Baja Eats: July/August 2016

 

July 11, 2016

Baja EatsIssue 19: July/August 2016

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Sunlight streams into Zayna’s Mediterranean Restaurant as Jennifer and I take a seat in the one-room restaurant. Open at this location for five years, Zayna’s serves up simple, healthy Middle Eastern dishes with a Syrian slant. Cuisines from Mediterranean and Middle Eastern lands, once part of the Ottoman Empire, still overlap, and Arab, Greek, and Turkish foods share regional interpretations of similar recipes. This is the way it is with food—it represents culture and climate, and differs from family to neighborhood to city to country.

We feasted. First on the gyro sandwich, with tender thin-sliced beef, fresh lettuce, and thin red onion cocooned in pita that—thankfully—didn’t drool with an avalanche of yogurt sauce. We sampled appetizers of stuffed grape leaves, with soft spiced rice that paired well with their citrus tabbouleh—with a pucker-worthy tang—that will strip your palate clean and ready you for another bite of any number of dishes, many of them vegetarian or vegan. Like their falafel—shaped like small flying saucers and some of the best I’ve had locally. With just the right amount of crunch, they’re not dry or flaky inside—often the enemy of a good falafel. These matched the ones, sold off street carts, that I remember eating in New York in the 1970s. Made without flour, they’re also gluten free.

The usual suspects of garlic, lemon, and tahini completed their silky hummus, which I ate while trading off bites with the baba ghannuj, thick puréed eggplant with the same spices used in the hummus, but with a deeper savory, almost umami, taste from the vegetable.

Their sauces are no afterthought. The tahini was decked out in garlic, enhancing the flavor of the fine crumb of the falafel. And their garlic sauce is thick, similar in texture to mayo, filled with garlic cloves, enough that my tongue sizzled with heat while I kept reaching for more.

We also sampled a side of their basmati rice with a lightly curried flavor and mixed it all up with their chicken shawarma—marinated chopped pieces of chicken breast grilled until it was brown, sealing in the juices. In cooking, color equals flavor.

With our meal, we ate pita bread with za’atar. Mariah, our server, explained: “It’s a more Americanized version. A Middle Eastern version, the herbs would be baked right on top of the bread.” Here, they stuff the pita with thyme, sesame, and olive oil, and then fold it over and grill until awesome.

All the food at Zayna’s is liberally cooked with spices. And the herbs are perfection, amplifying one aspect of food while tamping down another with nothing that’s over salted.

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Scordato’s Pizzeria re-opened at their new location the same week my mother turned 83. It was cause for a harmonic convergence around a table with good eats. So five of us gathered for lunch in the bigger and brighter space that has a touch of modern trattoria blended with old-fashioned rustic.

My sister and brother ordered salads sporting Bibb lettuce and tomatoes with sautéed chicken slices plus circles of mozzarella dressed in silky vinaigrette with Romano and the tang of balsamic reduction. My middle-aged brother is most at home in chain restaurants. He loves powdered doughnuts and convenience store hot dogs. So after a few bites of his salad, it was like watching someone eating real food for the first time as his face transformed from grimace to pleasure.

It wasn’t long before he and my sister were fencing forks into the shrimp arrabbiata (a.k.a. the angry sauce; to do it right you need to bring passion to the stove and a whole bunch of pepper flakes). This one had all the necessary heat and spice.

My mother’s salad had mounds of warm sautéed mushrooms showered across a bed of Bibb lettuce—all the textures complemented one another.

We all shared chicken meatballs, which were well spiced, bathed in tomato sauce, and baked with ricotta.

My eggplant was sautéed, then baked with the right balance of the stronger flavors of Romano and fontina then topped with a melting of mozzarella, layered with their house marinara—one of the tastiest I’ve had in Tucson.

Most Italian places have one of two notes. Either they’re old style red sauce joints or fancy dining establishments with starched-clothed waiters, white linen, and fancy silverware. Scordato’s offers Italian home-style cooking but lighter and updated.

We also tried their groovy minestrone that was chock full of fresh veggies—spinach, tomato, celery, chicken, white beans, carrot, potato, and pasta—simmered in a light broth and sparsely salted.

My family has forever been obsessed with food. Someone is always eating too much, another is counting Weight Watcher points, another is memorizing carbs, and another can’t stop shoveling in sweets.

This lunch was a relief—fresh ingredients that weren’t about flash, but comfort. The service has always been fast and friendly at Scordato’s. Their family has long been in the local restaurant business and their food, from their awesome crispy pizzas (charred on the outside) to their salads and entrees, is consistently excellent.

And of course, my mother ordered a birthday dessert—the almond praline gelato—filled with crunchy nibs, then topped with whipped cream.

The small Curry Leaf Indian Restaurant stands in the same place as the restaurant my family owned when we arrived in Tucson in the 1970s. Now, years later, a friend and I are here for dinner, eating a different style of food. Still, big dreams live on. Curry Leaf, just like our restaurant was, is owned and operated by a local family, the Kakaralas, who are passing down their own recipes the way we did when we first ventured into cooking for the public.

The space has a colorful folk art mural of a countryside scene on one side of the wall and green accents that perk everything up. Eleven years after opening, tonight is the last night that the patriarch, Prasad Kakarala, will be here. He’s retiring and leaving the cooking to his grown son, Nisheeth Kakarala.

My friend and I split a couple of appetizers—an order of house-made fried Vegetable Samosas, the crisp breading stuffed with soft potato and flavorful curry spices, and an order of Onion Pakora, deep-fried purple onions dipped in chickpea batter that arrive in a knot of savory tangles that provide some serious crunch. Prasad Kakarala insists, “Nothing is frozen.”

Next we shared what is often considered Indian restaurants’ most popular dish—at least stateside—chicken tikka masala, with chunks of roasted chicken in a creamy spiced sauce with a tomato-cream base and a side of warm basmati rice. It’s a lovely push of sweet while the cream adds thickening and texture; you can choose your level of heat. Into the sauce we dip their house-made garlic naan bread; it’s baked in a stainless oven with a clay insert. It’s got perfect blisters from the oven, and nibs of garlic turn up the spice.

The mixed vegetable curry—carrots, green beans, peas, cauliflower, and potato—is cooked in a red sauce with a hint of lemon. They do veggies right, proving how well-cooked veggies can make a dish sing. All the ingredients stood up to the mild curried sauce. This blended base of chilies, cumin, turmeric, coriander, couscous, mustard seed, and fenugreek seed is ground up by the Kakarala’s extended family in Southern India and shipped to their restaurant in Tucson to use as the foundation for their various sauces and dishes.

Needing a spinach fix, I tried their palaak paneer, a stew of freshly chopped spinach in a creamy white sauce—cooked with oil, ginger, coriander, and cumin. Pieces of their house-made paneer cheese studded the dish—it tastes similar to firm tofu. Everything came with basmati rice, and with the light texture paired well with the more aromatic foods.

I’ve driven by our old restaurant so many times I’ve lost count, which could be why I missed the Curry Leaf. It’s got a bit of a hole in the wall vibe, but much spiffier. Good food, all cooked to order.

Anchoring the festive Mercado San Agustín, Agustín Kitchen is an elegant space with intimations of a French bistro that features modern American cuisine.

There are many eateries heavy on the brick and industrial cable theme; this is an adventure in sleek minimalism. From the stunning bar—bartender Ciaran Wiese was written up in a New York Times article in 2011—to the lovely banquettes and white bead board on the ceilings, everywhere my eye wandered, I was calmed. I’m used to fast casual dining, where food is often a quick source of fuel; sitting in the middle of the restaurant, I felt as if time slowed, allowing for a leisurely meal.

Jennifer and I split our sandwiches. One was a moist shredded pork shoulder on a soft-but-sturdy brioche roll, layered with thin apple and cabbage slaw, each savory bite followed by a sweet pickled tang. I rank it up there on my best sandwich list because of its contrasting textures: soft egg bread against the crunch of veggies next to the chewy heartiness of meat.

We also ordered the Chicken in a Biscuit sandwich. The oversized herb buttermilk biscuit was sliced in half and then stacked with a good half inch of crispy fried chicken breast with Peppadew mayo, house pickles, and sides of some awesome hot herbed fries, which I dipped in their house-made ketchup.

We sampled their pickled veggies, a masterful still life rendering of colorful carrots, fermented turnips, sweet beets, and dill tomato, all topped with a nugget of fresh goat cheese. It was inanimate art until we ruined it by eating it. The carrots were sweet with sugar notes after a good pickling marinade spiced by the aromatic kiss of cardamom and ginger.

Our serene adventure ended with us splitting a piece of carrot ginger cake with cream cheese icing. Carrot cake is a good cake, but here it’s taken up a notch with gingered pecan crumble. It was anointed with Cointreau whipped cream and crowned with blackberry, mint leaf, and strawberry.

The open kitchen shines with a clean white tile framed in sheets of white marble. An oyster bar is blanketed with ice. White uniformed staff move quickly and efficiently. At Agustín Kitchen, the starring attraction is the food, with equal attention paid to presentation and service.

Come when you’re not in a hurry. And then walk around. We bought some fresh handmade tortillas at La Estrella Bakery. And there’s gorgeous produce at the farmers’ market on Thursday afternoons.

Agustín Kitchen sources local meats (like Double Check Ranch or Top Knot Farms) and as much organic and locally sourced produce as possible.

The new location for Baja Café is a little bit funky with a whole lotta flavor, and the menu puts some creative sizzle into breakfast.

At noon, the cafe is alive as happy customers dig into eggs Benedict. Baja Café offers flavor shake-ups on breakfast staples. Jennifer and I split two Benedicts—one classic, one Coyote. The classic comes with a toasted muffin and “seared spiral ham,” then a poached egg balanced on top, with a ladle of creamy hollandaise that tasted like a savory pudding—pure comfort food.

The Coyote boasted a medium poached egg, then a sheet of Hatch green chiles, crisped jalapeño bacon, all topped with mouth-tingling, house-made chipotle hollandaise. It was a tasty wake up.

The Tomatillo Pork Pupusa is a version of the popular South American street food. A carnival of layers, it’s made from cornmeal grilled into a tamale cake, smothered in pulled pork with caramelized onion, then a mixture of melted cheddar and queso fresco, topped with crisp bacon, sautéed spinach, poached eggs, and hollandaise. It’s one plate of gastronomic ambition.

Jennifer chose the popular Reuben sandwich. Baja’s rendition comes with hand-carved corned beef on two slices of rye, melted cheese, tangy sauerkraut, and a smear of Thousand Island dressing, grilled without being drenched in grease.

Owner Gerard Meurer came and sat with us. I commented on the atmosphere. He looked around, smiled, and said, “It has character.”

We talked about them opening this second location after celebrating two years of love at their eastside spot. He said, “We believe everyone works hard to make their dollar. People can choose to go anywhere, so we need to make sure every person gets warm service at a fair price.”

Customers get that and then some. Eating here feels like an event. Ever since the glory of the egg has been rediscovered as a superfood, breakfast has popped up throughout the entire day. And Baja Café has figured out how to make recipes you’ve never considered.

They use local Merit Foods as their food distributor and serve local Yellow Brick Coffee, La Mesa Tortillas, and selected items from local artisans.

Laura Greenberg is a Tucson-based writer.







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