Desert plants are often known for having shallow roots, which are better for quickly absorbing water during brief storms followed by quick evaporation. In Downtown Tempe, In Season Deli was a local favorite for nearly three decades before its recent closing. Fortunately, In Season Deli’s roots were deeper than anticipated because a new restaurant has blossomed in its place. Desert Roots Kitchen, helmed by a former In Season employee, has grown from those roots, which just happen to be a block-and-half south of the Mill Avenue / Third Street light rail station.
|wrap with navy bean soup|
Desert Roots follows in the tradition of In Season with a menu of healthful cold items, mostly salads, presented in a deli case. Nevertheless, there are differences. While In Season regularly served chicken and tuna salads, Desert Roots is entirely vegetarian and mostly vegan. In Season offered tamales as a hearty supplement to lighter fare, while Desert Roots features wraps instead. Still, the similarities predominate. If you liked In Season, you’ll like Desert Roots, and even if you never tried In Season, you’ll probably still like Desert Roots.
The space has been updated and brightened, but the concept is still the same. Enter the small interior and line up at the counter. All the options are behind glass, but staff will provide a sample of anything upon request. Order a la carte or economize with a three-item combination. The food is plated immediately and can then be taken to the restaurant’s outdoor dining area. The patio is shaded by lush vegetation and cooled with misters. There’s even a gazebo nearby. It’s an environment that manages to stay comfortable year round.
|exterior as seen from the gazebo|
The food on display can be described as colorful, bountiful, and flavorful. The color comes from fruits, vegetables, and legumes used on their own terms rather than as meat substitutes; the bounty comes from the varying array of dishes prepared each day and announced via Facebook; and the flavor comes from good ingredient quality. Local produce is emphasized, and there’s a clearly seasonal feel to many of the dishes. There’s also a fair amount of creativity in the way the ingredients are approached.
|beans salad, sesame honey quinoa, and bok choy|
Sweet potatoes are usually seen as a fall vegetable, but instead of serving them the way they’d be presented at the Thanksgiving table, Desert Roots uses them as a stuffing for jalapenos. Even with their seeds removed, the chiles have enough heat to offer an appealing contrast with the sweet vegetable inside. An Indian favorite, channa masala, is reinterpreted as a cold dish with roasted carrots mixed with chick peas, rice, and plenty of spice. Eggplant is used frequently, roasted to a tender, pulpy state and then coated with panko bread crumbs in one preparation.
|channa masala, pasta with dill, and salad|
Grains are fundamental here. That means lots of noodle dishes such as confetti pasta paired with cabbage and bell peppers adding color and dill providing the main flavor note. Plenty of other dishes based on wheat are present, but Desert Roots advertises its accommodation of gluten-free diets with many menu items built around other grains. Rice with corn, almonds, and red pepper is slightly crunchy and a little bit peppery. Sesame honey quinoa is slightly sweet in a way that nicely complements the nutty grain with a few broccoli florets thrown in for good measure.
|tacos and rice with corn, almonds, and red pepper|
A soup is offered each day, ranging from a hearty meatless pozole to a gossamer watermelon gazpacho. Curried lentil is a thick soup that sounds like it wouldn’t make sense cold, but it actually works quite well chilled. On Thursdays, tacos are a special; three soft corn tortillas surround a non-traditional filling such as roasted carrots with slaw and pureed beans. Hummus is offered every day in both traditional and tandoori varieties with salad and pita bread. The separate tahini on the side, perhaps a concession to those with sesame allergies, is unusual.
Desserts at Desert Roots are mostly vegan pastries, which can be tricky due to the lack of mouth-feel from butter and other animal ingredients. All the sweets are good here, though, and the apple oat bars stand out as exceptional. They’re moist and filled with hearty chunks of fruit throughout. A more ambitious offering on some days is a pie filled with a rich chocolate tofu filling, one of the few uses of bean curd on the menu. It works here as the basis of the restaurant’s most satisfying desserts.
|blacky-eye peas, confetti pasta with dill, and watermelon gazpacho|
There’s no liquor license or soda fountain here, but some canned juices and Mexican Coke are available. While most of Desert Roots’ business is lunch, there is a small breakfast menu with granola, bagels and the like. Desert Roots isn’t a complete replica of its predecessor In Season Deli. Instead, it’s a worthy successor, building on In Season’s strengths while adding even more international influences and fresh, local ingredients consistent with its mission. In this case, the desert roots ran deep enough to cultivate a new restaurant to equal or surpass the one that came before it.
414 S. Mill Ave., Tempe AZ 85281
Mill Avenue / Third Street Station