By Octavio Serrano
When Chef Matt Carter formulates his restaurant ideas, he asks himself, “What do I like that I can’t eat here?”
The Mission’s chef/co-owner did just that when he was creating the eatery’s second location at Kierland Commons. Both restaurants bring authentic Latin food, especially from Peru, to the Valley with a wealth of knowledge of its roots. Carter recently named Zachery Riddell the executive chef for both Mission restaurants after working together for about 10 years.
Together, they want to keep breaking the rules of traditional cuisine and deliver authentic food with their own twist.
“Once they eat, they say, ‘Wait, this is Mexican food maybe, but this is different,’” Carter says. “Breaking expectations is probably the biggest thing we do.”
The Mission on East Greenway Parkway and N. 71st Avenue resembles a traditional Latin church. The two-story restaurant seats customers on a balcony to enjoy their meals, and in a VIP room for private events or work meetings.
On the first floor, a large cross illuminates the bar, giving it an authentic “mission” feel.
“The idea was to make it look like an old mission in Mexico that had been built by Spaniards a hundred years before,” Carter says.
Its intricate decor, however, is not the only reason customers will make the trip to The Mission.
The Mission doesn’t shy away from creating a menu that may seem foreign to Americans. For lunch, The Mission offers crispy rock shrimp tacos that are battered with Tecate, rocoto crema, cortija and shaved cabbage ($14), and the pollo a la brasa ($12) comes with aji rocoto, oregano, lime, white bean puree, cabbage, avocado and cojita cheese.
If customers would prefer something more filling, The Mission’s “tortas” will hit the spot. The black bean torta ($12) comes with Oaxaca cheese, and a fried egg, while the Cubano ($12) is served with pork belly, smoked ham, swiss cheese, pickle and dijonnaise.
The dinner menu is diverse, featuring the New Bedford diver scallops ($32) with gigante beans, merquen mussel broth, pepita butter and charred scallions. The green chile duck confit ($30) is served with Oaxaca cheese, grilled mushrooms, sultanas, serrano peanut mole, apple and radish.
Although its lunch and dinner specials offer intricate and unique recipes, the magic of The Mission comes in the details.
Customers who can’t wait for their food can try the tableside guacamole ($14), with jalapeno, red onion, fresh garlic, sea salt, lime, tomatoes, chipotle puree, cilantro, cotija and roasted pepitas. Corn or flour tortillas are served on salt rock.
If there is room for dessert, the espresso churros ($9) are served with cinnamon, brown sugar and Ibarra chocolate milkshake.
The Mission’s roots
Although Carter is passionate about Latin cuisine now, there was a time where he knew nothing about food, until he found himself at a crossroads.
“I kind of fell into cooking back in 1988. I was in San Diego and I got a job washing dishes at a breakfast restaurant,” Carter says.
He returned to Arizona, ready for his next semester at ASU. He quickly realized it was the wrong move.
“I went to ASU for three or two days and said, ‘This isn’t it.’”
He worked at a small French bistro in Old Town and he was hooked. He was exhilarated.
“I fell in love with the cuisine and the food and the chef that was yelling at me every day,” Carter says. “It was awesome. Within six months, I packed up and I moved to France and lived in Paris for two years.”
While he was in France, he worked at restaurants and soaked up knowledge about French cuisine. However, when he returned to America, he found himself torn once again.
He’s schooled in French cuisine, but he didn’t realize Mexican food went beyond what he saw in the Valley. That is until he dined at a Latin restaurant helmed by Douglas Rodriguez in New York. His restaurant ideas were then shaped.
“Growing up here and only been exposed to Sonoran/Mexican food, I didn’t know there was anything besides that,” Carter says. “I ate at his restaurant and I was like, ‘Whoa, there is a whole other world out there that I didn’t know about.’”
Carter debuted The Mission on Brown Avenue and First Street in Old Town. A connoisseur of Latin cuisine, Carter expects his staff to be as coachable and passionate about the food as he is.
In addition, he trains his servers, so they deliver a well-informed dining experience. When guests ask one of The Mission’s servers about the food program, they should be able to respond comfortably.
“We use 32 or 33 different chiles in the restaurant, from fresh to dried to jarred, and understanding those chiles, where they’re from, how we use them and why we use them is something that we want,” Carter says.
It is this kind of attention Carter gives his staff the reason he is excited to have brought Riddell as an executive chef.
New chef on the block
“He (Riddell) knows as much or more about everything on the menu than I do,” Carter says.
Riddell’s time in the kitchen began when he was in his teens.
“When I was in the kitchen, I was 14 years old, getting paid under the table and washing dishes,” Riddell says. “I loved the speed, I love the energy, I love the craziness of it all.”
The Minnesota native graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and eventually made his way into The Mission.
“I went looking for the best restaurants in town and read about Matt Carter online and I was blown away from the food because it was so different than anything I’d seen,” Riddell says.
He started as a line cook and worked through the ranks and learning as much as possible about Latin cuisine. He and Carter share the same passion for food.
“When you learn about the food, you start learning about the cultures of different countries,” Riddell says.
Although Riddell says he will stay true to the roots of The Mission, he is excited to add his own twist. He stays at the top of his game by continuing his education about Central American food.
“I am learning about ingredients from Peru constantly,” Riddell says. “There is just so much history there. Corn comes from there, potatoes come from there and that’s in most of our dishes.
“I want everything to come together. Cooking techniques really elevate every single ingredient that we’re using.”
Riddell says he will continue to create new dishes and experiment, and with Carter’s help, The Mission will propel.
“We’re just doing stuff that other restaurants around here aren’t doing, and I want to continue that. I want to be ahead of the game,” Riddell says.
“There are some rules and a lot of these rules for me in this restaurant don’t exist. I have open room to really explore and that’s why this is the most fun,” Carter adds. ν
3815 N. Brown Avenue,
7122 E. Greenway Parkway, Suite 140, Scottsdale, 480.292.7800, themissionaz.com.