A longtime restaurateur and a seasoned chef have teamed up to transport diners to a culinary Mexican oasis with “sand-to-table” seafood, flavorful chiles and fruit-filled cocktails in a new downtown Chandler eatery.
Julian Wright, owner of Pedal Haus Brewery on South Mill Avenue in Tempe, plans to open Las Palmas Cantina at 95 W. Boston St., May 19 in what used to be Vintage 95.
Hoping to give visitors the feel of sandy beaches and warm breezes, he has teamed up with Michael O’Dowd, who will be the head chef.
O’Dowd, a chef for more than 30 years, worked for more than 10 years as executive chef for the Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass. There, he planned the menus for Kai, a AAA Five Diamond/Forbes Five Star restaurant, and other dining options at the resort.
An avid fisherman, he had also worked as executive chef at L’Auberge de Sedona for more than a year. After taking annual trips to Mexican beach towns like Playa del Carmen and Tulum, Wright decided to bring the cultural and lifestyle elements of that tropical region to his next restaurant.
O’Dowd said Las Palmas will offer “Yucatán-inspired cuisine with an emphasis on coastal dishes.” “We’ll be kind of recreating some of the dishes you might find in that tropical area of Mexico,” Wright said. “That whole region from Costa Rica to St. Thomas is all sort of tropical. You’ve got tropical fruits and veggies. We’ll be representing coastal, southern Mexico in our dishes, which includes a lot of seafood, lighter food.”
O’Dowd said the dishes will include snapper, triggerfish, corvine and white fish, as well as at least three to four varieties of ceviche – a dish that typically includes raw fish and seafood combined with vinegar or citrus juices from limes and lemons.
Among them is a “Bloody Mary-style” ceviche with a tomato, horseradish root, avocado and grilled shrimp, he said.
“It’s not your typical Mexican restaurant, where it’s really based on a lot of heavy beans and rice,” O’Dowd said. “You’ll have coconuts, mangoes, papaya and lime and fresh seafood from the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean area.
“The techniques and methods are gonna be a little bit lighter and driven more (by) tropical flavor profiles but yet still have chiles. I’m still able to bring in accents from around the world. It’s almost like Yucatán-inspired cuisine with global accents.”
O’Dowd said he enjoys using his kitchen for a kind of cultural exchange.
“What I like to do is find out about different cultures and learn about what people ate and bring a twist to the past and bring some uniqueness to the future,” he said.
O’Dowd, who was still in the test kitchen working on the menu recently, said he might use curries from India and mix them with coconut to create a coconut soup or sauce.
He plans to spice up meals with guajillo, Ají Amarillo, pasilla and other Mexican chiles.
“I haven’t really seen anyone in Arizona exploring this type of cuisine or region,” O’Dowd said. “Being able to learn about the culture and history of the Mayans and create a way to pay homage to the past while creating new ideas, dishes and flavors is what I thrive on.”
The menu will have many dishes that can be shared as well as street-style bites.
A “shaken greens” salad with spicy jerk chicken, sweet corn, local goat cheese and date jam will be offered at Las Palmas. Cochinita pibil or slow-cooked pork, likely paired with dirty rice, will be one of the heartier meats on the menu.
O’Dowd said Las Palmas will also have a “spin on tacos or just tacos itself” with fresh tortillas made in-house. The new restaurant also will offer its own version of “street corn nachos” at the bar with corn, cheese and queso fresco.
O’Dowd said he has worked “all over,” including at the now-closed Marquesa at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, as well as at the Stanhope Hotel in New York City and The Jefferson Hotel in Washington, D.C.
He is excited to set up shop in Chandler.
“What I like about it is that I think it’s still a little bit untouched and there’s a lot of curiosity and foodies overall, foodies in Chandler,” O’Dowd said.
“I love to see what’s going on with the build-out, the city’s plan for Chandler,” the Scottsdale resident said.
“People are becoming more and more foodies and enjoying dinner outside. We want to give them that opportunity to have fun and relax, really build a culture around a thriving sort of interesting food scene in Chandler.”
Wright said when he was considering a location for the restaurant, “I was looking for an area that basically wasn’t overdeveloped.”
“I like areas that have an urban feel and some kind of synergy with other businesses,” Wright said. “I just knew a bunch of folks down here. That, and I really like the building.
“I’m looking forward to being a part of downtown Chandler and to bringing one of my favorite regions of the world to this community. I love that Chandler is still very independent. Everyone is still very much your neighbor.”
The restaurant’s 5,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space will include two bars, two patios and an eclectic elevated deck area designed to look like beach-side cafes. Garage-style doors added to the front and back of the building will allow diners to see Boston Street clear through to the elevated back patio. Wright said the indoor area will have a “bit more high-energy and kind of hip” feel to it while the back patio will be “very casual and laidback.”
The idea is customers who want a more relaxed vibe while they wear shorts and flip-flops can hang out on the back deck while those who want to dress up might prefer dining inside, he added.
Wright, who has been in the restaurant business since the 1990s, opened his first restaurant, Jax Thai Bar, in Tempe in 2000. He has owned several other restaurants in the Valley including La Bocca Urban Kitchen + Wine Bar in Tempe and North Phoenix and Canteen Modern Tequila Bar, formerly in Tempe.
Folks visiting Las Palmas will be able to try specialty tropical cocktails and craft-brewed Mexican-style beers made specifically for the restaurant. The drinks will have a heavy emphasis on tequila, mezcal and rum.
Barb Harris of Tempe is eager to try Las Palmas because she has “eaten at all of Julian’s restaurants.” The public relations consultant and her husband, Scott, are regulars at Pedal Haus Brewery.
“I’m really excited about it,” Harris said. “(Julian) and I had been talking about it for a while. I’m excited about it because that’s really that type of food is something my husband and I love, the creative, the street tacos; the food out of Oaxaca.
“It just looks like its going to be such a great vibe. I’m really excited about Michael O’Dowd being the chef. We’re kind of beach people. We go down to Puerto Peñasco all the time.”
Las Palmas is looking for more employees. Anyone may apply in person at 95 W. Boston St. or by visiting LasPalmasAZ.com.