Greg LaPrad is no newcomer to the restaurant business. The 32-year-old chef spent eight years at the helm of Quiessence, in Phoenix, where his creative farm-to-table fare earned him a devoted Valley following. But since last October, when he opened Overland Trout in the high desert grasslands of southern Arizona’s wine country, he has discovered that he still has a few things to learn.
LaPrad is not only facing the challenges of rural life in Sonoita (population: 818), with logistical glitches like slower, or nonexistent, product delivery. In setting out to define borderlands cuisine, to create, as he puts it, “a Sonoran-Arizona cooking style that’s distinct from New Mexican and Tex-Mex,” the chef is also butting up against the limits of trying to establish a sense of place in a place that already has a distinct sense of its own identity—one that sometimes parts ways with the chef’s concept.
Not that LaPrad is trying to impose an outsider’s vision of the region. Quite the contrary. He and his staff have done extensive historical research on the food of the Santa Cruz County area, much of it at the library in nearby Patagonia. This research is the source of the restaurant’s tongue-in-cheek name—“overland trout” is cowboy slang for bacon—and it inspires much of the menu.
Take the three oyster dishes that are staples of the shape-shifting bill of fare. LaPrad says, “We saw photographs of piles of oysters behind restaurants in Tombstone. Protected by their shells, they would travel well on trains from the East Coast in the cooler months, even without ice or refrigeration.” As a result, he says, “Oysters were part of the culture and identity of the area. Cowboys on the range for weeks at a time would look forward to their fresh flavors when they came back into town.”
Not, apparently, many of the locals—which is why running Overland Trout can be a bit of a juggling act. LaPrad reports strong traffic on the weekends from Tucson and Phoenix, and figures that he’ll get the more adventurous diners who are open to trying something new when they come down once or twice a year to visit the wineries. But in order to get the restaurant in the black, he says, “We need to actively engage the people who are around us, to give them a reason to come in for dinner once a week.”
This is a very different MO from Quiessence. “With millions of people in the Phoenix area, you can do what you like, and there’s a market for it somewhere,” LaPrad says.
“You only need to draw .01 percent of the population and you’ll be a big success.” The Mountain Empire area—as the nexus of Sonoita, Patagonia, and Elgin is sometimes known—totals 3,300 to 3,500 people, and LaPrad estimates that he needs some 75 or 80 percent of them to come in regularly.
Combatting suspicions about big city dining snobbery is essential to this enterprise. Rather than being able to rest on his gourmet laurels, LaPrad says, “I have Quiessence to live down, the idea that this is a fancy, special occasion restaurant.”
With fine-tuning based on constantly sought-after diner feedback, the menu now incorporates items designed to appeal to a broad range of tastes while still maintaining a creative edge. The French fries, for example, are dusted with Mexican oregano and chiltepin peppers from the region.
And there is always a dish on the menu called Meat and Potatoes that costs less than $20 and is “a tribute to the cowboys who were just hearty, down home eaters, and not big on vegetables,” LaPrad says. The preparations are simple—slow roasted pork, say, with mashed potatoes—and more-or-less vegetable free, but LaPrad also slips in such gourmet garnishes as shaved marinated radishes.
Even catering to meat-and-potato tastes is not without complications. This is ranching country, home to large commercial enterprises that produce corn-fed cattle. Many locals are unaccustomed to grass-fed beef, a staple of Overland Trout’s menu. But it cuts both ways in the borderlands; in Mexico, as in most of the world outside the United States, cattle graze on grass. LaPrad says, laughing, “One of our servers is from Nogales, Mexico, and he says that people in his country come up to the U.S. and ask, ‘What’s wrong with your beef? It tastes weird.’”
Another ball to keep in the air: Paying tribute to the area’s Mexican roots while cooking outside the mainstream, highlighting a tradition different from familiar Americanized street food like tacos and quesadillas. Instead, the menu might feature Pastel de Azteca, corn tortillas layered with slow-roasted chicken, poblano chiles, panela cheese, and salsa verde—“almost a play on lasagne, a traditional hearty recipe that someone’s grandmother would make them at home,” says LaPrad.
The chef’s animation when he talks about his creations dispels any sense you might get of concern about Overland Trout’s bottom line. And while one sector of the community may pose some resistance to his cooking ambitions, LaPrad has had nothing but support from another that’s central to his enterprise—the winemakers.
LaPrad began coming down to the area to buy Arizona wines for Quiessence, and was soon buddying up with vintners like Kent Callaghan of Callaghan Vineyards and Todd and Kelly Bostock of Dos Cabezas Wineworks. He fell in love with the landscape, and with the idea of being part of the growing wine industry in Sonoita, the oldest in the state and its only designated American Viticultural Area (AVA).
In 2013, LaPrad was at the end of his lease at Quiessence when a space on Sonoita’s main street, where Viaggio Italiano used to be, opened up. “I had the opportunity to make a change, and the stars kind of aligned,” LaPrad says.
He is in the process of expanding Overland Trout’s wine list and getting it ready for evaluation by Wine Spectator magazine. LaPrad says, “We eventually plan to have the largest Arizona wine list in the state … really, in the world.” But he also wants to provide wine lovers with the context of an international selection, to put the state’s bottles on the world stage. This can only benefit the community, too: “We have lots of winemakers here every night who don’t necessarily want to drink only Arizona wines. Drinking something from France, from Spain, from South America, experiencing different flavors, gives them inspiration.”
Local spirits such as bacanora, distilled from agave grown in Sonora and only recently imported legally into the United States, are also given the big picture treatment. In the Smoke and Mirrors cocktail, for example, the bacanora is embraced by orange and chocolate Sabra liqueur along with ginger beer. And international classics get a local spin. An infusion of local bison grass into the vodka gives the Sonoita Grasslands Martini a distinctive kick.
Pointing to the sweeping grassland vistas from the picture windows and from the back patio, bartender Steven Blume calls the martini he created “this view in a glass.” The vistas, the rustic equipale chairs, tile floor, photographs of local scenes—they all enhance the sense of place created by the food and drink. And that’s the ultimate goal. “I want people to come from Tucson, Chicago, Boston, or anywhere else, and say they had an experience that was unique to the region, something they wouldn’t find anywhere else,” LaPrad says.
The restaurateur is looking forward to partnering with the wineries to convey the message that Overland Trout is just the latest incentive to visit this region. Former customers from the Phoenix area head for Sedona when the mercury rises, and LaPrad wants them to consider the Mountain Empire. “It’s beautiful here, too, and we’re at about 5,000 feet so it’s cooler in the summertime.”
He still has his work cut out for him, getting the word out to a larger market while securing the home front, but LaPrad is optimistic. “We have a lot to learn about how to best serve this community,” he says, “but so far most people have been willing to trust us and try different things. We hope this continues.”
Those of us who live within easy driving distance of Overland Trout fervently hope so too. ✜
Overland Trout. 3266 Highway 82, Sonoita. 520.455.9316.
Edie Jarolim is a freelance writer and editor. Her articles have appeared in Eating Well, National Geographic Traveler, Sunset and Travel + Leisure, among other major publications, and she is the author of three travel guides and one dog book.
UPDATE: Overland Trout has been closed as of April 2015.