Baja Eats: July/August 2017


July 10, 2017

Baja EatsIssue 25: July/August 2017

Monterey Court’s Jalepeño Cucumber Margarita and Gin Wicked.

Fans of live music and local restaurants can satisfy both passions by dining at Monterey Court. With local artisan shops lining the patio and parking lot, musicians performing every week from Tuesday through Sunday, and a menu full of American classics updated with a modern twist, there are plenty of reasons to visit the venue, located on Miracle Mile not far from I-10.

If that sounds like an unusual location for a restaurant and live music venue to you, that may be because it wasn’t that long ago that Miracle Mile was more evocative of drugs, crime, and prostitution than the midcentury motor courts and vintage neon signs that line the former northern gateway to Tucson. Things started to change for the better around 2010, with community organizing, local business investment, and a new police station driving the positive shift. In 2012, co-owners Greg Haver and Kelly McLear opened their cafe in the fully renovated 1938 Monterey Court motor court.
Haver says he didn’t have a vision in place when he bought the then-abandoned motor court, but decided to take a chance anyway. He credits 30 years of working in the construction industry with giving him a good sense of how to renovate without destroying the original structure, and points to word of mouth and social media as the primary means for keeping tables full. The evening we visited, a band was playing onstage, misters were bringing the late afternoon heat down to a pleasant temperature, and the patio was full of families and friends. We sat at a table with a view of the stage and settled in to savor two citrusy summer cocktails: the Gin Wicked ($8) and the Jalapeño Cucumber Margarita ($7). The Gin Wicked is a tangy, determinedly unsweet cocktail, and similar in taste to a Greyhound thanks to the use of grapefruit juice, with ginger syrup and a “tiny bit of habanero” adding complexity without adding heat. The Jalapeño Cucumber Margarita is much sweeter, though tempered by the cucumbers, jalapeños, and a salt and chile-encrusted rim.

We chose two appetizers that have been on the menu since Monterey Court opened: the Smoked Salmon Bruschetta ($13) and the Goat Cheese Stuffed Dates ($13). Both were outstanding examples of simple foods done well. The bruschetta consisted of crisp slices of bread thinly spread with cheese, topped by soft slices of salmon and a fresh tomato, olive, onion, and basil tapenade. The variety of textures combined flavors that built well upon each other. The dates arrived to the table a bit too hot to eat, but after cooling for a couple minutes, revealed themselves as drool-worthy nuggets of melty cooked dates and creamy herbed cheese filling, all wrapped up in perfectly crisped bacon. As with most things I encounter that walk the sweet-and-salty line, this appetizer quickly disappeared from the table.

For our main dishes, we opted for a Reuben sandwich ($12) and the Grilled Salmon ($19). The Reuben came on crispy toast, with thick slices of corned beef, a modest topping of sauerkraut, and enough Russian dressing to add creaminess but not enough to make a mess. A batch of Wedge Fries may have caused me to sigh in bliss after I bit into one thickly cut stick of potato, finding it perfectly flakey on the inside with a nice fried crust on the outside. The Grilled Salmon came with lightly sautéed summer vegetables, some cilantro rice pilaf, and a large piece of fish laid down the middle. While the grill marks looked stunning on the fish, the salmon was slightly overwhelmed by a char flavor. (I recommend taking off the skin before you dig in.)

We finished our meal with a piece of Limoncello Mascarpone Cake ($6). This is the kind of cake dreams are made of—light, fluffy, and moist, with decadent little curls of white chocolate dotting the top. Set against a backdrop of a warm summer night in Tucson, with the sound of music carrying from the stage, it was the perfect way to end our night.

I asked Haver what he would say to someone who’s never heard of Monterey Court before. His response, “Leave your preconceptions of Miracle Mile at home—it’s totally changed. Come down and have some fun, listen to some music … and have some wonderful food as well.”

Downtown Kitchen’s Baja Gardener’s Tostada.

I grew up in a foodie family in Tucson, so Chef Janos Wilder has always been a bit of legend for me. And as visitors to Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails can attest, after 34 years of wowing palates in Tucson, the award-winning chef is still going strong.

Wilder changes the restaurant menu often, both seasonally and as part of Downtown Kitchen’s Cities of Gastronomy summer menu tour. He says that decision is driven by both a desire to stay seasonal with his ingredients and keep current with what people want to eat. “It’s not only the ingredients that are seasonal,” he says, “but the way they’re prepared is going to change.” For example, in a spring-summer menu, he says, “we emphasize freshness and vitality.” While guests may bemoan the loss of a favorite dish, Wilder says, “If I let myself be guided by that principle, I’d never grow and never change.” Instead, he says, “I make a commitment that anything I add to the menu must be as good or better than what came before.”

We started off our meal with a Tucson Lemonade and a Cuban Sunset cocktail ($9.50 each). The Tucson Lemonade is a bright pink hibiscus lemonade mixed with whiskey instead of the usual vodka or gin. The result is a drink that is significantly darker and less sweet than you might expect, with the right amount of sipability for hot Tucson afternoons. The Cuban Sunset looks like a fruity frozen margarita that somehow acquired a cilantro leaf, but one sip demonstrates how appearances can be deceiving. Habanero-infused vodka mixed with a passion fruit purée is sipped over a salted rim, the cooling fruit juxtaposed against the heat of the chile. Wilder describes his ideal cocktails as well balanced, tasting “fresh and alive,” without too much emphasis on the spirit. You won’t find technique-intensive cocktails at Downtown Kitchen; Wilder prefers to focus on flavor. Regarding both food and drinks, he says, “I’m not trying to wow you with technique, I’m trying to satisfy you with flavor.”

To accompany our drinks, we ordered the calamari appetizer ($11 during happy hour, 4-6 p.m. daily). This is not your normal plate of fried squid: Downtown Kitchen’s version includes fresh watercress, slivered mango, candied ginger, hot roasted Spanish peanuts prepared in a Oaxacan style with red chile and lime, and a green chile vinaigrette. The breading is light and crisp, with just enough salt, and some subtle heat thanks to habanero flour.

Downtown Kitchen’s Cuban Sunset cocktail.

Our second appetizer came from the dinner menu: the Baja Gardener’s Tostada ($11). Featuring a mix of raw seasonal produce served atop a creamy layer of Peruano beans and a crisp corn tortilla, the tostada is served chilled. Escabeche-pickled cholla buds and a roasted corn vinaigrette add the finishing touch, and the overall experience felt as light and varied as eating a salad, but with greater cohesion thanks to the beans. Wilder says, “I wanted a different way to present raw spring produce,” pointing to the tostada as a dish that says “spring in Tucson” and provides a sense of place.

Communicating a sense of place is central to Wilder’s culinary goals at Downtown Kitchen. Part of this goal is accomplished through working with Pivot Produce and other suppliers to source local ingredients when possible. A larger part of it, for Wilder, is deliberately crafting dishes that draw on Baja Arizona’s multicultural heritage. “Being representative and honoring who we are is very important to me,” he says. When he opened Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails in 2010, his goal was to create foods that “make a statement about who we are.” He elaborates: “I believe food can be healing. I believe food can make a positive statement about who we are as Americans at our best.” Our diversity “is what makes all the good things about us,” he says. Wilder strives to serve food that represents the cuisine of immigrants coming to the United States, creating dishes inspired by Mexico and beyond.

This inspiration was apparent in our entrée for the evening, the generously sized Grilled Rib Steak + Chili Colorado. Served sliced and stacked on black beans and calabacitas con queso with a garnish of salsa fresca and green chile vinaigrette, this steak demonstrated Wilder’s commitment to satisfying, uncomplicated dishes. The smoke and spice from a blend of Anaheim, ancho, guajillo, and poblano chiles combined beautifully with the char from the grill on the steak, while the calabacitas and black beans added texture and variety, and the salsa fresca punctuated each bite with crisp, spicy onions.

We ended our meal with a Dark Chocolate Jalapeño Ice Cream Sundae ($8). This was just as decadent as it sounds: a tall old-fashioned sundae glass, piled high with rich chocolate ice cream whose creamy cold belied a creeping heat of chile on the tongue, with delicate candied pecan bits scattered throughout and a dark chocolate ganache drizzled over the top. It was exhilarating.

When Wilder opened Downtown Kitchen, he was depending on the trust he had built with the community during his time at Janos and J Bar. He credits 30 years of exploring the flavors of Tucson for giving him the confidence and freedom to experiment, but with that, he says, came the responsibility to not betray his guests’ trust, to “make them smile and give them a delicious and satisfying meal in a way that they might not expect.” The relationships he’s built have helped make Downtown Kitchen an early success story of downtown Tucson’s revitalization, and these days he’s “very enthused to see what a critical mass of people can do, ” observing Tucson’s growing food culture and emphasis on food justice.

After Tucson was designated as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2015, Wilder began featuring the cuisine from sister Cities of Gastronomy during six week-long segments throughout the summer. This summer’s tour kicks off with a menu inspired by Dénia, Spain, that will be served from May 30 until July 10, followed by menus inspired by Florianópolis, Brazil (July 18-Aug. 21), Shunde, China (Aug. 22-Oct. 2), and Zahlé, Lebanon (Oct. 3-Nov. 13). The Dénia menu will feature such mouthwatering treats as a melon gazpacho, pork tenderloin with summer cherry compote, and drunken orange polenta cake.

Hungry Kepuha’s beef ribs entrée.

After opening for business in late March, Hungry Kepuha has already earned a few die-hard fans. “When people go out of their way to see me, I know I’m doing something right,” says Anthony Ooka, the owner of the food truck providing Tucson with “a taste of Guam.” I first discovered Ooka’s truck parked outside Borderlands Brewing, and I was immediately impressed by the quality, serving size, and price. Ooka admits that while people are always telling him he’s underpriced, he actually had to be talked into charging what he does, because he tends to view things from a budget-conscious consumer perspective. For him to feel comfortable asking people to spend $10 to $14 for what he terms “food truck food,” Ooka wants them to feel like they received their money’s worth. “I want them to be happy, not want more food,” he says.

Having been on the receiving end of Hungry Kepuha’s food truck fare twice now, I’m happy to report that I absolutely got my money’s worth, and then some. While the menu is currently limited to three items (a beef ribs entrée, a chicken breast entrée, or a combo plate featuring one of each), each plate represents what Ooka says is the philosophy of Chamoru food: “simple, amazing food that will fill you up.” (Chamoru is an older name used by the indigenous people for the culture of Guam, which is also called Chamorro. Chamoru is the preferred spelling for Guamanians who have reclaimed the colonially applied title.) He wants people to have a “true and authentic experience” when they eat at Hungry Kepuha, and part of that is the large serving sizes. “We eat, we are an eating culture. You’re not going to get these skimpy little meals.”

Ooka learned to cook on Guam, helping his grandmother, aunts, uncles, and parents with prepping for barbecues and fiestas—any event that required grilling. “I tell people that learning to grill is like a rite of passage on Guam,” he says, though he suspects the old folks teach the young to grill “so that they can sit around, talk and drink.” During his years in the U.S. Army from 2004 through 2010, Ooka further honed his skills; he later worked as a sous chef for a golf resort. The results of his experience show: the chicken and ribs, both marinated for 24 hours, come off the grill with tender, juicy meat and just enough char to evoke the signature barbecue flavor. I can’t pick a favorite between them; both are wonderful. The red rice is well-cooked, with a mild heat to it thanks to the use of ground annatto seed. It’s especially delicious with the addition of the all-purpose finadene sauce that Ooka serves on the side, with its elements of soy sauce and chile oil. To accompany the hot food, Ooka also serves chicken and cucumber salads on the side. He laughs when I ask him about the chicken salad, exclaiming, “Who serves chicken as a side dish?”

But it works. The chicken is mixed with bits of coconut, sweet onions, and green onions, and seasoned with lemon and Thai chile peppers. The result is a salad with a good amount of spice and none of the heaviness of a mayonnaise-based chicken salad, and it serves as the heavier counterpart to the light and tangy cucumber salad, which Ooka brines no more than 12 hours in advance of serving in order to preserve crispiness.

For Ooka, opening Hungry Kepuha is just the first step in his quest to bring knowledge of Guam and Chamorro culture to the people of Baja Arizona. “It’s part of the U.S., and people don’t even know about it,” he says. “I want people to know Guam. This is only a taste of Guam. There’s so much more that the culture, the island, the people have to offer, and I want to be the person to bring it to them.”

Falora’s Fumo pizza.

Falora is one of my favorite pizza places in Tucson. Located on Broadway in the historic Broadway Village shopping center, the self-described “analog neighborhood spot” features pecan wood-fired pizza, artisan salads, four bottled beers, and 14 wines available by the glass or bottle, all served from Falora’s 100-square-foot kitchen. In the spirit of analog, guests receive a coupon if they arrive by foot or bike, and Falora has a daily Vino+Vinyl hour from 5 to 6 p.m.—bring your favorite record to spin on Falora’s vintage stereo and receive a free bottle of Chianti for your trouble.

Falora’s patio looks out onto Broadway Boulevard, and it is a great spot to enjoy a warm Tucson evening. We arrived just in time to enjoy the sunset while sipping Willcox-produced Aridus Tank red wine ($7.50). Owner Ari Shapiro says they are “huge fans” of Aridus wines, and “love rotating along with them.” This particular red blend was sweet to taste and the flavor lingered, providing a nice contrast with the Leone Salad ($9.50), which featured roasted purple potatoes and summer squash, ripe, flavorful cherry tomatoes, and zesty arugula dressed in an artichoke and asiago vinaigrette. The potatoes added an unexpected heft to the salad’s texture.

Falora’s pizzas come on the small side, so if you plan to skip the salad, I recommend you order at least two pizzas for a table of 2-3 adults. We threw moderation to the wind and ordered three, and I blame this entirely on Falora’s wide variety of delicious-sounding pies. The result was a fresh-from-the-oven range of flavor profiles: the classic Margherita pizza ($13), the NYC bagel and lox shmear-inspired Fumo pizza ($16), and the sweet and leafy Figaro pizza ($16). The Margherita kept things simple, with thick and melty pools of mozzarella cheese, whole basil leaves, and a red sauce made from imported San Marzano tomatoes that was absolutely bursting with flavor. I asked Shapiro what makes the sauce so good, and he credited the growing conditions around Mount Vesuvius for giving the tomatoes their sweet flavor, low acidity, and rich red pigment. The only thing he adds is sea salt, saying he prefers to let the volcanic soil “work its magic,” and that it’s “best to leave it alone.”

The Fumo’s fishy profile is an homage to Shapiro’s New York roots, and successfully translates the concept of bagel-plus-lox into a delicious pizza. Featuring wild-caught Alaskan salmon, light and fluffy chèvre, heirloom cherry tomatoes, capers, and red onions, the dominant flavors alternate between the ripe, bright punch of tomatoes and the tender, smoky fish, with the capers adding just the right amount of tang. It’s definitely worth the trip outside of the pizza ingredient comfort zone.

Falora’s Leone Salad.

The Figaro, as the name suggests, features black mission figs sourced from Arizona orchards. First dried, then “slightly re-hydrated” before going on the pie, the fig’s texture was reminiscent of sun-dried tomatoes and played well against the leafy, only slightly cooked Brussels sprouts and crunchy walnuts, with a melty, double-cream French brie cheese tying it all together. A sweet balsamic dressing topped things off. It’s a pizza capable of satisfying both your sweet tooth and one of your vegetable servings for the day. Next time, I’d like to add some soppressata ($3) or beef sausage ($4), to further push the savory/sweet line.

No matter what gets piled on top, Falora’s pizzas wouldn’t be such knockouts without their outstanding pizza crust, which is made from Caputo 00, a flour from Naples that’s been milled since 1924. Shapiro says the secret behind Falora’s slow-fermented dough is “being hyperaware of temperature and proofing” and “generally knowing the dough’s behavior—from the minute it comes out of the mixer, to how it feels when we’re stretching it for the pies.” As for the guiding philosophy behind Falora’s menu, Shapiro points to simplicity: “All elements have to be in balance.” He admits to an obsession with ingredients and preparation. He wants to make dining at Falora a “satiating and satisfying experience,” and judging by our full stomachs and smiling faces as we left, I’d say it’s a goal Falora accomplishes with aplomb.

Tucson Tamale’s Blue Corn Veggie and Cheese Tamale.

I discovered Tucson Tamale Co. when I was a student at the University of Arizona. Their original location at Broadway and Tucson Boulevard is a quick bike ride away from campus, and once I tasted their Colette salsa, a medium-heat tomatillo salsa with just the right amount of salt, heat, and tang, I was hooked.

Luckily, by the time I graduated and moved across town, Tucson Tamale Co.’s eastside location had opened. While their tamales are always tastiest served at the source, fans can also purchase frozen tamales to prepare at home from the nearest Tucson Tamale Co. location or from freezer cases at more than 500 grocery stores and co-ops nationwide.

Looking for a quick and casual lunch, we headed to the eastside location, placed our orders at the counter, and settled onto the front patio. Tucson Tamale Co. doesn’t mess around when it comes to the size of their tamales. Co-owner Todd Martin says they aim to serve a “meal-sized tamale,” and I usually find myself unable to eat more than two in one sitting. And they offer more than tamales: the menu includes a range of burritos, quesadillas, empanadas, and salads, plus a variety of side options, from the classics like Spanish rice and frijoles to a citrusy Mexican Slaw.

There are more than 20 varieties of tamales crafted and sold at Tucson Tamale Co.; the choices served hot in-house are limited to an only slightly less impressive 17 tamale varieties. Martin says Tucson Tamale Co. started out with six tamale recipes, drawn from a combination of traditional family recipes as well as a few of his own. New tamale recipes have been inspired by both customer feedback and employee suggestions. “One of our most popular tamales right now is the Chile Relleno Tamale, which came to us during a ‘create-your-own-tamale’ contest,” he says.

We settled on two 2-Tamale Plates ($7.69 each) and one Red Chile Beef Burrito plate ($6.99). We chose the Chipotle Beef and Cheese Tamale, the Vegetable Curry Tamale, the Blue Corn, Veggie and Cheese Tamale, and the Red Chile Beef Tamale. Each tamale has its appeal: the jalapeño masa used in the Chipotle Beef and Cheese Tamale satisfies those craving extra spice, while the Vegetable Curry Tamale is the epitome of a fusion food, transplanting the flavors of Indian yellow curry into a warm, moist masa envelope. The Blue Corn, Veggie, and Cheese Tamale is my favorite, with its blue-purple masa and hearty calabacitas interior, though the Red Chile Beef Tamale is a close second, thanks to a filling of tender shredded beef, slowly simmered with red chile powder from Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Co. in Tumacacori. Both Tucson Tamale Co. locations feature salsa bars with a variety of pickled and fresh toppings in addition to the three house-made salsas on their menu: The Sherry (a mild red), the Colette (a medium green), and the Todd (a spicy red), all named after family members. My favorite, the Colette, is named after the owners’ daughter. Martin says, “It’s kind of a Goldilocks thing; if Sherry’s is too mild, and Todd’s is too hot, Colette’s is just right.”

While Baja Arizonans have no shortage of quality tamale options to choose from, for me, Tucson Tamale Co. offers a consistent product with a convenience factor that makes them a must-stop and a must-stock.

Kate Selby is a local-living enthusiast and craft-cocktail chaser. She studied creative writing at the University of Arizona.

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