Almost every Phoenician has had some exposure to ocotillo, the desert shrub (technically not a cactus) known for its numerous spiny stalks that tower up to 20 feet high. The plant is a frequent component of local home xeriscapes, and specimens can be seen on any hike in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve. In spring, vibrant red flowers appear at the end of each of its protuberances. With myriad branches growing in every direction but all leading to gorgeous blossoms, the ocotillo plant is an apt metaphor for a new restaurant in Midtown Phoenix that bears its name.
Ocotillo the restaurant has an expansive menu that seems to branch everywhere in terms of drawing influences from global cuisines, but the kitchen produces remarkably consistent quality at the end of each of those branches, creating a gustatory landscape not too far removed from a flowering plant. The space is as rambling as the menu. Inside, there’s a noisy dining room, a U-shaped bar, and a community table near the open kitchen. One sunny and comparatively quiet patio faces Flower Street, and another comprises picnic tables under a shade canopy.
Previously, the location at the corner of Third and Flower streets was a vacant lot most often used as overflow parking for China Chili across the street. Now, in a bit of irony, Ocotillo has to rely on another nearby vacant lot for its own peak vehicular storage needs. Fortunately, diners can avoid that situation and walk a quarter mile from the Osborn / Central light rail station. A generous bike rack offers the best parking of all, and the Phoenix Street Transportation department plans to add bike lanes to Third Street in the near future.
Ocotillo opened first for lunch and brunch and then progressed to dinner service a few months later. Both the day and evening menus are full of items designated as “small” and “large,” but in actuality all portions are generous. One not-so-small small plate is Japanese fish and chips, two generous slabs of white flesh and a small mountain of fries. The Asian touch comes in terms of a panko-like coating on the fish, and a cucumber salad served in lieu of coleslaw. A vegan red curry soup is more modest in its portion size but still filling, even more so when ordered with chicken.
Vegetables are a separate category on the menu, but they’re not served as small sides. Instead, the produce served is bountiful enough to serve as a shared appetizer or even a meatless entree. One standout is the cauliflower. Everyone seems to doing their own version of this cruciferous vegetable lately, but Ocotillo’s version is softened and caramelized by roasting and dressing the big florets with kale pesto, mint, peanuts, chilies, and holy basil leaves.. Zucchini, so often dismissed for blandness, is energized with burrata, chilies, mint, arugula, and balsamic vinegar.
In addition to various fried and roasted vegetables, there’s another portion of the menu devoted just to entree-sizes salads. A cabbage salad doesn’t sound exciting at first, but what emerges from the kitchen is a big bowl of Thai-influenced slaw topped with peanuts, cilantro, and chilies. A mole chicken salad is also generously portioned and full of radishes, tomatoes, greens, and almost too much guacamole. The only aspect it lacks is a spicy element to balance the mellowing effect of the avocado. The chilies used elsewhere on the menu would have been a nice addition in this case.
Despite the playful and inventive uses of popular vegetables, Ocotillo has plenty of meat on the menu. Roasted chicken is offered with several varieties of seasonings, and the signature dish, the Ocotillo chicken, emphasizes ingredients such as pecans, dates, citrus, and honey. A mesquite grilled ribeye and wood-fired ribs are among the small number of beef entrees, and a grilled lemongrass pork steak is refreshingly lean compared to most uses of the pig currently fin favor. Salmon and crispy whole fish are among the seafood entrees available in the evening.
At lunch, there are eight sandwiches available ranging from a meaty burger made with Creekstone Farms beef and Arizona cheddar to a meatless falafel sandwich. Those two opposites are the only ones that carry over to the dinner menu. Additional choices offered only at midday include a tandoori chicken sandwich with lentil and yogurt toppings and a vegetarian. Vietnamese-influenced tofu bahn mi. All sandwiches comes with a side of either fries or a changing salad. One time it was based on lentils; on another occasion the nutty tasting grain farro costarred with chickpeas.
At lunch, Ocotillo offers only one dessert: a trifle, or multi-layered custard. Some versions have been modeled after Girls Scout cookie flavors like Samoas or Thin Mints. More recently, a tiramisu has been offered. At night, the options expand to about half a dozen sweets such as Meyer lemon pound cake. At any time, an alternative to the official dessert menu is the sheep’s milk ricotta found in the small plates section. This semi-sweet dish lies somewhere near the intersection of a dessert and cheese course and works just as well at the end of a meal as at the beginning.
Ocotillo has an extensive wine list, a dozen tap handles devoted primarily to craft brews, and signature cocktails identified only by number. Among the non-alcoholic selections, a house lemonade flavored with ginger, mint, and lemongrass is a refreshing choice. With its blend of worldwide influences, Ocotillo might seem at first glance to be sprouting in every direction. Nevertheless, its roots are planted firmly in Phoenix with an emphasis on local ingredients and outdoor dining. Even better, the restaurant’s food tastes like it is in bloom year-round.
3243 N. 3rd St., Phoenix AZ 85012
Osborn / Central Station