo did in Phoenix. You’ll find that dish here as well as others from Los Sombreros, but in updated forms. He’s made the seasoning of the pork more complex, added aioli to the seafood tacos (an inspiration from a trip to Granada, Spain) and paired a corn salsa with his roasted snapper. Smedstad’s creative spirit carries over to the bar, where his inspired bartender does ingenious spins on margaritas, such as mixing in his own homemade hibiscus-infused tequila.

Over the course of four nights, I happily tasted my way through most of the margaritas and about a third of the menu. My husband and I tried to make ourselves go elsewhere, but each night we’d drift back to Elote. We weren’t the only ones. A couple from Cleveland came three nights in a row, and a man from Tampa two nights. We became, however, the record holders for eating there the most nights in a row. They even gave us nicknames: Las Journalistas.

In the end, eating inspired food in a motel restaurant didn’t feel incongruent at all. It felt absolutely right.

Elote Cafe, 771 HWY 179,Sedona, Ariz., 928-203-0105, www.elotecafe.com.

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