Baja Eats: March/April 2016


March 7, 2016

Baja EatsIssue 17: March/April 2016

Breakfast burrito from St. Mary’s.

It’s always a point of pleasure when people from other cities highlight Tucson’s cooking traditions. In a 2010 Los Angeles Times article, the tortillas at St. Mary’s Mexican Food were singled out as “melt in your mouth.” These are the crêpe -like, hand-stretched, made-from-scratch, large flour tortillas—15 inches in diameter—that you’ll find throughout Sonora. St. Mary’s has been making them since 1968, spinning out thousands of tortillas and Sonoran-style Mexican food in its small terra cotta building.

It’s a casual, distressed, converted bar with plenty of tables and ample parking to hold all the customers coming and going loaded with bags of tortillas and food.

I’d been here way back during my first Tucson sojourn in the 1970s. When my mom and I decided we were tiring of our regular haunts, we ventured west, got lost, and ended up in the parking lot of St. Mary’s Mexican Food. Sometimes it’s good to have the past stalk you.

Mom’s cranky because she wanted breakfast an hour ago, so I convince her she can get it all wrapped up in one neat package called a breakfast burrito—a new experience for her. I order one stuffed with scrambled eggs, bacon, potato, and beans, and order myself a bean, cheese, and guacamole burrito, plus a green corn tamale.

My mother likes the fact that the scrambled eggs are just right, the crispy bacon bits dispersed evenly, and the potato is not in huge chunks. My burrito’s beans are creamy and pitch perfect, not over-salted or split and uncooked in the middle. And the green corn tamale is moist with the right balance of savory and just a trace of sweet. And that tortilla? Oy, perfection!

Luis Salazar, who is part of the family that owns St. Mary’s, explains, “There’s a trick to those beans. It’s a simple trick: if you heat up your lard until it’s almost smoking, then add your beans and grind them, you’ll get the same flavor. We try to teach other people.” The tortillas are made with animal and vegetable shortening because “it gives the best flavor and consistency,” says Salazar. If you use straight lard, the tortillas dry out.

St. Mary’s Mexican Food is usually busy, and the help friendly. Devotees come and leave with coolers loaded with tortillas. And if they can’t carry them, they order by phone. One customer gets eight dozen delivered to the Midwest. They freeze well. Then there was a man who moved from Tucson to San Francisco. He would pick up 25 dozen when he came to visit. After he died, his family kept up the ritual.

Medium flour tortillas are $3.50 a dozen, and the large are $3.75 a dozen. Beans are $4 a pint and $8 a quart.

Hundred-year-old wood floors, arched windows, exposed brick, and high ceilings all come together in urban elegance at Reilly Craft Pizza & Drink. The historic building downtown once housed a mortuary, although it’s seen a gorgeous resurrection as an Italian eatery offering starring roles for traditional dishes with a modern nod.

It’s cold and gray on this late January afternoon; when Jennifer and I push through the doors of Reilly, we have the entire restaurant to ourselves. We sit on sleek chairs, a combo of curves made from metal and wood at a black table in the middle of a large dining room. It’s a mishmash of past, present, and future visions. I’d like to move right in.

Jennifer orders a Nosenipper ($9), a drink that is just that: roasted chestnut bourbon aligned with pear brandy, and a touch of honey and lemon. It’s light, smooth, and offers a dash of sweet sour.

Our meal is a bunch of small sides: four large meatballs, surrounded by tips of toast, sitting on a cushion of fresh marinara ($9), roasted cauliflower risotto with a spray of grated cheese ($7), and deep roasted Brussels sprouts ($7). It’s a small feast of color and intense seasoning.

Now, I’ve eaten many risottos and I’ve made plenty of risottos, but this one performed so many flavors it was like running up notes on an organ. The roasted cauliflower with the rich liquid base was homage to creamy mingling with melted cheese. It was just right paired with the caramelized Brussels sprouts.

The Brussels sprouts tasted as if they’d been steeped in a rich brothy marinade of sweet and savory and hot then drizzled with pecan brittle crumbs. The reason I love them is the way they’re charred on the outside; the spicy heat that follows after the first bite comes from true flavor, rather than a bunch of chiles flung in your face.

And then those meatballs. Light and tender, blended with spices and cheese.

The margherita pizza ($12) is in the Napoleon tradition, a thin crust with a bit of crunch but also chewy, baked in the pizza oven until it’s just singed on the outside rim. The sauce was a robust tomato (love!) that didn’t overwhelm the pie, and we weren’t drowning in cheese.

Reilly has a great menu that roams from a long list of pizzas to truffle fries, mussels, polenta, tagliatelle Bolognese, and goat cheese mezzaluna. They’re also known for being three places in one. The Beer Garden offers a full pizza menu and a rotating selection of 40 tap beers and eight tap wines, with both indoor and outdoor seating. If you’re in the mood for rolling in the deep, check out the basement’s Tough Luck Club bar for craft cocktails.

A restaurant floor made from pennies. Funky, tiered chandeliers crafted from wine bottles. Truism posters by artist Jenny Holzer with hundreds of transformative sayings. The Cup Café’s opening in 1990 was one of the defining moments in Tucson’s shifting downtown history; since then, it’s been front and center as our downtown transforms into an urban epicenter where art, music, food, and commerce converge.

I’m craving breakfast, while Jennifer’s mood is listing toward lunch. Every table is filled, so we hang out in the art deco lobby, home to a thousand memories framed by the sound and fury of Tucson’s music scene and the ghost of John Dillinger—converging in one blast of time, reminding me that dining out is as much an architectural experience as a culinary one.

When a table opens, we pass the rotating dessert display twirling in a pirouette of chiffon and sugar, icing and berries. If I stared any longer, I would’ve yanked out a piece of cake. There’s much to look at. The copper penny floor laid bare approximately 180,000 coins and was assembled on the Congress Hotel roof by a group of friends, employees, and anyone with an itch to help.

Jennifer and I split a cup of the daily soup ($5)—roasted squash with a balsamic reduction drizzled across the top. Layers of puréed squash, creamy liquid, and sweet/tart vinegar played together in calculated simplicity.

I got the huevos rancheros ($10), a center of black and pinto beans covering lightly fried corn tortillas, and two perfect over-medium eggs (runny yolks, dry whites) all layered with a salty jolt of asadera and cotija cheeses, plus a deep chile ranchero sauce—just part of the dance.

Jennifer ordered the vegetarian, gluten-free, lettuce wrap ($8.50) with chickpea fritters, similar to falafel, with pickled veggies (a bite of vinegar complemented with a snap of sweet), smoked cashews, and a spicy harissa sauce on the side of three large butter lettuce leaves. The crunch and well-spiced savory fritters against the tart of the veggies and the heat of the sauce was perfect.

We scoured our plates clean and then topped it all off with a piece of coconut cream pie with a house-made crust, toasted coconut flakes scaling a mountain of sweet. It was rich, and denser than the usual airy bits I’ve tasted before, but scented with lots of coconut.

The Cup is no stranger to national accolades and has been written up in The New York Times and The Washington Post, among other outlets. In 2015, Men’s Journal magazine named it a top 10 brunch spot in the country. Its historic ambience plus the feeling that you’re surrounded by the next cool thing—be it food, art or music—is one reason eating here feels like an event.

The Cup is open 365 days a year because owners Shana and Richard Oseran want people to know they always have a place to go, even on holidays.

Blue Willow Restaurant has been a part of the local independent food scene since the late 1970s. While it still retains a bit of a hippie vibe, like the rest of us, it’s grown up.

Known for breakfast and lunch, or a hip place for unusual gifts, they’ve recently expanded their dinner menu (salmon, chicken pesto pasta, shrimp scampi) and added Bloody Marys and mimosas to brunch.

My mother and I head to Blue Willow late in the afternoon, caught between lunch and dinner. I run into a friend and feel a spark of cellular memory in the warmth of the familiar. The vintage bungalow, separated into three rooms along with their big (and covered) outdoor patio, stimulates my community DNA.

It’s cold outside—my mother’s dressed warmly enough for an Alaskan dog sledding event—so we’re both here for pure comfort pickings. We get a cup of chicken and rice soup. It’s a deep rich chicken broth showered with rice and shredded chicken, the kind simmered on the stove for a while, with just enough cayenne boost to wake our taste buds. We indulge in the meatloaf with mushroom gravy (local grass-fed beef—often Double Check Ranch) and the lasagna Bolognese (a new menu addition).

The lasagna Bolognese ($12.95) is a good portion of stacked noodles with alternating Bolognese and béchamel sauces threading the layers. The food is excellent, and the ratio of sauce to meat to cheese is just right. This is some fine lasagna.

The meatloaf comes with a side of mushroom gravy, rich in umami flavor. The meat is excellent, local and grass-fed, and the consistency is perfect. The side of garlic toast (a talera roll sliced and slathered with butter and garlic) is true comfort (not too heavy either) while the veggies—a grouping of squash—brightens the plate.

We aren’t done. Blue Willow is known for good desserts, especially their chocolate sour cream cake ($5.95). It’s old school and classic, with a rich chocolate fudge frosting and a fine moist crumb, and we’re both dedicated to making sure it doesn’t last.

Their menu is varied, from breakfast to lunch to dinner, with many gluten-free choices. If you hate lines, be leery of weekends, but don’t forget this place. It definitely has a good Tucson feel.

After living in Houston for a year, I learned that barbecue wasn’t just another meal but an entire subculture, complete with obsession, rituals, and taste dialects. Those Texans. Picky, picky.

Essentially, barbecue is nothing more than food, mostly meat, cooked in a smoker low and slow until it’s moist, tender, and dripping from the bone.

In Tucson, there’s plenty of room for more barbecue. Which was probably what the team at Brother John’s Beer, Bourbon & BBQ figured when they opened their barbecue bar and restaurant in the former Wildcat house, once a popular college hangout.

A week after they opened in January, co-owner John Aldecoa, in a fire engine red hoodie, wove in and out of the crowds, stopping at tables, talking to new customers, asking questions. As he passed our table, I asked him what his favorite meal was. He said, “the brisket,” then added, “but I also love the pork belly.” He says their barbecue is a bit of Memphis with some Texas thrown in. They smoke their meats for up to 16 hours using a mix of traditional barbecue techniques.

The place was packed for dinner on a Saturday night. While we waited, we got the hot mess ($12), a mélange of house-made chips slathered in pulled pork and topped with sour cream, guacamole, burnt end pit beans, salsa verde, queso fresco, and pickled jalapeño. The name defined the food. The chips were thick with lots of crunch, an easy delivery carrier. I could’ve just stopped here and called it dinner.

But by the time our meal arrived, the smoked chicken was juicy and tender to the bone, and well smoked. The brisket was sliced in thin slabs, moist and tender, but they were sold out of the baby back ribs, so I ordered the pulled pork.

Between bites of the vinegary tanged green cabbage slaw with what tasted like bacon drippings, and the smoked meat, neither of us used even a dollop of barbecue sauce, though they delivered three squirt bottles to the table with different heat levels.

The pulled pork had good flavor, sweet and smoky, and wasn’t mushy. The side of mashed taters was creamy without being overly rich. The only slight disappointment were the rolls—they tasted like Hawaiian sweet dinner rolls when something with less sugar, like a biscuit, would pair better with smoked meat and savory side dishes.

The Brother John’s team reconfigured the old Wildcat House, creating an interior that would be at home in Anywhere, Texas, with wood tables and bright red metal chairs. Huge, rough-hewn raw wood beams intersect like Legos against one wall.

There are plenty of craft beers and a bourbon lounge with more than 150 whiskey options available. ✜

Laura Greenberg is a Tucson-based writer.

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