CIE’s spicy boiled frog is tender like chicken.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MOLLIE KIMBERLING
You want something new and different for dinner, and you’re wondering where to go. We’ve been there, and we’ve scoured restaurants throughout the Coachella Valley to identify dishes that are truly unique — ranging from exotic and traditional to innovative and downright foodie.
The one thing they share in common: You can only find them at these restaurants.
Lift the lid of a tagine — a two-piece, cone-shaped ceramic cooking vessel that’s a mainstay in Moroccan cuisine — and any veggies you find are usually playing a supporting role to meatier mains.
Which is exactly why executive chef Ethan Brown wanted to make seasonal vegetables the surprising star of this dish. After taking a new job at the Sands Hotel’s restaurant last fall, he retained the lamb tagine that was on the menu and expanded the offerings to include a seafood version in addition to a vibrant macrobiotic vegan option, heavy on healthy grains, colorful produce, and good-for-your-gut fermented ingredients.
“The purpose of the macrobiotic tagine is to offer a well-thought-out, clean, high-end vegan offering in a high-end restaurant, which you don’t see a lot,” Brown explains. “It’s an outlet for things that are happening seasonally and a way the kitchen can be creative. To do it in a tagine is a funky and fun way to express veganism.”
The dish includes simply cooked organic quinoa and adzuki beans — nutty, nutrient-dense small red beans derived from East Asia — house-fermented ingredients that might come in the form of Korean-style kimchee, a classic kraut, or fermented leeks and fennel, depending on the spices the kitchen is playing with that week, plus house pickles. “The intention of the fermented, pickled piece is gut health,” Brown says. “It’s something to consider. You can go out and have a fancy meal and you can still feel good and healthy afterward.”
Over the winter, the seasonal vegetable mélange highlighted hearty ingredients like Brussels sprouts, salsify, and carrots. This spring, the chef is including bright broccoli, delicate peas and tendrils, and early corn. By fall, he may switch up the beans and grains to lentils and brown rice, which can stand up to late-in-the-year power produce like pumpkin and sweet potato.
He tops the pretty plate with a spicy pepper-based house harissa and an aged balsamic vinegar for a wink of sweetness — a perfect marriage of the Mediterranean-meets-Moroccan sensibility of the restaurant. “It’s a big mashup, and those flavors flow well into California cuisine and that main intention of a sophisticated vegan offering in an upscale restaurant. People have been really excited about it.”
Philly Cheesesteak Crêpe
You know those dainty, delicate crêpes layered with fruit fillings, sweet creams, and dustings of snowy sugar? Well, you won’t find them at this local little crêperie, a takeout window tucked in an alley along East Palm Canyon Drive that’s gaining a cult following. Here, owner Marcel Ramirez creates savory-only “craft crêpes,” heavy on housemade sauces and extras, such as chicken tossed with barbecue sauce and topped with crispy onions, or thick slices of turkey and cheddar dressed with an herby chimichurri. But his Philly cheesesteak, the classic East Coast sandwich he turned into a biweekly special, is his most unexpected — and in-demand — offering.
Like many items on Ramirez’s menu, the Philly cheesesteak crêpe blends his childhood memories and adulthood culinary discoveries. “My dad is from Argentina, where they have a lot of Italian and French influence, and he made crêpes for us every Sunday,” the Palm Springs native says. “But I didn’t know it was a crêpe until later in life. I was like, ‘Oh, that’s what we’ve been eating our whole lives.’”
While a hole-in-the-wall crêperie he and his wife discovered in San Francisco inspired him to open Gabino’s, an earlier stint living in Central New Jersey ignited his obsession with Philly cheesesteaks — sliced beef and melted cheese on a hoagie roll.
“When I tried one [in New Jersey],” he recalls, “I was like, ‘What the hell did I just eat? This is insanely good.’ I went to Philly and hit up every place I could find. That was my inspiration.”
Ramirez mastered his own version of the cheesesteak, and when he opened Gabino’s in 2020, he turned it into a crêpe with a little Latin flare. He slices rib-eye razor thin and grills it on a flat-top griddle alongside chopped sweet onion and yellow and red peppers. For the gooey topping, he blends American cheese with evaporated milk and then adds housemade chimichurri and Gabino’s “secret” creamy cilantro sauce. He wraps it all in Gabino’s signature crêpe shell — derived from a century-old family recipe — and finishes it with sliced jalapeños.
“Our crêpe batter is nontraditional,” Ramirez says. “It’s really light. We use chimichurri to season the crêpe itself, and then we add a cheese blend that forms a crust. Most crêpes are very soft and chewy, but this is crunchier. You can hold it in your hand, and it won’t fall. You won’t find a crêpe like ours anywhere in the world right now.”
His current location prohibits a commercial kitchen hood, so Ramirez cooks the cheesesteak components off-site — which is why it pops up on the menu only a couple times a month. He plans to make it an everyday item when he opens a second location later this year. For now, limited availability adds to the allure. He announces the cheesesteak via social media, email, and text blasts and always sells out. “We’ve had people from Philadelphia rave about it,” he says. “It’s our biggest hit.”
Spicy Boiled Frog
You could order any number of American-style Chinese restaurant mainstays here — from sweet and sour chicken to veggie chow mein — but owners Sherry Cheng and Brett Bennett created a massive menu offering the Coachella Valley’s only authentic Sichuan specialties for a reason: to expand your Chinese food horizons without traveling too far.
Diners can dig into heat-heavy Sichuan ribs, sliced fish with Sichuan pepper, and stir-fried lamb, or consider less familiar but more adventurous dishes, like spicy intestines, sizzling pork tongue, sautéed duck gizzards, and, yes, spicy boiled frog.
“It’s traditional,” says Cheng, CIE’s head chef who hails from the Sichuan region of China, where she also attended culinary school. “Most restaurants don’t have it, and most Americans don’t want to try it. But when they order it, they love it.”
Like many specialty items, she sources the frog — which arrives whole and gutted — from a Chinese market in Los Angeles. She leaves the skin on and boils the frog to the perfect consistency, using about a pound of meat per dish. “I love the skin,” Cheng says. “And the meat is good. It’s tender, like chicken, and has a lot of flavor.”
She ramps up the flavor with one of her signature sauces, made with chilis, beans, ginger, a proprietary blend of spices, and those fabled Sichuan peppercorns.
“Sichuan peppercorn is no hotter than a black pepper,” Bennett explains, “but it gives you a numbing and tingling sensation and fools your mouth into thinking it’s really hot.”
He says those who order the frog fall into a few camps: native Chinese who are accustomed to the dish, the curious (who often become hooked), and Southerners who already eat frog legs.
“A lot of people come here because they prefer traditional Chinese food and because 99 percent of what we make, we make by hand — our dumplings, our baos, our egg rolls, everything,” Bennett says. “The majority of the people who have ordered our more exotic dishes and have traveled to China and eaten them there too say, ‘This is even better than I had in China.’ And they mean it.”