Updated: Mar 29, 2021
Charming and magical. A delectable, delightful respite. A place to savor and indulge. There’s a reason House of Tricks has been lavished with awards: it is fully deserving. Chef Scott Umscheid and Chef Adam Wright, responsible for much of the acclaim, have over three decades of culinary experience between them, over twenty of those years at House of Tricks. House of Tricks started as a labor of love; with the seamless service and buoyant praise, it is still beloved thirty-four years later.
House of Tricks opened in 1987 in a “charmingly remodeled 1920’s cottage”. (After a seven-month remodel project on the 67-year-old single-family home.) The renovated-home-turned-charming-restaurant sits perpendicular to Mill Avenue and immediately off the beaten path of Downtown Tempe, Arizona. The restaurant is as charming as the owners and namesakes, Robin and Robert Trick. The Tricks met in the early 1980’s while working together—she, the manager, got him his chef job—at an earlier Tempe restaurant. Soon after falling in love and getting married, they set-out to open one of the few fine dining restaurants in Tempe.
I was first enchanted by House of Tricks with their expansive patios sheltered by lovely trees and greenery. (Reserve a seat by the outdoor fireplace if you can.) The magical delectability begins with the beautiful atmosphere. The delight amplifies as I am sublimely taken away by food. The menu changes seasonally, one of my absolute favorite things in a restaurant. There are always fresh, luxurious things to try. The service too is divine, classy, and welcoming. And the wine list is a thing of artistry. Tricks, as locals call it, is like the Aston Martin of restaurants—firing on all cylinders and as smooth as Glenlivet 18 Year.
“Fine dining” can be heavy on pretense. It can be unsurprising. It can be less-than-exceptional which, for the price you often pay, can be frustrating. Tricks is upscale while still being comfortable. I love big swings on menus and the tuna poke stuffed green chili Toreado appetizer is just that, and they hit it out of the park. The excitement of the anticipation is met with lush green apple, avocado, sesame cream cheese, and crispy sweet onion. It is nothing short of exceptional.
Chef Umscheid’s contemporary American cuisine is influenced by Mexican, Asian, and French cooking. There is no lack of breadth there. Chef Wright is also inspired by Mexican and Asian cuisine. The shared influences give us gems such as the Toreado. As well as another appetizer, the smoked Korean style baby back ribs. I found these hearty, meaty pieces not only delicious but also fun to eat at a “fancy” restaurant. The ribs are enfolded in a spicy red chili paste and sided with a refreshing, barely-pickled cucumber salad.
The foie gras is adventurous and exhilarating. The dish incorporates lavender-pickled blackberries, sour cream pancakes, and hazelnut-studded blackberry coulis flecked with salt. With the “uncle blackberry buck” (containing blackberry puree, fresh lemon, and simple syrup) you can even order a cocktail to match.
The craft cocktail and beer menu leave absolutely nothing to be desired and include several hard ciders which can be fun. The cocktails are grouped into four categories: Featured, containing the above; Classically Twisted, including “a monk walks into a bar” which is a flirty take on a collins; Light and Refreshing, including a margarita with house-made limeade and a salt or chili-salt-sugar rim as well as an alcohol-free mango cucumber soda 7 with mango puree, cucumber, basil, and lemon; and Formidable, which include a martini with “house-made dirty juice’ completed with a bleu cheese olive.
Getting into the main event, the many times I have visited House of Tricks (maybe, ten times in the past three years…mainly for dinner, once for happy hour, and twice for the presently-much-missed lunch) I have tried most of their menu, ordering only one thing more than twice: the appetizer-that-is-an-entrée-portion of Harissa Spiced Mussels. It is so addicting, I re-created the recipe at home. You can find the video of how to make it here: https://youtu.be/Jf7czjU3F7I
The broth is an earthy orange color, and the mussels are topped with charred tomatoes and a creamy, sweet, cilantro emulsification. The heat of the dish comes from the harissa—the level of heat has varied in the dish from a 2-to-3.5 (on a 1-5 scale) the several times I have ordered it. The rich, silkiness is broken into in a visceral way with sizable pieces of chorizo. The dish gains tremendously with the addition of the meat. It again shows the fusion of flavors and approaches in the kitchen. The bountiful amount of grilled bread disappears with the end of the dish, sopping up most of the broth. I take whatever is left of the bisque home and pour over pasta or rice.
The chef’s soup du jour is the single thing I have felt can be hit-or-miss. The last time I dined, it was a cream-based potato soup that was reminiscent of melted cream cheese with little taste or texture of potato. I was surprised to be disappointed. The House of Tricks Caesar Salad (I order it with salmon), and the most resplendent, garlicky dressing, make up for it.
The restaurant is known for its mustard-cider braised pork volcano shank with fried cheddar, celery root puree, and jalapeño apple jam. It is, unsurprisingly, a fabulous, spectacle of a dish. In some ways it rings spectacular, but, to my palate, more than a touch too sweet. Cracked pepper, more whole grain mustard, and a little less sweetness would have made this dish truly sing.
There is always a vegetarian dish on the menu. My favorite has been a lightly (and lovely) fried tofu curry with beautifully roasted vegetables and succulent mushrooms. I am not a tofu fan, but done right as this dish is, I will make a point to recommend. Presently, the vegetarian option is a Tuscan kale polenta board with braised mushrooms, creamed cashew ricotta, vegetable marinara, and a pine nut herbed olive oil. It’s heavenly and, I would wager, unlike anything you have ever had.
The Veracruz style grilled salmon again highlights the chefs' orientations but doesn’t reinvent the wheel. For some palates, salmon dishes might be better off not. Veracruz style, from pescado a la Veracruz, means simply, with a tomato sauce, olives, and capers. The fish is flaky, the dish pleasant. The red chile rubbed duck breast is perfection. Order it regardless of whether or not you love duck. I have never known anyone not to luxuriate in its perfectly cooked, tender glory complete with sweet potato-mushroom hash and star anise roasted, ginger jus. I did not think I would necessarily love the jus; I did.
Ryan Brown is the wine director, creating a beautiful, sophisticated, yet accessible, list of wines that thoughtfully include half-bottles and “magnums” including Domaine de la Solitude ‘Vin de la Solitude’ 2016 Châteauneuf-du-Pape priced at $450. Glasses of wine start at $10. Bottles are sourced from all the best spots: The U.S., notably, California, (surprisingly, New Mexico), France, Italy, as well as Australia, Spain, and South America. Again, leaving absolutely nothing to be desired, except, perhaps, another glass.
No fault to them given the times, still, Tricks, please, bring back lunch service! In the meantime, book dinner, ask for a table near the outdoor fire pit, whether a date night, a celebration, or a simple splurge, you will not be disappointed. And, the dessert menu: small, seasonal, and like everything else, the antithesis of inadequate.
House of Tricks Rating: **** ½ Location: 114 E. 7th St. Tempe, Arizona, 85281, (480) 968-1114, houseoftricks.com. AMBIENCE: Cozy and elegant, sprawling patio with a charming, limited indoor dining room, indoor and outdoor fireplace, and outside bar. The Tricks labored greatly to make this lovely setting a true respite in the heart of Downtown Tempe, a jaunt away from ASU. Fine American cuisine with Asian, Mexican, and Western European components. SERVICE: Classy and professional. Price: Soup & Salad, $9 to $12; Starters, $5 (grilled noble bread) to $19; Entrees, $25 to $33; Desserts, $10. Best Dishes: Harissa Spiced Mussels, Smoked Korean Style Baby Back Ribs, House of Tricks Caesar Salad, Tuna Poke Stuffed Green Chile Toreado, The Seared Foie Gras, Red Chile Rubbed Duck Breast, Tuscan Kale Polenta Board, Curried Vegetables with Fried Tofu, Salted Carmel Apple Bread Pudding with cinnamon whipped cream. BEST TABLE: Outside, by the fireplace. DETAILS: Monday through Saturday 4-9 p.m. (4-6 p.m. happy hour, called, “hours of tranquility”), dinner service 5-9 p.m., (the kitchen closes at 9 p.m., but diners are invited to stay as long as they would like), closed on Sundays. Full bar and expansive wine list by the glass, half-bottle, and bottle. Rating is based on food, service, ambience, imagination, delight, and excitement for going back, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ***** drop everything; **** yes and soon; *** when you get a chance; ** maybe, if it’s close; * you can do better