SONOITA — Adam Puckle has a burger on the menu at The Cafe called APE.
That stands for Adam Puckle Experience — and it’s just that. Order it and tell the chef if you have any food allergies. Then sit back and see what he comes up with.
At lunchtime Friday, he topped our salt-and-pepper-seasoned half-pound beef patty with roasted pablono chiles that delivered a subtle bite, sweet caramelized grilled onions and thick bacon that was grilled just south of crispy so that it was chewy and smoky and had a meaty tug to it.
It wasn’t as crazy as some of his combinations: his takeoff on the bacon cheeseburger à la grilled cheese sandwiches adds a Southwest twist. He sandwiches the behemoth burger between a pair of gooey cheese quesadillas filled with green chiles, sour cream and guacamole.
“I tend to make crap up as I go along,” said the 26-year-old chef, who has owned and operated The Cafe since early 2011. “I find random ingredients and I will make a burger special for someone. One of my favorites is when I do a beer-battered burger. People absolutely love it because they don’t expect it.”
If Hollywood was casting for the perfect cafe where townsfolk would gather for an alien invasion, this would be it. It’s funky, yet respectful, hip, yet not off-putting, and the food is familiar but just different enough that you will feel like you are experiencing a grilled cheese sandwich for the very first time.
“It’s younger and hipper. It’s not just a sandwich shop,” said Puckle’s mother and landlord, Jana Gallatin, who bought the former Sonoita Cafe in 2006. Her sister ran it until 2010.
Gallatin recruited Puckle in late 2010 to take over the cafe, where he and his older brother, Erik Boumeester, worked when they were teens. The cafe has been in business in Sonoita for 30 years along Sonoita’s main stretch restaurants. Her son gave the restaurant a new name — The Cafe — and a much-needed bath before reopening in early 2011.
In the nearly three years since, Puckle has put in wooden tables and chairs and added Western-style artwork from local artists. A multi-tiered wine shelf near the counter that looks into the small kitchen showcases a few Sonoita wines alongside California vintages.
“I wanted to capture the essence of Sonoita and the Sonoita I grew up in,” said Puckle, who was born in Sierra Vista and was raised from age 6 in Elgin.
The menu is a mix of salads and sandwiches all given the Adam Puckle touch. A Caesar salad is kicked in the romaine with a spicy chipotle dressing; pepper jack and chopped smoky chipotle peppers are paired with bacon on a burger; and the tuna melt is served open-face with a cool, crisp tomato. Puckle marries cheddar, provolone and Swiss in his grilled cheese sandwich, then slicks it up with a housemade pesto for a garlicky, cheesy finish.
That’s his lunch menu. Dinner includes deep-fried Atlantic cod, slow-roasted prime rib and four pasta dishes including a veggie and linguine pesto, eggplant or chicken Parmesan and a rich bacon Alfredo over linguine topped by fresh basil and sun-dried tomatoes.
Puckle, who studied culinary arts at Northern Arizona University and Pima Community College, has turned the small sandwich shop into a hip diner where ordinary just won’t do.
“It’s modern American fare, taking the older recipes and I put a little twist on them,” he explained, then described a coconut and cilantro chicken dish as an example. “I honestly cook whatever I want, but it changes a lot.”
On Friday, Puckle flipped his grilled cheese masterpiece onto a white plate with a mess of fries and dinged the bell. “Order up,” he said and a server scooped up the plate and delivered it and three others to a table of four early-30s vineyards visitors. As they oohed and ahed over thick burgers and that grilled cheese, Puckle smiled.
“He knows the people here,” said Gallatin, who still owns the building but not the cafe, and bakes for the restaurant. “He senses what it is that they want and he tries to give it to them.”