Story written by Sabrina Proffitt | Photos provided by Jill Richards Photography

“It’s an old building that housed several restaurants over the years,” Owner Jeff Smedstad said. “We took the shell and brought it down to the bricks and the sticks and replaced everything in it and built out a wonderful place with beautiful guest areas, bathrooms, a nice entrance. It’s an old brick building and it’s hard to come by something with this much character because so many things are newer and we’re in a historical part of town. It makes me feel like I’m a part of Sedona.”

Before becoming the owner of Elote Cafe, Jeff Smedstad grew up in Arizona and began his culinary journey in the Coast Guard. He then attended culinary school, and spent the last two decades traveling the back roads of Mexico, learning about the culture and food. Years later, while Smedstad was living in Atlanta, Georgia, a friend called to tell him about Sedona and he started his new journey here in the Red Rocks.

“A friend of mine called me and said he had found a new home here in Sedona, Arizona and I came out and Elote cafe was born that day,” Smedstad said. “I literally thought of the name and everything in the parking lot, went into what was the King’s Ransom Inn at the time, and saw it as an opportunity to throw a party. In a town where most of the dining revolves around romantic dinners, the one thing I didn’t see happening was a really fun, loud and proud kind of place.”

13 years after starting in its original location, Elote Cafe was moved to its new uptown location and Smedstad said he was able to build what he calls his “dream restaurant.”

Elote Cafe offers its customers a one-page menu, which is filled with exquisite Mexican recipes made with only the best ingredients that are locally sourced and inspired by the traditional Mexican cooking that Smedstad has made his own after learning the traditional ways.

“We’re trying to put out the best plates we can, not the most plates we can,” Smedstad said. “A lot of it is an evolution, cooking this for well over 25 years. We have things inspired from the markets of Mexico and from living here in the southwest, some things that are definitely a creation of mine. But everything was rooted in Mexican food from Mexico.”

Smedstad said that it is important for customers to know that he has spent time working on the recipes offered and they were all inspired from traditional meals he was introduced to in Mexico by families or at the market. 

“To me, I wanted to learn how to do the traditional food first because I’m from Arizona,” Smedstad said. “I didn’t want to pluck it out of a book or something and say it was my cuisine because it’s not. I made a lot of other people’s food for so many years, learned how to make the basics and learned how to make it right, and then adapted it to my style. I tell people it’s like playing music. You learn how to play the scales, then you learn how to play other people’s music and if you get really good at that, maybe you’ll write some of your own music.”

Smedstad also said that the menu is based on the availability of the ingredients they can get seasonally and Elote Cafe needs to believe in the companies before sourcing the ingredients from them. The meat they get should be produced well and with the animal, environment and product in mind, but it is also important that the people behind the farms are being taken care of as well. 

While this past year has been difficult for everyone, Smedstad said the pandemic offered Elote Cafe a way to slow down and focus on the quality of every part of their restaurant including sanitation, business, and even bringing higher quality to their food. 

“[Before the pandemic] we never took one reservation as long as we had been open, but we take reservations now,” Smedstad said. “As funny as that sounds, we’re fully booked out for 30 days at 100%. We also usually have 30 to 40 parties on a waiting list trying to get in, if possible. It also slowed us down a little bit, and there is nothing wrong with that. We’re used to doing 400-500 people a night. So for us to do 100-200 people in a night, it gives us a chance to refocus and make sure that everything we’re doing is done right.”

Due to the pandemic, Elote Cafe has its tables regulated to be socially distanced with protective barriers between booths. They also take sanitizing very seriously, mask requirements are in place, hand sanitizing stations are spread throughout the restaurant, and to-go food is offered on a limited basis. 

Elote Cafe has a family-esqe community, and Smedstad said that the mission has only gotten stronger and more developed. Elote Cafe also offers two cooking books: Elote Cafe Cookbook Edition 1 and Edition 2. This is great for those who want to take the recipes home with them or want to try a hand at making their own Mexican cuisine. He encouraged anyone who wants to try out Elote Cafe to be patient and get in when they can.

“Elote Cafe is not just about one thing. I think it’s about food, it’s about our curated selection of Tequila but more than any of that, it’s a group of people, not just me. My staff has been with me for over a decade and it's a group of people who really love what they do and I feel like it’s a craft and it shows through in everything we do. We’re not just here to get a paycheck. We’re here to do something special and there’s a lot of pride and a lot of care put into what we do.”

While Elote Cafe has many regulars who are like family, Smedstad said there is always space for new people at the table. ES