Mercado-Area

Tía Carmen/Submitted

By Jordan Houston

Widely known for his appearances on TV shows like Bravo’s “Top Chef” and HBO Max’s “Selena + Chef,” Angelo Sosa recalls two contrasting childhood experiences that shaped his culinary career.

The renowned chef, born in Connecticut to a Dominican father and Italian mother, grew up in a “strict” and “militant” household. He spent most weekends laboring in the garden and preparing ingredients for the family’s weekly Sunday “feast,” he says.

“Chores were taken very seriously, and part of my chores was to be my father’s sous chef,” Sosa says. “On the weekends, there were no flying kites or playing kickball. It was 5 a.m. garden weeding, tilling and harvesting the vegetables or feeding the compost.”

Then, on the flip side of the coin, there was his Tía Carmen’s house in Queens, New York — where he recounts a starkly different family dinner scene.

Sosa says his siblings during their visits “would slam the front door open and run past the kitchen to go play outside.” Meanwhile, Sosa was lured into his aunt’s kitchen.

“I was a 9-year-old boy, and I was tugged into the kitchen. It was like losing a battle of tug of war. I was tugged into the beautiful aromas of tarragon,” he says. “I would prop myself up on the kitchen, and I would watch my tía. Many times, I only saw her from the back — I just saw her motions, movements, and the heart and passion.

“When it was time to eat, it was really beautiful. She wouldn’t even eat until she heard laughter, joy or just love radiating in the room,” he continues. “In that moment, the contrast — I remember that strict, militant home, and I’m staring at this woman in total awestruck. I knew I wanted to become a chef, and this was love. I knew my love language was cooking.”

Now, Sosa is honoring his late aunt’s legacy of love and influence with his new Phoenix contemporary Southwestern concept, Tía Carmen.

Located at the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa, 5350 E. Marriott Drive, Sosa debuted the restaurant in April alongside seasoned restaurant operator Mark Stone.

“It’s very important to me that we’re not just serving food or just serving drinks,” Sosa says. “When you come in, you’re greeted with a gesture with a hand to the heart, acknowledging the people and acknowledging the guest. I want people to feel transformed and feel my Tía Carmen’s spirit in this space.”

Tía Carmen, Sosa’s first Arizona restaurant, features flavors imbued from a wood-fired grill and aims to emphasize “the beauty and ingredients of the region.”

The chef spent the past year and a half studying Arizona’s food scene while traveling back and forth between Phoenix and his California home.

He also collaborated with a variety of state-based purveyors, including Hypha Foods, the lead producer of foraged mushrooms, and Arizona Grass Raised Beef and Top Knot Farms to incorporate responsibly raised meats.

“I want to pay homage. This is really a love story to the region from me,” Sosa says.

A storytelling menu

Open for breakfast and dinner, Tía Carmen’s menu celebrates the local landscape, farmers and community of the Southwest.

Signature dinner dishes include tuna crudo with chilled corn coconut broth, smoked chile oil and a dill garnish; Southwestern style wagyu tri-tip kebabs; lamb ragu with mesquite noodles, pork and Sichuan peppercorn; and a chicken guisado featuring olives, chimayo chile, garlic and turmeric rice.

The tepary bean mole negro, however, is one of Tía Carmen’s major focal points, according to the chef.

The mole, aged for 22 weeks prior to being served, is made with Chimayó chile, canela, bay leaf and pecans. The crowd-pleasing side was inspired by local farmers like Ramona Button of Ramona Farms, who Sosa says introduced him to the indigenous tepary beans.

He also credits the recipe to renowned chef Celia Florian of Las Quince Letras. Sosa says the Oaxacan chef shard a mole recipe with him while he was visiting Oaxaca.

“I’m just a storyteller of the region, of the community, of the rancher or the farmer that is waking up at 3 a.m. and working until 8 at night,” Sosa says. “I really want this restaurant to transform people and to make an impact financially to enrich the community and make it more abundant.”

A majority of Tía Carmen’s ingredients stem from the restaurant’s own Chef Garden, spearheaded by Farmer Nate’s Produce. It supplies organic vegetable, fruits and herbs as needed, according to a press release.

“It’s so beautiful. It’s so much more than just the cuisine in itself. It is my discovery through the Southwest,” Sosa says. “As we change menus, it’s as I change as I learn.”

During breakfast, the Tía Carmen Mercado, inspired by a combination of a Mexican marketplace and Southwestern farmers market, features not only traditional breakfast offerings but specialty dishes such as green chile pork, breakfast birria, native grain fried rice and an ornate variety of aguas frescas as well.

Tía Carmen’s cocktail program centers around local herbs and spices, as well as Arizona’s own spirits Whiskey Del Bac and a broad program of artisanal agave spirits.

Cocktail highlights include the Prickly Pear Adonis with noble wines, house-made prickly pear shrub, and bitters; Aguachile Margarita with blanco tequila, St. Germain, cucumber juice, lime juice and aguachile simple syrup; and the Hibiscus Desert Balloon with gin, hibiscus cordial, aloe, citrus and dry sherry topped with a berry vapor bubble, among others.

The restaurant’s wine program pulls heavily from Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe, according to Sosa. It also features wines from the West Coast and “emerging European producers.”

“We’re not aiming to be trendy. I just want it to be authentic — people telling real stories and having an impact in the community,” Sosa says. “I want to do something that is provocative, innovative, empowering, thoughtful and genuine. I want to really be that conduit and that storyteller.”

Where ‘earth meets art’

The 130-seat restaurant, designed in collaboration with the Thomas Schoos of Los Angeles-based hospitality design firm Schoos Design, exudes an “earth meets art” theme, Sosa says.

The organic modern aesthetic represents a “clean, warm palette of sophisticated natural simplicity that was developed to harmonize” with Sosa’s description of his tía as a woman of “passion, love and humility.”

Soft curves and arches permeate throughout the space, complemented by “calming hues.” Handmade plaster light fixture clusters featuring organic spherical shapes radiate light throughout the concept, while natural woven dome fixtures draw attention to the bar area’s plush lounge seating.

“The ceilings are extremely high, but each room feels very intimate,” Sosa says. “We have all of these chandeliers that come down and you feel enrobed by the space, even though it’s so decadent. I think there is a lot of light coming into the space, so it’s very light, fresh and airy.”

The exterior boasts a natural desert landscape, open adobe-style fireplace and native Southwestern pueblo-style architectural latilla structures.

Honoring humility

A protégé of Jean-George Vongerichten, Sosa is known for his work alongside pedigreed restaurateurs to the likes of Alain Ducasse, Stephen Starr and Masaharu Morimoto.

Sosa has opened multiple restaurants, including the Michelin-recommended Añejo in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, Anejo Tribeca, Mexican cantina Abajo, and Death by Tequila named “Best New Restaurant” by San Diego Magazine.

Accolades aside, Sosa says his tía’s influence has helped to keep him grounded — making his Phoenix concept the ultimate tribute and testament.

“When I was younger, it was always about the result, result and result. I think the journey, the people, the stories, and the relationships and connections have been really powerful for me — and that has enriched the canvas of Tía Carmen,” he says.

“She (Tía Carmen) was humble, beyond kind, generous and very giving. She was very fiery and spicy, and I guess that’s how you could describe my food to a degree, too,” Sosa continues. “She taught me the essence of humility. The peak and pinnacle for me is reaching success and being humble with that success.”

Sosa has authored two cookbooks, “Flavor Exposed: 100 Global Recipes from Sweet to Salty, Earth to Spicy” and “Healthy Latin Eating: Our Favorite Family Recipes Remixed.” The latter, a collaboration with TV and radio personality Angie Martinez, stems from Sosa’s Dominican heritage, according to his biography.

Eager to continue his evolution as not only a chef but also as a vessel to radiate love, humility and homage back into Arizona’s local culinary scene, Sosa says he is ecstatic to add Tía Carmen into the mix of Phoenix’s already burgeoning market.

“Everything in life is about time and place,” Sosa says. “Arizona is getting a lot of attention right now — there are a lot of amazing restaurants.  I feel more honored to be at this time in this place.”

Tía Carmen is open for breakfast from 7 to 11 a.m. daily. Dinner is served from 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and closed for Monday.

Tía Carmen

For more information, visit @TiaCarmen.PHX on Instagram or tiacarmendesertridge.com.