GILBERT, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- As Gilbert continues to grow and expand its entertainment and culinary scene, it was only a matter of time until a rooftop lounge found itself a home in the bustling downtown. Right in the heart and center of downtown along Gilbert Road, next to Whiskey Row and across from The Porch, you'll find a taller, three-story building that's home to several businesses. And at the very top (you guessed it), you'll find Sotol Modern Cocktail Kitchen, an agave-style bar offering authentic Arizona-based foods with a one-of-a-kind view of downtown and surrounding Gilbert.
There are many places throughout downtown Gilbert to grab a bite to eat or catch a drink, but the views, ambiance and particularly the foods being whipped up at Sotol make this rooftop a fantastic endeavor and addition to a night out on the town. Valley native and Owner Erika Rode, who also owns Bitters Bar in Scottsdale, knew the booming scene in Gilbert had a "missing piece."
"When developing this concept, naturally, I gravitated to Arizona. I feel like there's a missing piece there too; you can find California types of fare, New Mexico-style, Texas grub, but Arizona, I think there's a missing piece of that," Rode said. "I'm a huge fan of Arizona, obviously, so when I came up with the concept, I wanted to pay tribute to Arizona and the regions of the great state, including the Sonoran Desert, northern Arizona, and southern."
Rode says she wanted to develop a food and beverage menu that complimented each other while paying tribute to the cultures within and around the state. Sotol's food menu incorporates Mexican fare, Native American fare and works to establish a culinary experience that showcases Arizona. Even the name itself, Sotol, pays homage to a type of distillate harvested from a desert plant, similar to the process of tequila and mezcal, crafted from agave.
Patrons may sometimes forget just how much thought, experimentation, and research go into developing the foods that are casually snacked on or become treasured favorites. At Sotol, Rode and her team brainstorm the best way to establish recipes from Rode's ideas while ensuring it stays true to Arizona-cuisine and continues to push into new culinary boundaries. It's what has helped craft a truly flavor bomb of a menu at Sotol!
"I think some of the most popular are some of the most unique that we offer. We make a style of Navajo taco that's fry bread-based. We put beans and green chili chicken, or we have a vegetarian option," said Rode. "The flavor combination within that dish is incredibly powerful, and I think it's something that sets us apart. We also have a Nopales Fritas appetizer on the menu. It's a spin on typical bar French fries; it's nopales cactus and a yucca combination."
For Rode, who started in the food and beverage industry at just the age of 14 as a food runner, it's been a long and challenging path to get to restaurant development and ownership. Still, her passion for the industry has yielded some cherished rewards.
"I love to see guests enjoying themselves. That's probably one of the biggest personal and selfish, I guess, rewards. I get to walk into my establishments and see guests enjoying the food, enjoying the beverages, but most importantly, enjoying the customer service and atmosphere. That's probably my No. 1 reward," Rode said. "A close second would be the opportunities I'm able to give to people and staff. I like to develop teams, help people get to where they want to go, or at least get better at their craft."
Rode's food director, Richard Azevedo, helms the kitchen at Sotol and is one of those staff members developing his craft as he brings to life the food concepts developed by Rodes.
"We're leaning more toward Sonoran and Arizona-indigenous ingredients, such as cactus. We're going with the concept of taking the cultures from Arizona, such as Native American Fry Bread on the menu and Three Sister's Stew," Azevedo said.
Azevedo has only held one other job in a kitchen as a line cook but has had a passion for cooking since he was a kid. His drive and ambition to continue developing his skills help fuel the easy-going but professional vibe within his kitchen, which can be described as a functioning, well-oiled machine. With these cultural and colorful dishes, Azevedo and his team understand the importance of people "ordering with their eyes" when serving up something that might be a bit off the beaten culinary path.
"Just trying different things, things that people haven't really seen before, and I think that's what Erika is really going for in the concept of this place," Azevedo said. "Just stepping out of the norm, stepping out of the box and giving a different experience for people's tastebuds than what they're normally used to is what I think really inspires me to do research and development and come up with new ideas for the restaurant."
And don't worry about running out of new things to try! Sotol aims to keep it fresh with quarterly menu rotations, seasonal changes, new menu ideas and the occasional menu revamp. They're also always open to guest feedback and recommendations. Adjusting and developing new foods is undoubtedly a great way to keep the foodies coming back!
"There is more to come with this space; it won't stay the same. We will offer new and unique flavors of different concepts. Guest requests will go on the menu; I'm all about that. But it will remain for the future a small and well thought out design for a food menu," Rode said.
Sotol Walkthrough Video
At long last, it's time to talk food (with a guest appearance by a couple of cocktails)!
Kicking off with a menu must-try, the Nopales Fritas are an incredible snack to accompany a drink or just a meal to enjoy in general. The fried and crispy cactus paddles are a wonderful twist on traditional fries with a slightly tart bite to them. The cilantro crema sauce drizzled to every part of the dish gives a great balance of flavor throughout, making this appetizer one tasty and juicy meal to enjoy. The Fry Bread entrée is another can't go wrong selection. Sotol tops the slightly crisped bread with black beans (dry beans, full drained) featuring a hint of Southwestern heat, and then green chili pulled chicken (or a cactus vegetarian option) that's bursting with flavor that rushes and wakes up your tastebuds. The fry bread is incredible, utilizing bluebird flour's elasticity, making for an unforgettable meal to enjoy with every bite.
One pick that cannot go without mentioning is the Arizona Stew, a Three Sisters-style stew. The Three Sisters are represented in Native American cuisine by corn, beans, and squash and are an integral facet of Native American agriculture and culinary traditions. The Three Sisters veggies are blended in with forbidden rice and the green chili chicken, presenting a hearty and wholesome stew. There is a vegan option available, and you can decide if you want the stew spicy or not. The range of flavors is outstanding, with each mouthful bringing joy and fulfillment.
Sotol wouldn't be an agave-style bar without being able to boast well-balanced and tantalizing craft cocktails. Utilizing sotol itself, one of the coolest presented drinks is the Reap What You Sow. It captures an excellent essence of coffee-infused bourbon, with richness and medley of bitter and sweet. The Smoking Gun gives a fiery presentation with activated charcoal and is a fruit-blended drink with a kick of smokey mezcal. For those enthusiasts of the classics, the Mesquite Smoked Old Fashioned should be a go-to. Rode and her Beverage Director, Terrance Hargis, have done their homework and testing to get down an unreal balance in their drinks with their ingredients. Their science shines in their old-fashioned, which is without a doubt one of the smoothest versions I've experienced while maintaining that traditional flavor.
Sotol is certainly a great stop for any night out on the town in downtown Gilbert. The views are one-of-a-kind for the area while providing a fun atmosphere to enjoy a cocktail or delicious bite that resonates with everything Arizona. The foods are flavor-packed with unique tastes that push the boundaries of Southwest cuisine while making a case for Arizona fare staples. Whether you're out to relax and unwind, sip a well-balanced beverage, inhale some seriously well-crafted food, or all the above, you'll enjoy the curated experience at Sotol in downtown Gilbert!
This is the second segment in a series on rooftop lounges in the Phoenix metro. Arizona’s Family Foodie is breaking out the sunscreen to check out eateries that serve up snacks and modest entrees for those seeking rest and relaxation from atop scenic rooftops. Rooftops often keep their menus small and simple, allowing kitchens to get creative and serve up unique foods to make experiences memorable. So, kick back and come hungry, and let’s enjoy some food with a view!