Baja Eats: May/June 2016


May 9, 2016

Baja EatsIssue 18: May/June 2016


Prep & Pastry has been around since January of 2014, but it still has that new restaurant feel. That and a hip, high-ceilinged space—look up and you’ll notice raw beams traversing the length of the restaurant. Look down and you’re walking on paint spattered concrete floors. There’s a blue wall decorated with artistic white chalk scribbles: Brunch without booze is just a sad late breakfast and All you need is bacon & a good cup of COFFEE.

Weekends find lines out the door while servers inside hurry with hot plates and fresh pots of coffee. The outdoor patio is dog-friendly and the service is friendly and fast. My mom orders the simple breakfast ($8) and I go for Missy’s meatloaf sandwich ($9.50). Our food is delivered within minutes. The place hums with conversation. Mom’s two eggs over easy, with hash-brown potatoes flecked with onion and bell pepper, have good color; the toast is perfect, and her bacon chewy. “The yolks are good and runny,” she says, and then plows through every bite, leaving crumbs.

My Missy’s meatloaf is stuffed between grilled whole wheat, with a sweet-and-tart raisin ketchup, a light blanket of arugula, tomato, and a smear of garlic aioli, with hot French fries on the side. The meatloaf is sliced thin but still has a crunchy top—and it’s plenty moist and well-spiced. While the condiments give it a twist, the flavor leans to American classic.

I always say about making a sandwich: too much, and it’s a fight to get it in your mouth; too little, and it feels like you’re eating a slice of pizza. This was just right. And because lately I’ve got a thing for dipping, I order the soup—a bowl of tomato that was thick and creamy, with a shot of salty and a bit of sweet. And so Missy got dunked and that was a marriage of flavor I gave my total blessing to.

Anyone who eats here regularly knows about their desserts, so I decided to try their croissant/donut hybrid, otherwise known as a doughsant, but they were sold out. I picked up a maple bacon dossant the next day. It’s a circle of thin layers of pastry dough, just like a croissant, but with curves. Then fried. While the bacon trend may be waning for many, the shock of sugar against the salt is still palate pleasing. It’s enough fat, sugar, and salt in a few bites to qualify as an entire meal ($4). They also feature a long list of French toast, in flavors like S’mores, Apple Strudel, or Strawberry Shortcake that easily edge into dessert. No shortage of sweet here.

The menu features popular trends in dining—pork belly, duck confit—as well as a classic and the famed old-fashioned Monte Cristo sandwich. This is not a grab and go eatery, so make time to relax.

Ermanos Craft Beer & Wine Bar features comfort foods with a dash of modern at the south end of Fourth Avenue, just before the downtown underpass. Jennifer and I visit on a late Friday afternoon. The place is morphing from its daytime vibe of a mellow hipster nook into a bustling happy hour destination.

Ermanos is a great upscale neighborhood bar, visually pleasing with its industrial architecture of high ceilings, concrete floors, reclaimed wood, local art on the walls, and one massive skylight near the bar—very warehouse chic. (I’m feeling a whole lot of Brooklyn love recently in the Old Pueblo.) It’s a long, narrow space, with built-in half-booths with wood tables along the wall, running the length of the room.

Jennifer orders a local beer, Barrio Blonde, from the many craft beers available from local and national breweries. Her ceviche comes as a perfectly round disc of chopped shrimp, scallions, green pepper, tomato, and spices with a salted layer of guacamole. The fish ’n’ chips came with, as the name would suggest, a side of house-made fried chips, and she made short work of both.

I was in the mood for their popular Zip burger. It came with two slices of thick slab bacon, coated in their reduced herb and butter sauce (heavy on soy and Worcestershire) with intensely flavored caramelized  “burnt” onions and a thin coating of havarti dripping down the sides. The herbed fries are house cut and salty. (Note: They no longer use Double Check Ranch meat, although though the change is not yet reflected on their regular menu.)

There’s a good playlist going in the background—rock ’n’ roll with some funk—and they have live music Thursday and Saturday evenings, plus Sunday brunch. With good acoustics and friendly service, Ermanos is a bar first, but it’s one you can enjoy eating at. There’s a separate large back room that anyone can sit in or reserve for private parties.

Molina’s Midway, in central Tucson, has been serving up authentic Mexican food since 1953, showing that not all Sonoran cuisine is cooked equally. Jennifer and I come through the doors on a late weekday afternoon, while it’s still busy.

Angel, fast on his feet, delivers our feast on a large platter, resting it on a small stand, before we organize it on our table. There was that much food.

We share a combo plate of spinach enchiladas, one topped with a creamy white béchamel, the other crowned in a traditional red enchilada sauce, then finished with a curtain of melted cheese. The greens were fresh; a bite of green with a swirl of cheddar was a tasty fusion of bitter and savory. The side of rice and beans had frijoles so velvety and rightly spiced, I wondered, how could a simple bean get so creamy? I asked a passing server, “Is there lard in these?”

He laughed, saying, “Lard and love.”

Then came bean enchiladas, which I transformed into a multilayered invention of corn tortillas, rice, beans, cheese, sauce, and a final smothering of guacamole. It was a fiesta pie fabrication that I’ll repeat.

The carne seca burrito (reconstituted dried beef simmered in a rich stock scented with garlic and chiles) is such an Old Pueblo classic that Jennifer says, “This is what I craved when I lived in New York City, to the point of tears.” It’s that good, with a kick of unyielding heat.

Molina’s atmosphere is a bit retro, with red brick rounding the arched doorways, colorful paintings on the walls, and large old-style booths. And they serve Mexican comfort food that continues to live up to its expectations since I first ate here in the late 1970s.

As we were finishing our meal, Angel came by our table and said, “The albondigas is done. Would you like a taste?” I had ordered it earlier. It’s a light broth with scallions and tomatoes sailing across the top, and the tender meatballs called to my taste buds.

A woman lunching nearby told us she comes every week for their albondigas. She adds, “And try their flat enchiladas. They’re made with corn and cheese. Very unusual.” Next time.

It was time to get back to some veggie-centric eating, so Jennifer and I stopped in at Choice Greens, a fast, casual eatery in central Tucson.

Design your own chopped salad from a base of iceberg, romaine, spinach, organic spring mix, or organic kale; choose four “choppings;” and then deliver the filled-out paper menu to the cashier.

It’s obvious why they call it Choice Greens; they offer more than 50 ingredients and 20 dressings. From anchovies to tuna, couscous to quinoa, cheddar to Parmesan, apples to Mandarin oranges, there’s something for everyone.

I went with half iceberg/half romaine, chopped extra fine, hard-boiled egg, avocado, chickpeas, scallions, feta, green peas, corn, and a half order of bacon. This was a kitchen sink salad, tossed with a creamy ranch on the side. The feta and bacon offered savory bites, the corn delivered sweet, and the greens had a hint of bitter. A basic salad with four items is $6.99; each additional topping costs 69 cents.

Jennifer ordered romaine with kalamata olives, chickpeas, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, hard-boiled egg, hearts of palm, and artichoke hearts. All the different textures from the mozzarella to the chickpeas provided the right contrast to the crunchy greens. And since she chose everything that went in her bowl, she loved it.

I go to Choice Greens to get my veggie fix. They’re locally owned, have colorful paintings of veggies on the wall (to keep you in the mood), and although it’s often packed, the lines move fast.

You can check the nutrition facts of your order at their website, where there’s a dietary calculator. (My salad was 405 calories, if you’re wondering.) They also make classic Cobb, Greek, Asian, and other salads, plus fast-fired small pizzas (pick your own toppings), soups, panini, and sandwiches. The teas come from Tucson-based Maya Tea.

It’s a Little Italy gem located in a cluster of industrial warehouses—once you find Roma Imports, you’ll keep coming back. The restaurant is busy at lunch, with a small line of customers at the front register placing orders off white boards featuring rotating specials.

While waiting for our food, I peek through the long bank of freezers that stock meatballs (beef or chicken), several kinds of lasagna, shepherd’s pie, gluten-free pasta, spaetzle, fettuccine, pizzas, curries, goulash, raviolis, and a deep selection of sausage they make fresh every two weeks.

All their signature dishes are cooked preservative free, using excellent ingredients, made from scratch, ready from Roma’s freezer to yours. All you have to do is heat them up. It’s one of Tucson’s best take-out selections.

There’s a back room with long tables topped with the familiar red and white checked tablecloths synonymous with old-fashioned Italian joints. Everything is family style. Mom and I sit at a table with a bunch of friendly strangers and dig in.

Sometimes there’s no improving on old standards. The spaghetti and meatballs ($7.99), a classic I never tire of, comes with traditional soft beef meatballs piled on pasta, all flavored with a rich, sweet marinara. The Roma Stallion ($8.99) is pork shoulder bathed in wine and herbs and slow roasted, then served with pickled veggies on Italian bread. (I swap out the veggies for the German-style slaw). The chunks of pork are savory against the slight sour from the coleslaw, and it’s love at first bite.

For dessert, Mom digs into a chocolate-covered cannoli stuffed with cream, and her eyes light up.

Owner Lilian Spieth’s personal history reflects her varied menu offerings. A Jew born in Calcutta, India, she moved to Israel in her teens, then spent her married adult years in Germany before settling in Tucson.

Roma Imports is firmly entrenched in local foodie culture. Today, nearly 17 years after opening, Spieth and her Roma family roll out nearly 800 meatballs a week.

Their deli counter offers top-quality Italian cured meats: wine-cured salami, capicola, Genoa salami, prosciutto di Parma, bresaola, and more, including all manner of fixings for your own cooking. Roma Imports is at the top of my list for a food tour. Don’t miss. They cater.

Laura Greenberg is a Tucson-based writer.

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