Restaurants hammered for several years by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will get the chance to reach a whole new audience.
Arizona Restaurant Week is returning for the spring and will run from May 20 through May 29. With over 122 restaurants participating in the state, just four are taking part in Tempe and offering pre-fixe menus to the masses: The Keg Steakhouse + Bar, Thirsty Lion Gastropub & Grill, Barrio Queen and Alter Ego.
Alter Ego, the restaurant inside the new Canopy by Hilton Downtown Tempe hotel, is offering a $55 meal with three options each for starters, mains and desserts inspired by the American South. Guests can choose from dishes such as sweet corn and green chili hush puppies, braised oxtail and a buttermilk chess pie, among others.
Tim Salgado, executive chef of the collegiate, mid-century-themed hotel, said restaurant week is “kind of a flex” for local chefs to try out new or favorite recipes beyond their typical offerings.
“We did our take on Tex Mex the last time, once again executed at a higher level, upscale versions of that,” he said. “So we decided to go Southern. I've been through Atlanta and Tennessee and New Orleans. One of my cooks that I've known for 10 years is from Tennessee, so [we] talked a lot about Southern foods, so we're calling it Alter Ego and the American South. You'll get little pops of local Arizona ingredients, but we're definitely looking at it through a lens of Southern cuisine.”
Being a higher-end restaurant in a college town, surrounded by thousands of students at Arizona State University, also makes restaurant week a boon for Alter Ego.
“I feel like because we are around the university it provides a window for some of these college kids that maybe don't have as much expendable income to be able to come in and enjoy a really good, unique meal,” said Salgado. “What we had last restaurant week was a lot of college-aged kids that were coming and saying, ‘Oh wow, we didn't even know this restaurant was here.’ Now, we're starting to see them come back for brunch and come back for some of our special menus.”
While Alter Ego is not offering takeout for this restaurant week, unlike last fall’s, Salgado hopes that means more new guests will filter in to try out his food.
“We realized that as people kind of went back out into the world, there was really no draw for it from our perspective,” he said. “We didn't have anyone calling or asking, they would just rather come in.”
Barrio Queen, located inside Tempe Marketplace, is also taking part and giving guests a regional tour of Mexico in the process. This spring’s restaurant week menu will give diners a chance to order dishes like Barrio Queen’s famous tableside guacamole – recently featured on the Food Network, an enchilada trio and mango mousse, all for $33. That includes soft drinks and handmade agua frescas.
“That comes from Veracruz, which mangos are native to that region,” said Andrew Patti, a spokesperson for Barrio Queen. “Summertime will be Baja, beach focuses. It’ll be light items for the summer and native to that region.”
Like Alter Ego, Patti said restaurant week is a welcome reprieve for restaurants still clawing their way out of pandemic losses, including Barrio Queen, which has been a Valley staple for over a decade now.
“It really is special because as things are opening up, maybe some of our guests haven’t had the chance to dine with us since the pandemic, so we're very happy to welcome them back,” he said. “And also people that have never had us before and are happy to dine out now that we're kind of opening up, we can't wait to show them what we’ve been doing for the past 10 years so, it is very special this year.”
All Valley Barrio Queen locations are participating in restaurant week this spring, but the Tempe location, themed in red and black colors, is “super vibrant,” according to Patti.
The same goes for The Thirsty Lion, which boasts four Phoenix-area locations, all of which are participating in restaurant week, including the one in Tempe Marketplace.
Julia Thorn, Director of Marketing for CEG Hospitality, said the special menu will be different from the restaurant’s typical fare, but still the same high quality.
“The menus are different in that they take a collection of our seasonal menu items featuring unique ingredients based on the time of year, including fresh seafood, quality meats and local vegetables - paired in a pre-fixe menu for guests to enjoy,” she said.
The three-course $33 meal includes food like spicy moroccan meatballs, a wagyu beef burger and whiskey apple crumble.
Thorn said restaurant week is a proven business booster for Thirsty Lion, calling it a “win-win” for restaurants and diners alike. The restaurant group is set to open up its fifth location in the Valley at Westgate in Glendale later this year.
“We are excited to see so many more guests enjoying dining out again,” she said. “We participated last year, but anticipate a larger crowd this year as guests are feeling more comfortable getting out of the house and eating out again. We hope to see our regular customers as well as new customers who have perhaps never tried Thirsty Lion this year. We feel extremely fortunate to have made it through the pandemic and are doing well.”
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