Roaring Fork is actually named after the river that flows through the rocky terrain of Aspen, Colorado. Opened in 1997 by James Beard Award winning chef Robert McGrath, this Scottsdale dining landmark has a history of gastronomic greatness. Known for McGrath’s signature rustic elegance, this restaurant transforms rugged Old West culinary traditions into modern and refined fare. Despite McGrath’s departure from the restaurant in 2006, and a move to the Finova Building shortly thereafter, Roaring Fork’s longstanding tradition of Western American culinary excellence is carried on, by Executive Chef Bryan Hulihee.
The cowboy-chic aesthetic of the food at Roaring Fork is echoed in the restaurant’s atmosphere. Upon entering, guests are greeted by a roaring fire in the open rotisserie behind the host’s desk, displaying the restaurant’s numerous awards. One of many kitschy “antler” chandeliers is hung in the entryway, alerting diners to the rugged Western culinary theme. Yet clean, contemporary lines and a modern, neutral color palette juxtapose such obviously Western accents in this warm, expansive space, replete with sophisticated wood furnishings and classic white linen tablecloths.
Diners are led past an open kitchen, where the aromas of roasting meats and spices entice the appetite. The audible bustle of talented cooks synchronizes with the cheery rustle of lively customers chatting in the saloon. A range of different seating areas inside the restaurant and on Roaring Fork’s beautiful patio allows those seeking a quieter evening to relax and savor the event. Knowledgeable servers and an attentive staff round out the dining experience.
Starters are generously sized and include some distinctly Mexican notes. I ordered the Green Chile Pork Stew with buttered tortillas, which was eagerly recommended by a friendly hostess. This comforting crock of thick, spicy stew comes topped with a crust of bubbling golden jack cheese. Delicate warm flour tortillas are a perfect foil to this bold appetizer, which could have been a wonderful small meal unto itself.
My companion had the Tortilla Soup, which is poured tableside over a bowl of crisp tortilla strips and shredded rotisserie chicken. Garnishes include avocado and a dollop of sour cream. The subtle, inviting flavors of this milder dish might be a good choice for palates sensitive to spice. Those seeking a lighter first course might opt for a tempting salad like the Mixed Baby Greens with candied pecans, blue cheese, and cranberry vinaigrette. Please note that menu items do vary seasonally.
Despite the excellence of appetizers, the entrées left us wishing we had saved a little more room. In a nod to the restaurant’s original chef, Roaring Fork has retained McGrath’s famous “Big Ass” Burger, which continues to be a popular menu item. As this burger’s name amusingly suggests, portions here are not for the faint of heart. Wood-fired cooking methods predominate in many of Roaring Fork’s Flintstone-sized carnivorous delights, lending smoky flavor and Western flare to entrées. While protein portions might be downright prehistoric, the harmonious medley of flavors and simple, stylish presentations in these dishes are completely contemporary. The dedication to local ingredients gives inventive menu items a genuine regional taste.
Unable to decide between the seriously fresh fish and some of Roaring Fork’s other marvelously meaty plates, we decided to split the Sautéed Rainbow Trout and Braised “Dr. Pepper” Short Ribs. After tasting both, I would still be hard pressed to choose just one. The trout was perfectly cooked with crispy skin and a light dusting of chive. Sprinkled with fried capers and roasted almond slices, the fish’s natural flavor shined in a simple brown butter sauce with a final squeeze of roasted lemon. Accompanied by the richest slice of buttery skillet cornbread I have ever tasted, this dish is surely a winner.
The Braised Dr. Pepper Short Ribs were tender and flavorful, shellacked with a saucy coat of the Fork’s own Dr. Pepper glaze. The overall effect of this unusual sauce was savory, with a pleasantly understated sweetness. Perched atop a mountain of perfectly creamy cheese grits and crowned with a few superfluous greens, this dish is a heaping serving of decadence. Luckily, I can also attest to the integrity of flavor in leftovers the next day. Do ask for a doggie bag!
Wine enthusiasts will be pleased to find a carefully selected assortment of offerings, organized by style for easy navigation. With so many wines available by the glass, it is effortless to find something suitable to one’s meal and personal taste. I highly recommend Concha y Toro’s Xplorador Chardonnay from Chile, which paired nicely with the fish and is a great value at $6 a glass. In addition to wine and beer, Roaring Fork has a wide assortment of unique cocktails, for those with more adventuresome palates. Such intriguing concoctions as the Huckleberry Margarita and Prickly Pear Mojito are an appealing diversion from the classics.
If you can manage to cram in a bite of dessert, I suggest sampling the Hot Huckleberry Bread Pudding. This moist, warm indulgence, studded with tart berries and drizzled with huckleberry sauce, is presented atop a shallow pool of crème anglaise with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. The dish is not too sweet and the huckleberries are a nice Western touch. My dining companion ordered the Mexican Vanilla Bean Crème Brûlée, which was flawlessly creamy but a bit too sugary for our tastes. Chocolate lovers might gravitate to the Chocolate Lava Brownie served á la mode, which happens to be a favorite of the manager.
Two other outposts of this successful restaurant have recently been opened in Texas. Yet the Roaring Fork remains a Scottsdale original. With its modern spin on Western American cookery and use of local ingredients, this stylish restaurant is the perfect spot to bring out-of-towners for an authentic taste of Arizona cuisine. The sophisticated ambiance, infused with Old West elements, is a testament to modern Western American dining with a respectful wink at its humble origins. Reflecting our state’s cowboy history in an open-flame approach to cooking and honoring its border locale with a delicate infusion of Mexican accents, Roaring Fork provides tourists and residents with a true sense of place. In a sea of culturally diverse Phoenix restaurants, Roaring Fork manages to be both inspired and indigenous in its revolutionary approach to profoundly Western food.