Baja Eats: January/February 2016


January 5, 2016

Baja EatsIssue 16: January/February 2016


Sometimes we all need a moment of perceived luxury. So my friend Jennifer and I head to La Encantada, my version of a nearby oasis for upscale eats, drinks, and prettified stores with a parking lot that resembles a high-end car dealership.

But just beyond the expensive wheels, we find The Living Room Wine Bar, with its industrial high ceilings, dripping gold-toned chain light fixtures, and enormous sweeping drapes that separate the indoors from patio dining.

It’s comfort with class and a bit of Los Angeles theatricality. It’s early evening, but already dark, and the dim yellow illumination is just soft enough to make everyone look happier and younger.

We’ve taken up residence on a leather couch with a long rustic coffee table close by for our food and drink. It all has the feel of a vintage salon but with some modern accessories.

A huge bar offers rotating boutique wines, and just next to it, a long counter big enough for strangers to become friends, with intimate round tables filling in the space. It fulfills the true intention of a living room.

The menu covers many bases. We order four bruschetta ($14.95)—two traditional (tomato, mozzarella, basil, balsamic), one mushroom (roasted mushrooms, caramelized onions, herbs), and one Greek (roasted peppers, goat cheese, garlic, pepper jam). Jennifer gets a flight of wine, with three Pinot Noir tastings ($18), all smooth.

The Greek bruschetta plays well with a hint of sweet jam against the backdrop of the savory goat cheese, while the roasted mushrooms have a rich umami flavor. After we plow through the bruschetta, we stray into the land of that golden fried potato: the glorious French fry, here named Awesome Fries ($7.50). They come blazing hot with parsley, garlic, lemon zest, Parmesan, and chili flakes, with a spicy after-buzz, even better sunk into cheese ranch dressing. Hey, we all have to live it up sometimes.

The Old Pueblo has many fast casual eateries, but in The Living Room, I feel like I should be in a lounge dress with some serious stilettos. But the longer we sat, the more we saw people coming and going—some were dressed to the nines, some ready to play the Ninth hole. Not to stir up the old Nirvana song, but really, come as you are. Why? Well, ’cause it’s Tucson.

They have a full menu, everything from burgers to salads (don’t worry, there’s plenty of kale) to seafood (oysters, clams, salmon), steak, and sandwiches. Something for even the fussiest eater.

The patio is perfect for our weather most of the year. Come for a drink or come for a meal. It’s cozy and upmarket at the same time.

Lunchtime. People everywhere; cars seem to be go-carts racing in the streets. Mom and I are near faint from hunger and having passed this small corner restaurant a dozen times, this time I impulsively zip into the parking lot because I like the font and the blue on the sign. (Hey, I’m easily swayed by visuals.)

Melt. A Sandwich Joint. No identity crisis, no sovereign foodie masquerading as
gourmet. Simple and to the point.

Their sandwiches are named after different cities and their motto is “tasty eats that can’t be beat.” You order at the register and everyone is genuinely nice.


They said their bestseller was the Philadelphia—a rib-eye cheesesteak grilled with mushrooms, onions, peppers, and American cheese ($8). It was all tucked neatly on an Italian sub. I told them to go full-tilt kamikaze extra chopped and they did it with verve. We also ordered the honey-roasted turkey with smashed avocado and bacon bits ($8).

We sat near the window at a comfortable table; the sun was shining and life tasted extra good.

The portions are generous but not obscene and they‘ve got the right ratio of meat to grilled veggies to cheese. Same with the turkey—and there’s plenty of avocado. They make a mean sandwich: they’re good quality, and they know how to layer on the grub. The macaroni salad was a bit heavy on the mayo but I adore mayo.

Inside, it’s roomy, with high ceilings, simple tables, and dedicated eaters in work clothes on their lunch breaks. The noise level is low, the focus on eating. Customers grab their sides and drinks out of the cooler in the front.

To me, there’s almost nothing better than two slices of some kind of yeast-flour-water combo baked into something chewy with various foods stuck between. (Years ago I read a whole detective series by Lawrence Sanders who described elaborate sandwich making in painstaking detail. He could write poems on horseradish.)

I can’t believe I haven’t come here before, but now I’ll be a regular. The bill was $21.46 (with tip), which doesn’t break the bank.

It’s a Friday afternoon and Mom and I are hungry for civilized fare that leans classic, not fancy. And, being women who think the best thing might be what we forget to order, we end up studying the Ghini’s Café menu for nearly 10 minutes in a form of dedicated prayer. You know. To be sure.

Ghini’s (rhymes with Lamborghini) Café has been in business since 1992. In Tucson years, that longevity earns the coveted institutional-status honor.

Today, we’re havi ng breakfast at lunch. I’ve ordered Chef Ghini’s signature eggs Provençal. It’s an extravaganza of two eggs over easy with a large tomato sliced in half, all sautéed in garlic and olive oil with spices. It’s a plate worthy of artistic notice, along with crispy shredded potatoes, toasted buttered baguette, and a perfectly twisted orange slice ($9.95). The sweet of the tomato highlights the savory backdrop of runny yolks in a serious epicurean mouthful.

Mom’s three-egg western omelet ($9.95) was a mixture of mesquite bacon, tomato, and onion with hash browns, striking three corners of flavor notes—sweet, salty, and savory.

And since we were doing breakfast at lunch, we split a half-wilted spinach salad ($7.95), a nest of organic leaves, with mushrooms, boiled egg, and a warm bacon vinaigrette that I could have drunk by the glass. The dressing had the right touch of tang without moving into sour.

This café is smallish with an unaffected vibe, a bit of funky, plenty of tables, and a large shaded outdoor patio where you can drink with your leashed Fido hovering nearby. They’ll even bring your beloved a biscuit and water.

Chef Ghini knows how to cook—she learned from her mother and grandmother in Marseilles—and through the years she’s expanded and amplified her menu. There’s French onion soup, mussels, and salade niçoise. Brunch can be an elaborate affair—do try their crêpes. It’s hearty French food deftly cooked and presented with just the right herbs.

Next door, Chef Ghini’s father owns La Baguette Bakery; you can access it directly from the restaurant, but it also has a separate entrance and different hours. Ghini’s Café stays open late on Friday for dinner.

Rocco calls his 17-year-old eatery Rocco’s Little Chicago “a Midwestern style Italian place—the kind with too much cheese.” But it’s way more than that. It’s the neighborhood place in old digs where regulars outnumber strangers. The covered patio is full; people are talking and food is being hurried to tables.

Max, his two hungry boys, and I slide into a huge booth on a busy weekday evening. It isn’t long before the entire table is a magnificent feast of Rocco’s mouthwatering food.

Ian and Miles, in the midst of a growth spurt, insist on their own personal pizzas, and they hunker down with generous-sized kids’ pies swimming in cheese and topped with pepperoni. Thin crust, with just the right amount of crunch. ’Tis a thing of beauty, watching silent preteen boys in the thrall of great pizza.

Max and I split a 12-inch, four-cheese pie (provolone, mozzarella, parmesan, and Romano) as well as a house salad with romaine lettuce, olives, red onion, sun dried tomato, fresh tomato, with a vinaigrette that doesn’t mask all the complementing tastes. I could eat this salad every day.

And there’s the small nibbling of spinach ravioli, covered in chopped tomatoes—these little pillows of pasta are stuffed with enough green that they qualify as vegetable, in my view, but still have all the chewiness of pasta.

Rocco builds his dishes from scratch—his soups start in a pot, not out of a can. Tonight it’s roasted potato and Asiago, with just the right amount of creamy.

We’re still working on our pizza when out comes a delivery of just-cooked beef meatballs, big taste sensations, perfect for subs or pasta or eating plain. We divvy them up, and soon there are baskets of house-made doughy breadsticks. I dip the Parmesan herb stick in Rocco’s thick, slightly sweet marinara sauce. He makes his gravy “sugo,” the way his grandmother did, simmered for hours, from whole ground tomatoes.

More bites visit (and promptly disappear)—barbeque breadsticks with ranch dressing, a flavor that flips the corners of the mouth automatically upward, and then a batch of spicy ones. I’m salivating even before chewing. By the time the Nutella breadsticks arrive in this dreamscape, I am near a carb coma.

At one point, I went in the back and watched them cook. When I saw the pot of marinara simmering on the stove it made me want to weep with happiness (me and tomatoes, always hot ‘n heavy.)

The menu is busy with subs, salads, soups, pastas, desserts, and lots of pizza names ending with vowels.

Rocco says, “If someone comes in and orders a large pizza, thin crust with extra sausage, I know they’re from the south side of Chicago.”

Tucson is lucky that Rocco brought us a piece of Chi-town, even while new studies by researchers at the University of Michigan argue that cheese and pizza are considered as addictive as drugs. I think they’re better—at least there’s some nourishment.

Ethiopian cuisine is surprisingly simple fare with an earth-toned palette and humble ingredients. And Zemam’s Ethiopian Restaurant has been cooking and serving it in a small, offbeat old house for 50 years.

If you hanker for tasty, heat-softened food cooked in a crockpot (and I often do), you’ll find satisfaction in Zemam’s mix of meats, legumes, and root vegetables.

Max and I arrived early on a weeknight and settled into a corner in the yellow room—it’s like sitting in a friend’s house—and each ordered a sample platter of three dishes. The meal came arranged in equidistant, circular mounds on a large, round sponge bread called injera, which is at the heart of Ethiopian cuisine.

Zemam’s menu explains: “Most people in the world eat with chopsticks. The second most popular way is with one’s hand. The third is with knives and forks. We invite you to enjoy your food in the traditional way using the traditional bread injera.”

Injera is fermented sourdough bread, slightly thicker than a crêpe or tortilla. Tear off a piece of the spongy stuff and pinch a mouthful from one of the spicy mounds. It’s kind of like being a kid again, but less messy and with more to explore.

We ordered one meat sampler ($12.50) and one vegetable sampler ($11.75). We tried shiro, puréed chickpeas blended with berbere, a combo of powdered chiles and spices; yetakelt wat, a medley of potatoes, mushrooms, and carrots stewed with some spicy peppers and onions; and spinach wat—a dark forest green—with a side of cottage cheese to offset the spices. Each food worked in tandem with the next. Take your injera and grab a bit of this and then a bit of that; the flavors mix well.

The other sample we tried was doro wat, bone-in chicken cooked in a rich, spicy berbere chili sauce; zigni, tender beef cubes simmered in a piquant chili sauce; and yemisir kay wat, red lentils sautéed in spicy berbere.

Ethiopian food has many taste similarities to both Middle Eastern and Indian cuisines. Think chile, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, garlic, onion, and tomato.

By nearly 6 p.m., the restaurant had filled and most of the seats were taken. The ambiance of the dining crowd felt like quiet reverence.

Laura Greenberg is a Tucson-based writer.

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