By Patty Talahongva
Wide-open spaces and a menu that will surprise and pleasantly tantalize your taste buds are what you will find at Helio Basin Brewing Co., 3935 E. Thomas Road. The owners, Mike Conley and Dustin Hazer, have created a space that pays homage to the desert they now call home. “It’s not typical bar food,” emphasizes Hazer.
Instead, the menu includes tepary beans, Inca corn, black radish, mesquite, chorizo and chicharrones.
The two men met in college back east where they brewed their own beer and talked about opening their own brewery one day. But first life took them in different directions. After college, Conley enlisted as an officer in the Marines and Hazer went off to work in breweries where he honed his skills. Both men eventually ended up in Phoenix.
Hazer came to work at Four Peaks Brewing and after the Marines, Conley moved here because he has a sister who lives in the Valley. Under the GI Bill, he earned a Master’s in Business Administration from Arizona State University.
The time seemed perfect to turn their college dreams into action. The first step was to find the right building to fit their dream into. “I remember when we first walked in here,” recalls Hazer, “it was very dark.” They two men were touring the old Clicks Pool Hall. Back in the day the massive space held dozens of pool tables where games were played well into the night. “The potential was here in the building,” says Hazer.
With a site selected and before construction even began, they were urged by several people to interview Tammy Stanger for the head chef position. She wowed them with food from the desert.
“It was an immediate click,” says Hazer about her approach to food.
Stanger grew up in a town south of Provo, Utah. “We had to haul water,” she says, and it was ok to “shoot your gun from your front porch.” Her family practiced subsistence hunting. “You respect the ingredient,” she says, “especially if you hunt for your food.”
When she was around 7, her mother opened a restaurant. “She taught me to follow the recipe but always make it yours.” Stanger is a self-taught chef and food profiles are important to her. When she moved to Arizona, she saw what most other chefs have missed. “It’s exciting—there’s more food in the desert than people realize.”
Desert plants such as O’odham white tepary beans are on the menu. She serves it pureed with whipped milk curd, fine herbs, roasted pepita, pickled vegetables and frybread ($9).
Stanger also grew up near the reservation of the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians and friends there taught her how to make frybread. She also makes tortillas fresh on site every day. In fact, at Helio, they celebrate Tortilla Tuesday with tacos and a pint of beer for $10. She also uses Mesquite flour in her recipes. “The ground pods are also great for tea,” she adds.
“You never know what she’ll throw at you,” says Hazer. “The cornbread is a huge favorite.”
Stanger uses bananas in place of eggs and the flavor and texture are both creamy and sweet, which surprises customers. “I love watching people bite into it,” chuckles Hazer.
Cannolis with prickly pear anglaise and cream sauce are another desert specialty. You’ll also find mesquite and pinole on the menu.
The chef and the owners share a respect for the many ecosystems Arizona has to offer. Hazer and Conley both enjoy hiking and exploring the desert and the mountains in Arizona. “I think that it’s gorgeous, the diversity of the desert.” Hazer says.
He hopes to bring that kind of diversity into Helio. They have a community table where anyone can be seated and perhaps make new friends, enjoy some conversation or just play a game of Uno. Cards and games are provided. “We want to build a community,” Hazer points out.
That includes promoting other small breweries nearby. Cleverly named the “Beermuda Triangle,” on the second Saturday of every month from 3 to 7 p.m. a free shuttle runs between Helio, Helton and Wren House breweries. It’s a hop on, hop off tour to sample the homemade brews at each location.
Every Friday and Saturday at Helio there are two chef choices. There are some vegetarian and vegan options; ask your server. Sunday brunch starts at 10 a.m. Helio also offers Beer & Ice Cream Flights for $12. You select four beers and four ice cream flavors.
While Stanger is busy in the kitchen, Hazer is equally busy brewing beer. Helio has its own proprietary strain of yeast for making its beer, including an American Pale Ale with a strong hop presence, the Hoppy Amber with notes of caramel and citrus, and a very clean-bodied Blackberry Wheat. In all, Helio offers eight home brews. On the darker side you can select from the Robust Porter, Throwback Triple Double (Double IPA) or enjoy the Kohi Imperial Coffee Stout. You can also take home a growler or a 32-ounce can of your favorite beer.
Non-beer beverages include Sea Glass Pinot Grigio, Purple Cowboy Tenacious Red wines, iced tea, or Jarritos Mexican sodas for $2.
“People are taking notice that we have really good food and beer,” says Hazer. Helio has already picked up several local and national awards.
They are preparing a special menu for Mother’s Day so check the website (www.heliobasinbrewing.com) or follow them on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Happy Hour is weekdays from 3-6 p.m. with $1 off all beers and $1 off all starter plates. Private parties welcome with a minimum food/beverage purchase. For more information, call 602-354-3525.