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, a restaurant aptly named Desert Roots Kitchen has displayed some unexpectedly deep roots, operating with essentially the same approach for over six years and building upon the traditions of an even longer lasting restaurant, In Season Deli, that came before it at the same location. These roots continue to grow just a block-and-a-half south of the Mill Avenue / Third Street light rail station.
Desert Roots offers a menu of all vegan food, mostly salads and grain pilafs presented in a deli case and served cold. The offerings are different each day and are usually written on a paper bag posted just outside the door. That same bag is typically photographed and posted on Instagram to promote the kitchen’s daily creations. For those enticed by the daily menu photo, it can take a bit of exploration to find one’s way to the actual restaurant. Desert Roots has a Mill Avenue address, but its actual location is found inside the Courtyard Shops.
Look for an entry with a water feature on the west side of Mill between Fourth and Fifth Streets. Walk past a barber shop and a gazebo, and the small restaurant is revealed in a corner of the complex. 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, which is shaded by lush vegetation and cooled with misters.
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 the flavor comes from good ingredient quality and abundant use of spices. 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 and combined in sometimes unexpected ways.
Grains are fundamental here. That means pasta dishes such as elbow macaroni paired with black caraway seeds and dill. Plenty of other dishes based on wheat are present, but Desert Roots advertises its “always vegan, mostly gluten-free” status with many menu items built around other grains. Rice may be paired with black beans and chipotle in a Southwestern theme or with apple cider vinegar in an autumn format with a bit of maple flavor. Sesame honey quinoa’s slight sweetness complements the nutty grain with a few broccoli florets added.
Legumes such as pinto beans, split peas, or lentils are equally prominent here, complementing the grain as protein sources while adding textural contrast and their own earthy flavors. Pintos may be combined with greens, and lentils flavored with a bit of spice from Hatch chilis. Sometimes, the labeling may be more creative and less obvious with names chosen like “secret garden lentil wrap” or “mystery lentil salad.” In actuality, the flavor used are always complementary and the staff are happy to answer questions about ingredients.
A rice pilaf or a bean dish is often the filling for the daily wrap. With the flavored grain or legumes encased in a neatly rolled flour tortilla, the resulting hand food is offered in a full size with one side or in a half size as one component of a three-item plate. Tacos are also built with the same fillings placed atop smaller corn tortillas, but almost anything in the display case can be used as taco component if the customer prefers. In terms of wrap equivalence, two tacos are priced the same as a full wrap, and one taco is viewed as the same as a half wrap.
A soup is often available. Sometimes, it’s along the lines of a watermelon gazpacho, a cold soup perfect for hot summer days day. As temperatures cool in the fall, it may be a hot, hearty mix of potatoes and vegetables. There’s also a daily hummus. Desert Roots’ approach goes beyond the usual varieties with more exotic combinations blended into its pureed legumes. That can mean almond and maple flavors, apple with jalapenos, wasabi and beets, cucumber with dill, or even lentils given a smoky flavor from a bit of charcoal used in the preparation.
The hummus of the day can be put inside any variety of bagel available to create a sandwich that is artfully plated with colorful greens. The bagels come from local purveyor Odelay and include standard varieties and even the dark, dense, and delightful “pumpernickel everything” configuration. Odelay’s product is created in a two-step process of both baking and boiling that produces a chewy interior beneath a firm crust. Breakfast burritos and the signature smoothie with peanut butter, almond milk, and spirulina are also popular among the morning clientele.
There’s no liquor license or soda fountain here, but there is a daily iced tea — sometime black, sometimes green. Desserts are occasional pastries sold at the counter, but they’re often not available. The food is filling enough that a three-item plate is likely to suffice for most appetites, and Desert Roots offers various discounted prepaid meals options for its regular customers. Anyone who has seen a palo verde tree topple after a storm knows how shallow desert roots can be. These roots, however, seem deeper than in their location near Mill Avenue.
414 S. Mill Ave., Tempe AZ 85281
Mill Avenue / Third Street Station