By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski
Upon moving to Arizona from New York City, James Danler was looking for someone who made the perfect Sazerac, which mixes absinthe, sugar cube, rye whiskey or cognac, and Peychaud’s bitters.
“I came in and (the bartender) Megan (McClure) made me the most amazing Sazerac,” Danler says. “It was perfect.”
That wasn’t the only thing that was “perfect.” The food was impressive at the cozy D’vine, and its owners, Robert and Sharon Coulson, hired him. Megan McClure and the Wichita-born Danler are now engaged.
It’s that family atmosphere that appeals to the Las Sendas and Red Mountain residents who frequent D’vine. The creative entrees are courtesy of chef Ramon Rice, a native Arizonan who has helmed the restaurant “since day one.” He splits his time between D’vine Mesa and Chandler.
Rice’s street tacos (ancho beef, habanero sauce, tomatillo aioli, pickled onion, avocado, cotija cheese and pico de gallo), burgers, short rib (braised, served with rosemary oven chips and grilled vegetables finished with blueberry reduction) and fried chicken dinner are among the favorites on the menu. But Danler has another choice.
“My favorite things are the specials,” he says coyly. “That’s where Ramon gets to play around. He creates menus for the neighborhood.”
A Red Mountain High School graduate, Rice changes the menu at least twice a year. The next revision comes in October. He knows not to touch dishes like the Moroccan spiced meatballs and the Caribbean pig wings, also some of the top sellers.
Creativity in the kitchen comes naturally to Rice.
“I had no idea what I wanted to be for a long time,” Rice says. “It’s the lamest story. I was in an apartment with my roommate. I was probably a construction worker and I was making something that’s good. He said, ‘Why aren’t you doing this?’ A commercial comes on for Le Cordon Bleu and a year later, I’m a chef.”
Danler’s background brings him to D’vine, which features live music and regulars’ paintings. Raised in Wichita and Omaha, he said he’s been in hospitality most of his life. He accompanied his brother to his dishwashing job when he was 4. His father was his Catholic school’s janitor. Danler helped set up chairs with his father for funerals and weddings.
“By the time I was 21, I was the manager of the Omaha Press Club,” he says. “I moved to New York, and there I started as a back waiter at the Union Square Café.
“One thing I learned is, we take care of each other first. The staff here loves one another. The most important thing to me is the staff. I want to make sure they’re happy and taken care of. We’re all educated. We educate ourselves. It’s fun.”
That familial sense was instilled into Danler in New York.
“I learned we treat everyone like our favorite person,” he explains. “That’s how I start interviews: Who do you care for more than anyone else on Earth? For me, it’s my mother.”
Rice and Danler say craft cocktails still are important to D’vine.
“We’re the only ones doing craft cocktails in East Mesa,” Rice says.
That includes Sazerac, Danler adds.
“It’s America’s most classic cocktail,” he says. “That’s the original cocktail.”