Elote Café

Central
Elote Café
Photograph by John Burcham

By Jacki Lenners

“When it rains, it pours.” If 2020 had a slogan, that might be it. For Elote Café’s Jeff Smedstad,
it’s been more of a nonstop deluge. After 13 years in the same Sedona location, he closed Elote’s doors in February, planning to reopen just up the road in April. Knee-deep in creating the new space when COVID-19 hit, Smedstad embraced the downpour and used the extra four months of lockdown-induced closure to do the seemingly impossible: make Elote even better. “Somehow,” he says, “what should have been the worst year of my life turned out to be the best.” 

No longer faced with a line at the door long before the restaurant opened, Smedstad, for the first time, had the capacity to truly think about the ingredients and presentations for all the dishes that have earned him a cult following. “If I saw something where I thought I could make an improvement, I did,” he says. 

He toned down the chiles and heightened the herbs on the mole verde. The tortilla chip that garnished the guacamole was replaced with a crispy lettuce leaf. The decadent Mexican chocolate pie had been weighed down with toppings; once unburdened, the rich chocolate became the rightful star. 

Like the menu, Elote’s new space is warmly familiar, but refreshingly new. Hand-hammered copper tables are surrounded by deep red banquettes. The custom-made panels at the top are an aftermarket COVID-19 addition to create more physical separation. When that necessity becomes a distant memory, a seat at the new bar — modeled after Siete Leguas’ tequila tasting room in Mexico, and manned by bartenders who join Smedstad on his travels throughout that country — will be a hot commodity.

For all that’s new, Elote is still Smedstad’s signature “soul of Mexico, but Southwest-based” cuisine, and the menu weaves a story of his roots in Arizona and wanderlust for Mexico. The namesake appetizer, a bowl of creamy, tangy fire-roasted corn, went unchanged, and its decadence is perfectly balanced by the refreshing tomato salad adorned with homemade queso Oaxaca and a punch from pickled jalapeños. 

Another example is the smoked pork cheeks, which Smedstad calls a “dish of memories,” each component a piece of his history. Tender pork sits atop his grandma’s corn cake, the Cascabel chile sauce came from his former mother-in-law, and the buttermilk-cumin drizzle was originally a chicken tender dipping sauce he invented for his employees’ children at a holiday party.  

Smedstad kept his staff paid during the closure, and many worked alongside him in bringing the new Elote to life. Together, they came out on the other side of the storm, and he says he’s satisfied: “I’ve finally realized the word ‘enough.’ ”

Elote Café is located at 350 Jordan Road in Sedona. For more information, call 928-203-0105 or visit elotecafe.com.