Baja Eats: January/February 2017

 

January 5, 2017

Baja EatsIssue 22: January/February 2017
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Welcome Diner’s Pork Posole Rojo.

If you’ve driven past the old Chaffin’s Family Dining location at Broadway and Euclid after 5 p.m. any day since Oct. 4, you might have noticed things are looking a little different. The parking lot is full. The mid-century modern building has recently been renovated and is sporting blue, green, and pink neon stripes along the decorative roof. The previously easy-to-miss restaurant space just outside of Tucson’s downtown is looking rather … welcoming.

Welcome Diner’s name comes from the restaurant’s diner origins—the first location is in Phoenix, in a nine-seat “Valentine” diner from the ‘40s—though the food at both locations aims to be anything but typical diner fare. “We’re the un-diner,” says owner and chef Michael Babcock. The menu is derived from his love for the cuisine of the American South, particularly that of New Orleans and Nashville, and is rooted in the beginnings of the company as a southern food truck. From the start, Babcock says, Welcome has done things “the long, hard, stupid way,” putting a strong focus on ingredients and preparation in order to accomplish their unique take on locally inspired cuisine.

On a recent Sunday night, we scooted into a powder-blue booth and started things off with drinks: the Sleepy Little Rivertown ($9); the Del Bac Date ($12), a date-infused slug of Whiskey Del Bac; and a house-made ginger beer ($4). To make the Sleepy Little Rivertown, bar manager Connor Mansager adds salt-preserved limes to a blend of rums, grapefruit, and honey. For those who prefer to skip the mixers, the Del Bac Date has all the bite and smoky mesquite flavor of Whiskey Del Bac, yet is transformed and sweetened by the infusion of the dates into an entirely different experience. The ginger beer offers a sweet and fizzy alcohol-free option, with enough heat on the side of your tongue to let you know you’re drinking something made from the real stuff.

Our small plates arrived, beautifully arranged and piled with a surprisingly large amount of food for something described as “small”—Babcock characterizes them as “diner tapas,” capable of standing alone. The Chicanoyaki ($13), a Southwestern and seafood-inspired take on hushpuppies, featured octopus and came garnished with chunks of fresh avocado and slivered raw jicama that removed the dish from the realm of traditional fried fare. The Mac ‘n’ Cheese ($6) was creamy and smoky, rich enough to stand on its own yet with plenty of room for any of the suggested add-ins: Brussels sprouts, Andouille sausage, chorizo, or bacon ($2 each). Our third small plate, the Pima Grits ($9), utilized a perfectly cooked over-easy egg, coarsely ground cornmeal, green chili compote, and jalapeños to bring a regional flavor profile to a classic Southern dish, and the roasted okra served on the side was beautifully charred.

Then our entrees showed up. The Bumblebee ($10) featured one piece of fried chicken topped with house-made mustard, bread and butter pickles, and drizzled with local honey, all stuffed between two halves of a biscuit. The meat was juicy and flavorful, brined and sugared before being fried in a Southern-style buttermilk dredge batter to crispy perfection. The mustard and the bread and butter pickle played off delightfully against the honey, and the light texture of the biscuit created the perfect backdrop for the sweet, salty, and sour result.

There are four burgers on the menu at Welcome: the No Way José ($13) is undoubtedly the one with the most bite, thanks to the jalapeño relish and chipotle ranch dressing that crowns the six-ounce cheeseburger. The smoked Gouda and Muenster cheeses add a richness to the final flavor, as does the arugula, but do little to cool the overall heat. If you’re seeking a spicy burger that actually lives up to its name, the José is right up your alley.

One of general manager Corey Greenhill’s favorite plates is the Pork Posole Rojo ($12); he cites the depth of flavor that the soup gains when the mole black pudding garnish is stirred into the soup itself. I tried it both ways; while the posole is good on its own, it excelled with the addition of the pudding, which enriched the broth and completely changed the texture. Served with some of Welcome’s flatbread instead of the traditional tortilla, the hearty soup brings a good level of heat, and promises to be an excellent option for warming up on cool winter nights.

Finally, I may have found my new favorite vegetarian entrée in Tucson: Welcome’s Vegetable Cassoulet ($12). Consisting of a rich stew of vegetables and tepary beans served over hand fire bread and topped with smoked pumpkin and crème fraiche, the variety of textures and flavors in this dish make it intensely satisfying. The bread soaked up the juices of the stew without losing any of its body, adding a chewiness that balanced the lighter mouthfeel of the vegetables, while the sweetness of the pumpkin complemented the savory stew and kept my taste buds at attention.

For dessert, we tried both the Lemon Chess Pie ($6) and the Tepary Bean Tart ($6). The lemon pie arrived garnished with fresh blackberries and candied pistachios. The crust was one of the best I’ve had, very light, with a crackly feeling reminiscent of puff pastry, and just the right amount of salt. The tepary tart, meanwhile, set itself apart thanks to the ingenious use of Corn Nuts (yes, those Corn Nuts) as a salty garnish that contrasted with the lightly sweet filling. The filling’s flavor reminded me of a cross between pumpkin pie and sweet red bean paste, and the tart’s whole wheat crust brought a nuttiness to the overall flavor profile.

Welcome Diner is open from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day, with a “soft close” between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. during which drinks and a limited menu are available.

Zona 78’s Rigatoni Bolognese.

Zona 78’s Rigatoni Bolognese.

At dinner hour at Zona 78, the dining room is filled with people of all ages taking their ease. Conversations are not so loud as to be intrusive, but they’re not too quiet either. Zona 78 has become a destination spot for upscale family dining thanks to the small balls of egg-free pizza dough offered free of charge; the resulting dough creations can be baked while kids eat. Chef Keith Parker credits this innovation with why Zona 78 is one of the top places in town to take children out to dinner: “If kids want to go to Zona and play with some dough, that’s where the parents are taking them.”

Zona 78’s menu focuses on familiar favorites crafted with high-quality ingredients, many from local purveyors: house-cured meats on their antipasti appetizer, handmade pizzas with house-made cheeses, bread from local bakeries, and entrées large enough to feed two. A personal favorite is the grilled cheese sandwich special ($14 full, $10.50 half) from the lunch menu: the sandwich’s ingredients change daily, and each incarnation pairs perfectly with Zona 78’s cry-worthy tomato basil soup.

Dinner kicked off with the Local Tomato and Mozzarella Bruschetta appetizer ($9.50), made with tomatoes from Sleeping Frog Farms in Benson. A night out after a long day called for drinks: we split the Smoke and Spice cocktail ($9), a lightly sweet whiskey cocktail featuring High West Rye Whiskey, Smoked Whiskey Del Bac, Serrano pepper, and smoked ice that lived up to its name for heat. Looking to stretch your dining dollars? On Tuesdays, all wine bottles are half off.

For dinner, pasta won out over pizza, and our plates arrived hot and fragrant. The crust on the Chicken Parmigiana ($17.50) was a gorgeous golden brown, topped with gooey melted mozzarella and a vibrant marinara sauce served over penne pasta. The chicken breast was tender and juicy, and the penne, tossed in garlic and butter, was flavorful without distracting from the main event.

The Rigatoni Bolognese ($17) featured a generous helping of savory sausage and ground beef-packed sauce ladled over al dente pasta. The crowning glory of the dish, however, is the light and delicious house-made ricotta cheese on top, made with only four ingredients: whole milk, heavy cream, lemon juice, and salt. The secret? Chef Parker says the key is maintaining the correct temperature and not stirring the cheese. While it mixes in beautifully with the pasta, this cheese is good enough to eat straight.

Despite packing up half of our entrées with an eye toward lunch the next day, we still ran out of room before eating dessert. This is a mistake I recommend you avoid; Zona 78’s desserts are a satisfying way to top off a meal, and their Warm Chocolate Brownie ($6), topped with ice cream, fresh berries, crumbles of almond granola, and salted caramel sauce, is particularly good.

If you find yourself at Zona 78 for happy hour, Chef Parker points to two new additions to the menu as “must try”: the Arancini and Pesto, and the Meatball Sliders ($6 during happy hour). Parker anticipates hosting another all-locally sourced dinner in the spring, as they’ve done previously as part of Zona 78’s monthly wine dinner series.

Bloody Mary at Bisbee Breakfast Club.

Bloody Mary at Bisbee Breakfast Club.

Just because you’re not lucky enough to live in Bisbee doesn’t mean you can’t eat as if you do.

Bisbee Breakfast Club brought their “Bit of Bisbee” to their new Tucson location, which opened on Halloween inside the Broadway Village Shopping Center. Once a couple weeks had passed, we figured we might be able to get a table without too long a wait, and headed their way.

Coffee, orange juice, and the BBC Bloody Mary ($8.49) were our breakfast beverage picks. The coffee was a hit with the coffee drinkers at the table: The beans are roasted by Ombre Coffee, a sister company to Bisbee Breakfast Club that is headquartered at the BBC Ina location in Tucson, where they roast coffee for Bisbee Breakfast Club’s five locations. Their first location opened in Bisbee in 2005; another is in Mesa, and the other three are in Tucson. Co-owner Terry Kyte tells me that the back of the new BBC Broadway location will eventually function as both the flagship retail store for Ombre and a stand-alone coffee shop, with later hours than the restaurant.

The orange juice was sweet and fresh, and Bisbee Breakfast Club’s premium take on the Bloody Mary, made with Grey Goose vodka, arrived artfully garnished with a pickled green bean and a chunk of sharp white cheddar in addition to the requisite celery, olive, and lemon wedge, with a dry spice mix on the rim. While the menu cautions that the BBC Bloody Mary packs a fair amount of heat, I personally found that I wanted still more spice, and once I’d added some Tabasco and the juice from my lemon wedge, the flavor was just about right. While the booze menu is a recent addition and currently restricted to Bloody Marys and Mimosas, Kyte says they’re working on adding more drinks as they go.

Our food arrived quickly despite the full dining room. The Eggs Zorba ($8.49) was a zesty vegetarian affair, with spinach, black olives, red onions, tomatoes, and feta cheese crumbles mixed in with two scrambled eggs, and came with a side of home fries and a biscuit. The home fries were truly outstanding: fluffy on the inside, crisp and savory on the outside. While Kyte wouldn’t reveal exactly what spice blend BBC uses on their potatoes (they make all their spice mixes in-house), he says the predominant spice is paprika. He adds, “And salt. I love salt.”

Continuing Bisbee Breakfast Club’s tradition of excellence in potatoes, Kyte tells me that D’s Potato Cakes ($8.79) “stem from the oldest days of the original BBC.” What started as a Saturday special turned out to be so popular they put it on the regular menu, and after one bite, I could see why. The ingredients are simple: shredded potato, flour, egg, onion, a blend of spices, salt, and pepper, all grilled to a crisp golden brown. The result is a potato pancake with a creamy interior and lots of flavor that can stand up to the applesauce and sour cream toppings. It’s served with two hand-formed sausage patties with just the right amount of spice, as well as a giant biscuit both light and moist in texture.

Bisbee Breakfast Club’s D’s Potato Cakes.

Bisbee Breakfast Club’s D’s Potato Cakes.

The Huevos Rancheros ($8.49) catered to the avocado and bean-loving diner at our table, served over two crisp corn tortillas with two small flour tortillas on the side. Vegetarians and non-bacon-eaters beware: the refried beans in this dish have been doctored up with bacon fat and cheese. That said, if you do eat bacon, the beans are a rich and filling complement to the eggs, and the generous helping of guacamole with whole chunks of avocado mixed in make this a decadent take on the southwestern morning dish.

Bisbee Breakfast Club’s employee uniform is a BBC T-shirt, which displays the restaurant’s logo on the front, and a series of quotes from negative online reviews on the back. The shirt that caught my eye read: “‘45 minutes for eggs is unacceptable.’ –Some Guy on the Internet.” Why give visibility to negative reviews? Kyte explains: “The shirts are an inside joke for whoever gets it, I guess. A futile attempt at taking a small slice of power back from the anonymity of the internet.” There are several versions with different quotes. Now that regulars threaten to leave bad reviews just to make their way onto a future T-shirt, Kyte says they might put some positive reviews on some of the shirts in the future. For now, I enjoyed being in on the joke, along with eggs that took significantly less time than 45 minutes.

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Tanque Verde Ranch’s Prie Rib Sliders.

If you’re a longtime Tucsonan, you’ve probably heard of Tanque Verde Ranch. You may have even attended a wedding out at the functioning cattle ranch—the oldest operating business in Tucson (since 1868). What you may not know is that with the introduction of executive chef Justin Macy, TVR has amped up its dining offerings, and they’re not just thinking of the European dude-ranch crowd anymore. The ranch’s Doghouse Saloon offers a range of small bites and bar food staples, and they recently overhauled their cocktail menu to feature drinks that would look perfectly at home in downtown Tucson’s trendy nightspots.

I attended a Chef’s Table event at Tanque Verde Ranch. Chef’s Tables are arranged on a by-reservation basis, with a per person cost of $50 for guests who are staying at the ranch, and $100 for guests not staying with the ranch (those affectionately nicknamed “townies”).

We started in the Doghouse Saloon. I ordered the Gila Monster cocktail ($11.50), which turned out to be an herby, not-too-sweet bourbon drink, with a bit of TVR’s house-made prickly pear syrup mixed in to turn it a purplish-pink. Chef Macy soon covered our table in a variety of luscious small plates: Prime Rib Sliders ($7), the Grand Lasso Pretzel ($8), Fried Brussels Sprouts ($8), and the Three-Way Filet platter ($15). Of these, the Brussels are my top pick: lightly smoky and crisp on the outside without being greasy from frying, and the bacon, balsamic vinegar, and other seasonings were just enough to add new flavors to the dish without overpowering the vegetable.

As we moved to the main dining hall of the ranch, we passed through a room in which the original owner of the ranch, Don Emilio Carrillo, survived being hanged from the rafters by bandits back in 1904. History immerses visitors to the ranch, and everywhere you turn, there’s a story waiting to be told: the beam Carillo was hanged from is still in place.

Six courses, here we come. The amuse course was a piece of butter-poached lobster, microgreens, and pomegranate caviar, served on a spoon. As Chef Macy introduced the dish, he expressed his preference for working without a menu, especially for the chef’s dinner, because it allows him the greatest creative freedom. He says that he does his best work “off the cuff and spur of the moment. I feel like when I plan, it doesn’t turn out the way I wanted.”

The personal pizzas served as the appetizer course incorporated the unlikely component of a quail egg cracked over tomatoes, onions, arugula, and manchego cheese, and I had to remember that there were four more courses coming in order to talk myself out of finishing all the crusts.

The salad was a delicate and artfully arranged deconstructed baby beet salad, with goat cheese coulis and candied walnuts, and the effect was so lovely it seemed a shame to eat it, but somehow we all managed.

After the intermezzo, a spoonful of tangy lemon ice with a chili burn, the entrée course arrived: beautifully prepared pistachio crusted lamb, served over a cauliflower purée with roasted baby vegetables.

To cap off our meal, Chef Macy presented mercifully small desserts: a vanilla bean flan, a cherry Bavarian cream, and the tiniest molten lava cake I’ve ever seen. Each was delicious: the chocolate cake melting in my mouth, the cherry compote adding a nice tartness to the Bavarian cream, but my favorite was the flan. Incredibly light and delicate, I will never be able to look at other flans the same way again.

Tanque Verde Ranch’s chef’s tables include wine pairings with each course, and I left the table one happy hour and six courses later quite satiated—and grateful to have a room waiting for me at the ranch. My recommendation: plan a weekend getaway, reserve one night at Chef Macy’s table, and spend the rest of your time enjoying the complimentary horseback rides, nature walks, and tennis lessons.

Pickle Soup at Polish Cottage.

Pickle Soup at Polish Cottage.

For the last few years, I’ve been meaning to try Polish Cottage, but always failed to make it through the door. Now, I’ve added it to my short list of restaurants serving up hearty comfort food
and a richly satisfying dining experience.

My companions had eaten there before, and fearlessly ordered a cup of the strange-sounding pickle soup, or zupa ogórkowa, ($3.50 cup, $4.85 bowl). Any suspicions I had melted away once the beefy broth passed my lips. The saltiness of the soup, the vinegar notes from the pickled vegetables, and the fresh dill made this soup irresistible—we had to order a second cup to allow everyone to get their fill. We also ordered a small bowl of Polish Vegetable Salad, which turned out to be similar to mustard potato salad, with the addition of diced apples, which gave it a lighter texture and sweeter taste.

Another first for me was the Beef Stew with Potato Pancake ($13.95). The pancake is folded around a hearty helping of beef and vegetable stew, like a dinner plate-sized Polish taco. The stew had a consistency similar to shredded beef and tasted of red wine and onions. Any extra liquid was soaked up into the creamy interior of the gorgeously crisped and golden brown potato pancake, and sour cream was generously drizzled across the top.

One dish on the menu I was familiar with, at least: pierogi ($8.99 for eight, $10.95 for 10, $12.90 for 12). We chose both the potato and cheese pierogi and the sauerkraut and mushroom pierogi, with sauerkraut and bacon on the side for mixing in (additional toppings $1). Our decisions turned out to be good ones. The pierogi themselves were firm but not undercooked, and the flavorful fillings were complemented by the bacon and sauerkraut. The sauerkraut and mushroom pierogi was my favorite of the two, with a slight tang and a rich mushroom flavor.

Polish Cottage’s sauerkraut is worth a special mention: its not-too-intense flavor indicated it was prepared “correctly” and rinsed prior to being cooked, making the end result a cabbage capable of winning new converts.

Pierogi Plate.

Pierogi Plate.

Our final entrée was the Polish Combo Plate ($17.95 serves one person, $34 serves two), which featured a stuffed cabbage roll, more pierogi, smoked Polish sausage, a roll of bread, and a bowl of Hunter’s Stew. For the variety alone, I found this to be a great deal.

The cabbage roll was stuffed with a juicy pork and rice filling, and the rich red tomato sauce ladled over the top added a bright burst of flavor that left me wishing Polish Cottage sold jars I could take home. For this round of pierogi, we tried the Sweet Farmer’s Cheese variety, which comes sprinkled with powdered sugar and a dollop of sour cream. Our server described it as more of a “dessert” pierogi. The smoked sausage was crisped from the pan and went well with the sauerkraut. The roll was chewy and yeasty with a glossy, firm crust, and was ideal for sopping up the juice from my favorite element of the Combo Plate, the Hunter’s Stew. Made from a variety of meats combined with shredded cabbage, this stew was rich, juicy and tender, with just the right amount of salt and an intriguing tang.

We finished our meal with Polish Cottage’s Polish Apple Cake, or szarlotka. We had been warned that it was less sweet than “normal” cake, but for me, it was, as Goldilocks once said, “just right.” Served warm, it was moist and dense; the thinly sliced apples in the middle make the overall experience more reminiscent of pie. This is a good thing, in my opinion, and I opted to take a second piece home for breakfast. ✜

Kate Selby is a local living enthusiast and craft cocktail chaser in Tucson. She received her bachelor’s in creative writing from the University of Arizona.







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