Baja Eats: March/April 2017

 

March 11, 2017

Baja EatsIssue 23: March/April 2017

Le Buzz Café’s housemade Chorizo Potato Hash with Poached Egg.

Whether you need to refuel after a muscle-burning ride up Mount Lemmon or you’re looking for a spot to meet your friends for brunch, the self-described “European style espresso bar and patisserie” Le Buzz Caffé has been serving up tasty food for 20 years on Tucson’s northeast side. Owner Margaret Hadley points to French and Italian cafés as the original inspiration for the menu, with an additional emphasis on Southwestern flavors added when Le Buzz began serving breakfast. A variety of tantalizing baked goods drawn from “all-American comfort food” round out the menu.

Hadley says Le Buzz Caffé was one of the first restaurants in Tucson to roast its own coffee, and they take pride in both the coffee they serve and the beans they sell. We ordered a latte and a mocha, and the coffee lives up to the hype: smooth and without bitterness, and the chocolate flavor of the mocha is subtle yet sweet.

Our entrées quickly followed the coffee. The Scrambled Eggs ($5.50) come with a choice of toast or French roll, and it was just the right size meal for a modest appetite. The eggs were light and buttery, with a fluffy texture and good mouthfeel. The roll, served with butter and raspberry jam, had a nice crust and was a substantial companion for the eggs.

If you’re used to the hefty tortilla-bound morning meals served up at Mexican fast food joints, the Le Buzz Breakfast Burrito ($8.50) will seem small by comparison. Don’t let the compact size fool you. This burrito was big on taste, with crispy bits of bacon and perfectly cooked home fries, scrambled eggs, fresh pico de gallo, and cheddar cheese. The roasted tomatillo salsa is sweet with a mild heat, marking this dish as a Southwestern favorite that is safe for all palates.

Le Buzz’s House-Made Chorizo Potato Hash with Poached Egg ($9.50) is only served on the weekends, so I jumped at the chance. The egg was expertly poached, the toast crusty and light, and the sliced avocado perched on top was decadent. The chorizo, potato, bell pepper, and onion hash was flavorful but not spicy, with browned potatoes.

We capped off our meal with a piece of Apple Almond Cake, which was everything we could wish for in a breakfast dessert. Almond and brown sugar crumbles topped a lightly sweet cake, with a generous portion of baked apple filling making the end result resemble an apple pie with cake instead of pastry.

Before Le Buzz Caffé opened their doors two decades ago, Hadley tells me they posted a notice in the shop window saying they hoped to “provide … customers with an espresso bar in the European tradition, with great coffee and pastries and an inviting atmosphere in which to enjoy them.” The menu may have expanded, but that hope continues to be realized.

La Parrilla Suiza’s Platillo Mixto con Bistec combination platter.

A family-owned restaurant responsible for bringing Mexico City food to Arizona-residing mouths since 1969, La Parrilla Suiza has deep roots in Tucson, with three locations in Tucson and two in the Phoenix metropolitan area. The recipes are drawn from family tradition, and many items from the original menu continue to be served today.

In the mood for gobs of melty queso and a margarita or two, I grabbed a couple of friends and headed to La Parrilla Suiza’s Speedway location for dinner. A complementary trio of salsas and fresh corn chips set the stage for the rest of our meal and helped take the edge off our appetites. Gilbert Aguilar, the general manager for the Speedway location, says the salsas are made fresh daily, and I found the green tomatillo salsa to be particularly outstanding, which Aguilar credits to the combination of tomatillo and avocado.

For my drink, I figured go big or home: I ordered the Cadillac Margarita ($9.99), which is made with 1800 Tequila, Grand Marnier, and fresh lime juice. Available blended or on the rocks, this is a large drink and will easily last an entire meal (mine did).

As for the melty queso, we ordered the smaller Queso Suizo ($8.49, serves 2) as an appetizer for the table, and proceeded to shovel heaping spoonfuls of cheese into hand-sized flour tortillas. While the Queso Suizo can be ordered with a topping of chorizo, I found the cheese and tortillas alone to be a rich and flavorful dish as is.

Our entrées arrived in short order, with the award for most dramatic presentation going to the Parillada de Pollo ($15.99). Delivered on a table grill loaded with live coals to keep the dish hot, the Parillada was a colorful jumble of sautéed chicken breast, bacon, onions, and bell peppers intended for scooping into handmade corn tortillas; it comes with a side of charro beans. Aguilar tells me La Parrilla Suiza makes the masa in house daily, and the tortillas are made throughout the day. Walking past the open kitchen, we watched more tortillas being made, the cook’s hands scooping masa and transforming it into small flat circles waiting their turn on the griddle.

For those looking to feed an outsized appetite, the Platillo Mixto con Bistec combination platter ($12.99) promises not to disappoint. Two bistec tacos and a single-person serving of Queso Suiza topped by chorizo, grilled bell peppers, and avocado, along with sides of rice and charro beans, occupied what was easily the largest plate on our table. The chorizo, bell peppers, and avocado take the cheese-in-tortilla portion of the dish up a notch in complexity of flavor, and the bistec tacos were true to their street food origins: simple and satisfying.

As luck would have it, my own entrée turned out to be my favorite: the Enchiladas Suizas ($12.99), filled with chicken and soaked in La Parrilla Suiza’s house-made red enchilada sauce, packed a ton of flavor into three of those fresh corn tortillas. The sauce, made with ancho and guajillo chiles, brought a gorgeous smoky flavor to the dish and played off well against the well-salted chicken.

We finished our meal with an order of flan ($5.25): creamy and thick, with just the right amount of caramel, it was the perfect way to round out our meal. We left La Parrilla Suiza reminded of why they remain a go-to spot for Tucson Mexican cuisine.

Good Day Café’s Chicken and Waffles.

When I’m in the mood for some perfectly crisped, golden brown pancakes, I point my mouth toward Good Day Café. Tucked inside an unassuming shopping center on Speedway just east of Craycroft, Good Day Café has grown a devoted following since opening in August 2013. Their business model is simple: serve up scratch-made food at competitive prices. Owner Susan Duran points to their clientele as the deciding factor for the Good Day Café’s price point. “We want to make our customers happy and still make a profit, but I’m not going to raise more than I have to,” she says. She estimates that most menu items fall about $2 below what similar restaurants charge. Lower prices haven’t resulted in a lower quality dining experience: the tuxedo T-shirt-clad employees are all smiles when we arrive for breakfast on a sunny Sunday morning.

My short stack of pancakes ($3.99) was fresh off the griddle, featuring the crispy finish over a fluffy interior with just the right balance of salt and sweet that pancake dreams are made of. I asked Duran what makes the pancakes at Good Day Café so good. She points to the batter for the flavor—“We use a combination of cinnamon and vanilla, and a secret ingredient that I’m not going to tell you”—and gives the kitchen credit for the griddle-flipped perfection: “That’s my cooks. There’s nothing we [have to] do with that.”

Duran emphasizes the importance of experience when she considers who to hire. “When I hire a line cook, they have to have five years’ experience,” she says. They also have to be great at working as a team: “It’s two [cooks] back there; they have to read each other’s minds on what they’re doing.” That teamwork aesthetic holds true for all the café’s staff, with menu items resulting from input from the servers, cooks, and Duran herself, who says she considers her employees to be like family.

It turned out I wasn’t the only person in the mood for griddle food that Sunday. The potato pancakes ($7.99 for a combo plate) deviated from the usual approach to potato pancakes, mixing savory potatoes, green peppers, and red onions into regular pancake batter. The result is a bit sweeter than a traditional potato pancake, but still up to pairing with sour cream and applesauce for a potato-licious dish.

The chicken and waffles ($7.99) showcased Good Day Café’s fried chicken, an item I don’t often encounter due to my tendency to order breakfast items (read: pancakes) every time I eat at the café. The breading on the chicken was thick and crunchy, without being overly greasy, and the seasoning was right on: not too salty, with enough pepper to bring out the flavor, but not so much that it hides the chicken. We slathered on the hot sauce and syrup and got to work.

I asked Duran if there were any menu items that she takes special pride in. She points first to The Hobo ($7.49), a breakfast special featuring two eggs, two sausage patties, and hash browns, “all layered in a big heaping pile.” I recommend taking portion size warnings seriously at Good Day Café. I’ve had The Hobo, and I took about two-thirds of it home after admitting defeat. Duran’s other menu favorite is Good Day Café’s annual NFL Burger series ($9.29 for a burger). The staff dream up a different burger for each team in the NFL (32 in total), and then remove burgers from the menu as their corresponding teams get eliminated in the playoffs. The winning team’s burger stays on the menu all year.

Whether you’re seeking a cheap and tasty breakfast or a hearty lunch in midtown Tucson, Good Day Café has you covered—and the variety of their menu and consistent service is likely to make you a return customer.

Feast’s Shortbread.

A destination for fine dining in central Tucson, Feast has established itself as a home for unexpected and exciting flavor combinations and food served in a relaxed atmosphere perfect for everything from Sunday brunch to a work luncheon to date night.

Grabbing an early lunch with a friend, I was delighted to discover that Feast begins serving from their happy hour menu the moment they open until 6 p.m. every day. My inner cocktail nerd rejoiced, opting for the Waifs and Strays, a rye whiskey cocktail featuring Grand Hop liqueur ($7.50 happy hour). It successfully integrated the bitter tang of hops with muddled orange and lemon, keeping the drink from becoming overly sweet while also avoiding the realm of IPAs. Chef and owner Doug Levy and his bar staff can be thanked for the variety of culinary-inclined adult beverages, though Levy has a sense of humor when it comes to his contributions: “Much to the dismay of the bartenders, I do create a lot of the cocktails, and since I’ve never been a bartender, the cocktails I make are usually more work than a cocktail needs to be.” I’m always on the hunt for nonsweet cocktails, so I was already delighted with my choice, but the complementary pairing of a rich, savory arugula potato pancake topped with crisped pork belly took the experience over the top. Levy points to the happy hour specials as an opportunity to expose people to something new, with the additional encouragement of a free snack. “You’ll see things that we think you should be drinking, as opposed to the stuff that people customarily order without thinking about it.”

Feast is known for their substantial wine cellar. We ordered a glass of 2013 German Messwein, paired with an asparagus and goat cheese frittata ($8 happy hour). The wine was delicious: dry, with lemon and honey notes, but the frittata is what really shone in this pairing. I have never eaten eggs so fluffy and moist, and when combined with the saltiness of the goat cheese and the tender pieces of asparagus, this little rectangle of flavor was positively sinful in its appeal. I asked Levy what makes the frittata so good. “We beat a little bit of the goat cheese into the cream that we in turn beat into the eggs, [then] bake it in a convection oven, which gives it more lift,” he says. Also important? Quality local ingredients: “We use really good eggs from Zamudio Farms down in Elfrida.”

Feast’s Seared Beeler’s Heluka Pork Chop.

It’s not easy to pick an entrée from Feast’s menu: everything sounds amazing. We finally settled on two, with help from our server, Renee. I ordered the vegetarian-friendly Butternut-Spinach-Niçoise Olive Tart ($17), and my friend ordered the Seared Beeler’s Heluka Pork Chop ($25). We were both eager to experience the unusual sounding ingredient combinations in our entrées.

Levy points to seasonality of ingredients and balance of flavor and texture as the driving factors behind Feast’s menu, which changes monthly. He also likes to push his boundaries with unfamiliar ingredients. “I’ll go to an ethnic market and just buy stuff that I have no idea what to do with and see what contribution it can make to a dish, or use herbs and spices I haven’t worked with before to see what we can do with them, or put them in a new context,” he says. For example, “Ajwain might not even be noticeable in Indian or Pakistani food, but it really pops when you use it in a dish that people perceive as Western.”

The pork chop arrived beautifully plated, the bright colors of the broccolini, kumquat marmalade, and tangy pickled beet relish popping off the plate. If you prefer your steak a little on the rarer side, you’d probably enjoy the pork chop cooked similarly. The meat was tender and extra flavorful; it’s brined in a mix of sugar, salt, shallot, garlic, peppercorn, and star anise, and had a beautiful caramelized finish. This dish only got better as the meal went on. The crisp bits of pumpernickel toast, while initially valuable for adding a crunchy texture to the meal, began to soak up the flavors from the plate, along with the broccolini, whose firm-to-the-bite saltiness played well against the sweet flavors on the plate.

The tart was a flavor revelation—rich and hearty, with the aggressive flavor of kalamata olives tempered by the soft sweetness of butternut squash. Flaky pastry encircled the vibrant filling, strong enough to hold its own as we attacked the tart. The warm sautéed Brussels sprout leaf, lily flower, and walnut salad served on the side was an adventure all on its own, with the sweetness of honey and crunch of walnuts making it as delicious to mix in with a bite of tart as to eat alone.

We finished our meal with Feast’s Shortbread ($8), a layered treat that featured the juxtaposition of a delicate shortbread, a light and fluffy star anise cremeux, and a dense caramel bavarois (a caramel thickened with gelatin), topped by a pear simmered in thin liquid caramel. Served with fresh berries, it was the perfect ending to an elegant and memorable lunch.

Poco and Mom’s Best of New Mexico Combo Plate.

If you’re seeking a Hatch chile fix, believe the best enchiladas are served flat, or just want a plate heaped with delicious food that won’t break the bank, Poco and Mom’s is the spot for you. They’ve been serving up New Mexican cuisine in Tucson since 1999. In 2014, they opened their Cantina location, featuring expanded hours, an appetizer menu and full bar, and a banquet room for special events.

I couldn’t resist the opportunity to try something off the Cantina drink menu, and opted for the Hatch Margarita ($8), made with Hatch chile-infused Zapopan reposado. Limey and sweet, with a good kick, this drink both refreshes and sets a small fire at the back of your throat. I enjoyed it.

I asked Carol Gibson, manager at Poco and Mom’s Tanque Verde location, what distinguishes New Mexican cuisine from other Southwestern food. She pointed to subtle differences, such as enchiladas that are served flat instead of rolled, with corn tortillas stacked on top of one another and the option to order eggs on top as being “a New Mexico thing.” Perhaps most important, all of the chiles served at Poco and Mom’s are from New Mexico, guaranteeing that diners experience that authentic Hatch flavor.

Fair warning: New Mexico food is served spicy, and Poco and Mom’s portions are large. Come with a big appetite and taste buds ready for heat.

Poco and Mom’s website declares, “It’s hard not to be addicted to this place,” and I have to agree. Our entrées came out slathered with sauce and cheese, the very definition of comfort food. Mom’s Red Chile Chicken Enchiladas ($11.49) came with a generous helping of rice and beans on the side and a good amount of heat on the tongue; the shredded chicken was tender and flavorful. Both the beans and rice contain meat in the form of bacon fat and chicken stock, respectively, and while this doesn’t make them veggie-friendly, it does make them delicious for those who eat meat. The beans in particular are outstanding: creamy, salty, and capable of inspiring return visits for frijoles alone.

If you’re having trouble deciding what to eat, Poco and Mom’s Best of New Mexico Combo Plate ($12.99) gives you a chance to experience a bit of everything. The platter features a green chile chicken enchilada, a sauce-drenched chile relleno, and red shredded beef taco, and includes sides of beans and rice. I swapped out the rice for an extra-cheesy bowl of calabacitas, and was treated to tender squash and onions swimming in rich tomato flavor. The tortillas used at Poco and Mom’s are made in Phoenix and shipped down daily, and provided an excellent backbone for both my enchilada and taco. While not the most aesthetically appealing plate I’ve ever eaten, my taste buds were in heaven as I worked my way through the food, and I went home with a full belly, a full carton of leftovers, and a big smile on my face. ✜

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







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