Concealed within an unassuming strip mall lies Helio Basin Brewing Company, a hidden gem powered by its experimental brew master and carnivorous chef, who are creating unprecedented flavors that are helping to define Arizona cuisine.
A little over a year ago, Helio opened its doors after transforming an old water-damaged pool hall into a brewery. Chef Tamara Stanger has since been manning the kitchen and creating a unique menu, which involves the exquisite pairing of beer with innovative lunch and dinner dishes.
“I get to change what people expect when they walk into a brewery. I get to use a lot of local ingredients, a lot of indigenous stuff,” Stanger said.
With each item carefully crafted from home-grown elements, rather unassuming dishes offer complex flavors that complement Helio’s original beer selection.
Stanger notes, “The desert has more growing in it than any other terrain.”
Working closely with Arizona farmers and foragers to obtain hard-to-find produce, Stanger is able to get her hands on highly coveted ingredients. Local nuts, corn, peppers and cactus can be found in many of her compositions, which add a new dynamic to popular food items like dips and tacos. Think cactus spread with pasilla peppers and crème fraiche or squid-ink tacos with tiger shrimp and tomatillo salsa.
One of her favorite local ingredients to work with is mesquite, an ancient hardwood that brings a slightly sweet and earthy flavor to the palate. Stanger incorporates mesquite into several menu offerings that feature unique game, like venison, quail or bison. Together she has created presentations with balanced flavor pairings including mesquite honey chicken with goat chevre and a blackberry chile compote.
“I'm big about flavor pairings. Most of it is science. The acid, saltiness and fat. It's about finding a balance between all of these things,” said Stanger.
She also uses this formulary to couple her creations with a brew. This has resulted in a seared banana cornbread with cracked pepper honeybutter paired with a blackberry wheat, and a sonoran dog smothered with fixings such as smoked bacon, duckfat beans, pickled fresnos and onions, jalapeno pesto, and cotija cheese paired with a bold IPA.
Surprisingly, Stanger has no formal culinary training that contributes to such ingenuity. She also admits that she had no intention of finding her calling in the kitchen. Instead, it seemed that the kitchen kept calling her. In her youth, she started out working at her mother’s restaurant, but with aspirations to become a science writer. She obtained her degree in environmental science and worked briefly as a news editor. Yet amidst this work, she always ended up back in the kitchen.
Stanger said, “I’ve been an artist my whole life and I always knew I'd be involved in some sort of art form. It just happens to be in the kitchen.”
Though she may spend much of her time over a stove, Stanger is involved in community outreach programs that allow her to cook for a cause. She is involved in the James Beard Impact Program, Feeding the Futures, which aims to provide education about the environment, food and nutrition to school-aged children.
“I think there should be an hour or two in the day where kids are learning about food, helping cook the food, and then eating the food. There is science involved, math involved, social studies involved, pretty much anything can be associated,” Stanger comments.
Although not providing formal education to those who come to experience the cuisine and beverages at Helio, Stanger is pleased to school guests by exposing them to nontraditional fair.
She said, “I feel like I can start to tell people what they want instead of them telling me what they want.”
Stanger, who also has a background as a pastry chef and vintage bread maker, enjoys making dessert creations that play off buttery, sweet, and fruity flavors commonly found in many desserts and surprisingly, also beer. She took the liberty of creating an ice cream and beer flight. Or for those looking for a singular pairing, the bourbon chocolate pecan pie with the stout is a delectable alternative.
“It's not necessarily that they taste amazing together, but the beer may change the flavor of the ice cream or the ice cream may change the flavor of the beer,” notes Stanger.
At first glance, certain flavor profiles on the menu may seem exotic, but Stanger hopes to educate the palate. By encouraging patrons to step outside of their comfort zone, she tests the boundaries, hoping to not only make a culinary contribution, but to help define Arizona cuisine and put it on the map.
Helio Basin Brewery
3935 E Thomas Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85018