Prescott culinary revolution is underway

With its most famous attraction being Whiskey Row, it makes sense that Prescott for long has had an old-fashioned approach to food, with "pairings": Shot and steak, beer and burger, Chianti and pasta.

As far as "old school Prescott" restaurant ambience: Old rodeo posters, Western gear and historic photos.

That may be changing, as what can be called "invasion of the foodies" is well underway.

"It was apparent on arrival today that Prescott is not a food town," a visitor from Los Angeles snarkily wrote on Yelp ... but that was way back in August.

Come back, Jennifer O. of L.A: Creative, non-traditional food and drink makers are popping up around Prescott like gourmet popcorn. And believe it or not, Jennifer, these are the kind of places you might see in West Hollywood, or maybe in SoHo on the other coast.

In the past few weeks, Superstition Meadery and Tara Thai - kindred spirits in creative food, drink and atmosphere - opened within a block of each other downtown. Menu items at these two feature the likes of pineapple curry and home-made honey wine.

The Point - surely one of Prescott's hippest L.A.-ish bars - and Black Hole Brewery are two new-school watering holes that opened in the last year. Both have chefs creating menus that will make fellow foodies salivate, such as Black Hole's lamb brat burger, rated "damned good" by patron Slim Monzon.

"I don't like the bland food that has been a staple of Prescott," said Black Hole chef Harley Ray Guy, a native who honed his food skills in the Caribbean, then came home to join a culinary revolution.

"There are some new ideas in food here, now," said Guy, who enjoys talking food with Vincent Veltre, who will soon unveil a new menu at The Point. "I think it's great ... I'm seeing a unity of different places."

One of those places is BiGA (pronounced "bee-ga"), a deceptively small eatery on Miller Valley Road. It may be just a few hundred feet from the Rodeo Fairgrounds and the "World's Oldest Rodeo," but BiGA is miles from old-school Prescott.

Its menu changes daily, with the likes of trout piccata and roasted beet salad to go along with the star, Asian turkey burger.

"BiGA has a menu that's not cowboy-heavy," says Jeanne Morrison, who moved from New Mexico to Prescott in June 2013 - coincidentally when her soon-to-be favorite restaurant was opening. "It's not traditional. It's not like most of the restaurants in Prescott."

And it's not just the food at BiGA, Morrison says. She makes the sign of the cross, saying four words that have become sacred, to her: "Thumb Butte Lemon Drop."

The vodka in that drink comes from Prescott's own Thumb Butte Distillery, which opened its Washington Avenue tasting room this spring. That opening was worthy of a toast for the adventurous foodie, who is not just looking to eat local, but looking to raise the bar by "drinking local."

For the thirsty gourmet, in addition to the spirits of Thumb Butte, there is plenty of Prescott-made beer - new microbrewers Black Hole and Granite Mountain have joined veteran heavyweight Prescott Brewing Company.

And now, Prescott has its own honey wine.

Supernatural drink

Saturday night, a downtown venue had its grand opening: Superstition Meadery.

That's "meadery" - not "meatery."

From behind a bar made of ponderosa pine blown down in Flagstaff's 2010 tornado, facing a wall made of salvaged wood from the 2011 Wallow Fire, Superstition owner/Phoenix firefighter Jeff Herbert took a break from serving customers to wax about his favorite subject.

"Mead is the oldest fermented beverage in human history," says Herbert, who himself is a human cocktail, one part history buff, two parts chemist, dash of social butterfly with heavy adventuresome spirit.

As mead comes from hives, fittingly Superstition was buzzing - and it wasn't just from the strong (13 percent alcohol content) beverages.

Customers were whispering excitedly about the visual touches of the tasteful tasting room. Jeff and Jennifer Herbert's new place is in the basement of the historic Burmister Building. Several noted the meadery has a speakeasy feel, which makes Herbert's grin widen.

"We wanted the repurposed materials and final design to reflect the history of the building," said Herbert, getting a nod of affirmation from his wife and business partner, Jennifer.

"And we were looking for a 1920s speakeasy feel."

Bulls-eye, patrons are saying.

"It's charming," said Teya Starre. "Kind of exclusive - but not snobby."

Her husband, Kaben, said Superstition reminds him of the Beverly Hills Cigar Club.

And, rather than the traditional, anything-fried Prescott bar appetizers, Superstition serves light, healthy tapas fare, olives, apricots, cheeses, cured meats.

The Starres came to Prescott from California, and say they are noticing the more ambitious food and drink places like Superstition. They also are fans of Cork and Cuisine in Prescott Valley. "These types of places are growing," Teya Starre said.

Jess Kozel, the "meadtender" at Superstition, will second that.

"I walked into Thara Thai," she said, "and I was like, 'I'm in downtown Chicago!'"

Buddha and koi

Indeed, stepping off the Cortez Street sidewalk into the new restaurant, you may feel like you've left "old Prescott" behind.

The centerpiece of Tara Thai is a long koi pond, fed by a soothing waterfall cascading from a Buddha statue.

"Everyone says how beautiful this place is," says Erica West, bartender (you may remember her from Prescott Valley's Fireside, which closed recently) at Tara Thai.

The centerpiece of the restaurant is a visual metaphor for how owners Vernon Rex Cullum and Matthew Boykan worked together.

"I knew I wanted my koi pond," said Cullum, who opened the original Tara Thai in Prescott Valley a dozen years ago. "Matt had the great idea of putting the Buddha in. Every idea one of us came up with, the other one elaborated on."

Cullum's personal culinary evolution pre-dates Prescott's. "I grew up in meat-and-potatoes land, where the most exotic spice was black pepper," he said. "I moved to the Bay Area in my 20s and thought I died and went to heaven."

There, he discovered foods from around the world, notably Thailand. And he met a Thai woman who became his wife - and led him to his business partner. Cullum's now ex-wife is Boykan's wife's aunt.

"I came from Vegas," says Boykan. "Moved here a year ago with the sole purpose of moving the restaurant here (from Prescott Valley)."

Like Superstition Meadery, Tara Thai has a "repurposed" vision. A huge fireplace is made from a wall knocked down when neighboring Bill's Pizza expanded. And - mirroring the meadery - the long Tara bar is made of pine blown down in the Flagstaff twister.

The Thai spot also mixes old and new, but on a much grander canvas than the basement Superstition.

The 4,800-square-foot restaurant that seats 110 - four times the size of the PV location - took months to come to life, at the expense of pints of sweat and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"We wanted to really bring some class to Prescott," Boykan said.

Having lived in the Prescott area for nearly 20 years, Cullum has a good handle on the culinary landscape: "It's very traditional, Western fare."

So, is Prescott ready to leave steak-and-rodeo-posters for curry-and-koi-pond?

"I think Prescott's at that growth stage where it's evolving to some upper scale places," said Boykan.

"I'm hoping people feel part of it."

His partner is more pragmatic. "I'd say let the results speak for themselves," Cullum said, smiling past the exhaustion of packed houses for lunches and dinners.

"We're pretty happy with the first few weeks of service."

Business also is booming around the corner, where the mead is flowing and the Herberts are being showered with honeying adulations. In less than a month, Superstition has received 1,084 Facebook "likes," suggesting Prescott was ready for a mead market.

"When I go into Tara Thai or The Point or our place," said Jeff Herbert, "I see that we're building on this classic Prescott architecture and introducing something new."

Across town at the Black Hole, culinary scientist Guy says he feels like he is at the beginning of a food wave.

"I hope it's the beginning of something really good," Guy said.

"I'm hoping chefs keep raising the bar."

Follow Tom Scanlon on Twitter @tomscanlonpress