White water rapids inspired Roaring Fork, but the restaurant resides in an office park.
Named for a river in western Colorado that’s famous for whitewater rafting, this home for cowboy cuisine was originally located in a smaller space, nearby in Scottsdale. Thanks to the cooking of chef Robert McGrath, Roaring Fork became so popular that the concept needed bigger digs. Chef McGrath and his partners chose to move to a corner location on the ground floor of Portales Corporate Center.
Our waitress described McGrath as a “bigger-than-life, rock star chef.” He must have some chops. In 2001, the James Beard Foundation named him Best Chef: Southwest. Unfortunately, by the night I ate there, McGrath had already moved on. In the fall of 2006, McGrath sold his share of Roaring Fork to investors and planned to retire. Unfortunately, McGrath’s close friend Chris Pischke was found dead in October. In November, McGrath bought his friend’s legendary Old Town Scottsdale restaurant, Pischke’s Paradise, to help preserve his friend’s legacy. Thankfully, Roaring Fork was left in good hands. Sous chef Bryan Hulihee took over as executive chef, and dinner was strong.
On the patio, a massive planter holds several varieties of cacti, plus decorative cowboy boots.
In keeping with Roaring Fork’s “Western Bistro” theme, an elk antler chandelier hangs by the bar.
Roaring Fork’s powerhouse bread basket held mini bacon scallion biscuits, mini jalapeno cornbread muffins, and rolls, and came with a plate of regular and chipotle honey butter.
New Mexico Fondue Pot ($11.50) centered around a bubbling cauldron of pepper jack cheese that was sprinkled with chile flakes. There was a variety of interesting dipping options: three luscious lamb chops, cubes of butternut squash, fresh apples and crouton-like chile pistachio bread cubes. Some ingredients were more natural partners for the cheese (the lamb chops) than others (butternut squash and decorative rosemary sprigs).
The second appetizer combined tempura white Gulf shrimp ($9.50), fried in a delicate crispy corn & cilantro batter, accented with chipotle remoulade and refreshing tortilla-mango slaw.
Crispy boneless, buttermilk-fried chicken ($17) arrived atop spicy black peppercorn gravy and paired with a sinful mound of “loaded” mashed potatoes.
Duck breast ($26) was stellar, over an inch thick, yet rosy hued and really tender. The breast was rubbed with chili powder and sugar, then topped with a sweet dollop of onion jam. The quacker was plated with Brussels sprouts (aka “little cabbages”) and drizzled with sour cherry mustard. Excellent. Any duck has fatty skin on the breast, but the chili and sugar rub fostered a caramelized treat.
Green chili macaroni ($5) was a standout side, golden-crusted, green-tinged mac & cheese cooked with poblano chilies and pepper jack cheese and served in a metal bucket to retain heat.
Roaring Fork offered an interesting drink selection. One of the better cocktails: a huckleberry margarita made with huckleberry puree. Less interesting: a bottle of Henry Weinhard’s root beer.
The dessert list was long, but certainly not lean. After such a filling meal, we could barely manage to share an atypical “banana split” ($7.50) that ate more like a banana-filled churro. A banana was rolled in flour tortillas and flash fried, so the banana became gooey. This was a serious dessert dusted with cinnamon sugar, sprinkled with shaved almonds, drizzled with chocolate sauce and topped with a big scoop of banana ice cream.
Chef McGrath left months ago, but he was kind enough to leave behind his sous chef and his recipes. That turned out to be more than enough to produce an impressive meal, from appetizer through dessert. Our waitress hinted at an impending revised menu. Based on the food we ate, I wouldn’t be surprised if Chef Hulihee is able to deliver a good meal. If not, enjoy these winning dishes while you can.