Baja Eats: May/June 2017


May 8, 2017

Baja EatsIssue 24: May/June 2017

Nook’s Breakfast Tamale Pie.

Nook’s location is a perfect match for its name. Tucked into the base of a four-story office building in downtown Tucson, the self-described urban kitchen serves breakfast and lunch, with dinner coming in the near future, according to co-owner and executive chef Matt Thompson.

I started off my meal with a Chai Tea Latte ($3.50) from Nook’s café counter, located by the entrance for easy access by the 9-to-5 office crowd. The latte was right on: sweet without being too sweet.

Since Nook’s post-11 a.m. menu features both breakfast and lunch, my coworker and I split our attention between dishes belonging to each. Representing breakfast was the enjoyable Breakfast Tamale Pie ($10), featuring Nook’s house-made sweet masa baked with roasted chiles and cheese, sitting on top of a bed of red guajillo chile ranchero sauce and topped by two eggs, cheese, and a tangy tomatillo salsa. Thompson says that they play up the natural tang of tomatillos in the salsa with fresh lemon juice and vinegar. He explains, “I believe an acid is a necessary element for the perfect salsa.” While the masa is quite sweet, with chunks of corn mixed throughout, it’s tempered by the savory ranchero sauce, with the end result being a well-balanced dish whose sauces are as integral to the final flavor as everything else.

The Steak Panzanella ($12) from the lunch menu featured a tender and flavorful locally raised hanger steak, cooked perfectly to the medium side of medium rare. Thompson says the trick is in using the right cut of meat; hanger steaks have a “nice natural marbling,” and all he does to enhance that is add “a little bit of salt and pepper before it hits the grill.” The white balsamic vinaigrette dressing and fresh pesto provided a consistency of flavor that held the plate together, while the green salad, featuring vibrant bursts of tomato, buttery croutons, and mozzarella, was the perfect companion for the steak. Not too light and not too heavy, this salad easily lived up to its role as entrée.

In the name of journalistic duty, we ordered two cocktails: Nook’s take on the Bloody Mary, called the Drunken Tomato ($7), and an elegant pineapple cocktail called the Aloha Tucson ($7). The spicy version of the Drunken Tomato turned out to be a dream come true for a savory cocktail lover like me. Thompson credits his wife, fellow Nook co-owner Nikki Thompson, with the drink’s success; he says they taste-tested about 20 versions before settling on the final recipe, which draws on Tabasco to give it kick. The Aloha Tucson, with its rim dipped in chamoy and tajin, turned out to be a great complement to the tamale pie, with the chile and salt keeping the pineapple juice’s sweetness in check.

“Boring, under-seasoned, and dull food is not our thing,” says Thompson. He also points to the role community plays at Nook. The walls are decorated with work by local artists, and Thompson sources ingredients from local producers when possible, notably working with the Best Day Ever Kids Gardening Project, which helps kids engage with both gardening and selling vegetables, all the way from planting seedlings to weighing the harvested produce purchased by Nook. Most important, Thompson says, Nook is a “local restaurant that will go above and beyond for the guest’s experience,” and that he and Nikki “live for a happy guest that leaves wanting to come back and taste more.” If my experience is any indication, I imagine they have plenty of return customers.

Serial Grillers’ Bone Collector Pizza.

If you have an affinity for food-based puns, horror movies, and classic American eats, Serial Grillers is the casual pizza-and-cheesesteak-and-burger place for you. Started as a stand-alone food truck serving cheesesteaks and burgers in 2012, Serial Grillers opened their first brick and mortar location in 2013 on Speedway Boulevard, just east of Craycroft Road, expanding their menu to include cold sandwiches, paninis, salads, calzones, and pizzas. Four years later, they’ve opened a second location on River Road.

I asked co-owner Travis Miller about the inspiration for Serial Grillers’ theme. Travis and his brother, co-owner William Miller, sought to give their business “a name that people will talk about and remember.” After spotting Los Angeles-based Grill ‘Em All food truck’s heavy-metal-inspired menu names, the brothers drew on their shared love of horror movies to name both their restaurant and its menu items, “and it just seemed like the perfect fit.” As for the development of the menu, Miller says their main focus was to “put out good food that we could eat seven days a week,” and “eat the things we wanted to eat whether they were considered normal or not.” The brothers embarked on a “gruesome” research and development period that Travis says “forced [them] to eat an insane amount of sandwiches.” The result is a menu featuring dishes like mozzarella stick burgers and French fry-stuffed cheesesteaks, all named after fictional serial killers and horror movies.

Craving something cheesy, carby, and spicy, I ordered an eight-inch Bone Collector Pizza ($6.25 for the mini size), complete with three types of cheese, bites of boneless buffalo wings, chopped up scallions, and swirls of both ranch and hot sauce. This pizza made Food Network’s list of the top 50 delivery pizzas in the United States, and is one of Serial Grillers’ top selling menu items. It’s easy to taste why: the crust is chewy and golden-brown, and the mozzarella, provolone, and cheddar cheeses provide a creamy backdrop for the deconstructed buffalo wings, without any tomato sauce to distract. All pizzas can be ordered in sizes from a single slice to a 20-inch extra large, and the mini makes a good-sized personal pizza that can be safely demolished in one sitting.

Bringing it on the bun front was the Jack of All Trades Cheeseburger ($8). The guacamole, chipotle mayo, and pepper jack cheese make for a burger that enthusiastically bites back. That spice is tempered by French fries and generous slices of bacon. The ground chuck patty is smashed on the grill by a steak weight, resulting in an extra tasty crust on the meat. The burger is large enough that you’ll probably make a mess while eating it, but the flavor is worth the extra napkins.

The portions at Serial Grillers are plentiful, but if you’re really feeling hungry, there’s one cheesesteak that stands above the rest. The Gormogon Cheesesteak ($15) is piled high with a double order of thin-sliced ribeye, six slices of white American cheese, grilled onions and sweet peppers, bacon, hot cherry peppers, French fries, and onion rings. This is a monster of a sandwich that packs a good amount of heat. Be prepared.

Both Serial Grillers locations feature extensive draft beer options, with 40 handles pouring in their Speedway taproom and 20 beers on tap at their River location, all rotating and many of them from local breweries. With enough menu variety to please everyone and flavor combinations that demand return visits, you could say their execution is killer.

Wilko’s charcuterie Mixed Board.

Beloved by both Centennial Hall concert attendees and University of Arizona gourmets, Wilko’s rustic-chic interior is home to well-crafted food served without fuss, by people who know their way around a charcuterie board. Owned by Peter and Bree Wilke, Wilko is the campus location of the couple’s growing food empire that includes Time Market and The B-Line. Wilko’s kitchen manager, Nick Bamford, credits the Wilkes with using their “incredible palates” to shape the menu, which features a proven list of customer favorites with just enough innovation to keep things fresh.

We kicked off our late afternoon meal with a charcuterie board, opting for the Mixed Board ($20) with a mouthwatering juxtaposition of textures and flavors, three cheeses, and two cured meats. I asked Bamford about what goes into choosing the various cheeses, meats, and accompanying foodstuffs that make up a charcuterie board; he says the cheeses are largely chosen by the Wilkes, with input from other restaurant staff, while the vegetables, compotes, and other items on the charcuterie boards are where his kitchen gets to have fun and try things out. The results were fantastic: Everything on our platter was delicious, with a few items especially deserving of praise. There was a Bacon Beet Brittle, which resembled a bacon-filled praline and melted in our mouths. One of the cheeses, a Michigan blue cheese called Detroit Street Brick, was similar in consistency to brie and had a rich, delicious flavor. Finally, while the house-pickled vegetables were all outstanding, it was the fruit—specifically the melons, quick-pickled with serrano chiles and served over a house made pineapple poblano jam—that was jaw-droppingly delicious. Salty, spicy, and sweet all at once, we fought over every bite. It was perfection.

Our cocktails were no less impressive: the Daisy ($8) was a great choice for a light afternoon drink, combining the tang of grapefruit with salted curaçao, and finishing things off with a smoky mezcal. It reminded me of a Pimm’s Cup, with south-of-the-border teeth. The Garnet Rita ($9) was a showstopper of a cocktail with a gorgeous fuchsia color thanks to the beet-infused Corazon tequila, and a tantalizing tajin-crusted rim. The beets, combined with cucumber and angostura bitters, gave the drink an earthy flavor reminiscent of kvass, with the tajin providing just the right amount of citrus and chile to give it an edge.

For our entrées, we chose the Jerk Chicken Sandwich ($12) and the Panna Pizza ($13). The sandwich was stacked high with a mild sour cream slaw, a blackened, flavorful chicken breast, and crispy house-made sweet potato chips, all served on a fluffy brioche bun. This sandwich must be crushed before eating to have any hope of fitting your mouth around it, but the experience of so many different textures at once make it well worth the extra effort. The pizza, meanwhile, was significantly larger than the price point led us to believe, making this an easily shareable entrée. A white sauce made from a reduction of sautéed onions, white wine, heavy cream, and garlic provides the creamy base for the mozzarella, Parmesan, garlic, rosemary, and basil, and the result is a decadent pizza with a golden brown crust that positively melts in your mouth.

We topped things off with a piece of delightfully tart Blackberry Rhubarb Pie ($8). If you love the pie at B-Line, you’ll love the pie at Wilko—they come from the same B-Line kitchen. With a flaky crust and tangy purple filling, the pie provided an irresistible end to our meal. I already know what I’ll be eating when I return. Chef Bamford recommends the Portobello Pizza: “That stuff is out of this world.”

Sachiko Sushi’s Philadelphia Roll with Salmon Nigiri.

Those who eat sushi tend to have strong opinions on where to eat it. For me, the place to go is Sachiko Sushi. The classic Japanese décor, large flat screens displaying sports games, and walls covered with handwritten signs advertising specials provides the backdrop for some truly outstanding food, both raw and cooked.

I arrived at Sachiko with two friends, all of us with different food agendas. A bowl of Spicy Ramen ($11.45) satisfied the soup lover, while my sushi-wary companion found a great deal in the Chicken Teriyaki lunch special ($5.50). I opted for sushi, ordering a Philadelphia Roll ($7) and two pieces of Salmon Nigiri ($4.50) to share. At the suggestion of sushi chef Ross Condoy, I also ordered the Super Shrimp Tempura Roll ($9.95).

Sachiko provides complimentary miso soup with every order, and I believe it to be among the best miso soups in town. With just the right amount of saltiness and small circles of green onions floating in the cloudy broth, this soup is the definition of umami.

The Spicy Ramen arrived, bringing nose-tingling scents of chile wafting from the large bowl of red-orange broth. Loaded with ground pork, bean sprouts, green and white onions, and ground chiles hot enough to make our lips numb, each mouthful contributed to the long, slow burn that lingered in our throats. If you love spicy food, this is the soup for you.

The Chicken Teriyaki lunch special was served in a bento, with a heap of tempura fried vegetables stealing the show. With breading so light and crisp, and just the right amount of oil, they were irresistible, and the accompanying dipping sauce was light enough in flavor to let the vegetables shine. The chicken had a nice smokiness to it, and the sauce was less syrupy than other teriyaki sauces I’ve tried—a definite plus. Filling out the bento was some fluffy white rice (brown rice available on request), a small helping of potato salad, and a small green salad, making this the go-to choice for maximum variety with minimal cost.

Sachiko Sushi’s Miso Soup.

As for the sushi, it was fresh and assembled beautifully, with generous piles of wasabi and pickled ginger on the side. Sachiko is sensitive to the needs of those with shellfish allergies, careful to keep rolls separate on request, and their Philadelphia Roll was a tasty crustacean-free option. The Super Shrimp Tempura Roll was as extravagant as it sounds, with a generous coating of sweet orange tobiko (flying fish roe) that popped pleasantly between my teeth. Inside the rice, the tempura shrimp, greens, and cream cheese stood up to my less-than-perfect chopstick skills, and had plenty of flavor to enjoy. The Salmon Nigiri I saved for last. Garnished with some finely sliced green onion and a sprinkle of sesame seeds, each piece included a large slice of tender, fresh fish, with just enough rice to give me something to chew.

I asked Chef Condoy what to look for when choosing a sushi restaurant. He suggests looking for a place that is busy. Why? Because the fish sells quickly, ensuring its freshness. Sachiko Sushi has been doing business in Tucson for 24 years, and when I asked for the secret to their success, Condoy says it’s simple: people come to Sachiko because “it’s a busy place.” That may be an oversimplification—but the reputation that keeps Sachiko busy has most definitely been earned.

Sazerac’s crab cake entrée.

Creole food fans, rejoice: Sazerac Creole Kitchen & Cocktails, part of the JAM Culinary Concepts family of restaurants, opened January 2017 inside St. Philip’s Plaza. With a generous amount of picturesque outdoor seating and indoor dining, Sazerac is a great spot for guests to take their ease while enjoying the foods of The Big Easy.

We arrived during happy hour (every day from 2-6 p.m.) and took the opportunity to try some of Sazerac’s self-described “preprohibition and prohibition-era specialty cocktails.” A snaiquiri ($4 at happy hour), described on the menu as “like a daiquiri but smaller,” was like sipping a petite glass of grown-up lemonade; not a lot of liquor to taste, but very refreshing as a day drink. We followed that up with two of their full-sized cocktails, the Brass Band ($10) and the Louisiana Porch Swing ($10). The Brass Band, made with bourbon, velvet falernum (a spiced citrus syrup), lemon, and ginger beer, was very sweet. The Louisiana Porch Swing, while also sweet, presented multiple layers of complex flavor that kept developing as we sipped. Made with gin, orgeat (an almond syrup), Cherry Heering (a brandy first made in 1818), orange juice, lime juice, and Averna (an herbal bitter created in 1868), this cocktail’s tea-like flavor and floral aroma were enjoyable both on the nose and on the tongue. Executive Chef Robert Kimball credits bartender Tiffany Eldredge as the “genius behind the bar,” and I’m inclined to agree after a sip of the Louisiana Porch Swing.

Sazerac’s New Orleans BBQ Shrimp appetizer ($14) started things off. The six shrimp were tender and juicy and came in an herby, savory barbecue sauce that transitioned from rosemary to barbecue spices and chiles, with an emphasis on Worcestershire sauce, which Chef Kimball describes as “as original a barbecue sauce as one can be.” The sauce was thin and less syrupy than many barbecue concoctions, and used the provided bread to soak up every last drop.

We followed up the shrimp with a cup of Chicken Andouille Gumbo ($6). The stew was thick and smoky, with a medium level of spice, and served over fluffy white rice. As Kimball says, “Creole doesn’t mean everything is spicy.” Large chunks of celery and green peppers added to the stew’s variety of textures, while the pork flavor of the andouille sausage shone through. Kimball says they order sausage straight from a Louisiana purveyor “because we want authentic everything.”

If sample-size servings don’t sound like your thing, our server recommended the crab cake entrée ($26). Kimball says the cakes are “a huge point of pride for us,” and it was easy to see why. Lightly breaded and fried, without being oily, the crab cakes are made simply, with seasoning, a bit of egg, and giant chunks of both lump and sugar lump crab. The only “filler” present is the crumb coating on the outside. Kimball believes “a crab cake should taste like crab.” Also of note: a side of vibrant, squeaky green beans, which were cooked in ham hock broth and finished with onion and butter.

For dessert, we ordered the Bananas Foster ($9), accompanied by a Sazerac Past cocktail ($9). Fair warning: this drink doesn’t just look fiery; it definitely burns going down. While there are pleasant citrus and herbal notes on the nose thanks to the orange peel, herbal liquor, and bitters, the cognac that makes up the body of the drink does not mess around. This is a drink best saved for sipping as an aperitif, and I recommend making sure to stir in the remaining sugar crystals prior to drinking. Luckily, the Sazerac Past turned out to be a perfect complement to the Bananas Foster. Caramelized and sweet, with two big scoops of vanilla ice cream on top, the Bananas Foster was rich enough to share among four people and still feel satisfying.

While Kimball reports that Sazerac still has a number of culinary goals in the works (from house-made sausage and ice cream to one day building a visible flambé station), he says their No. 1 goal is to allow guests to “be transported to the feelings that only New Orleans can give you.” For him, that feeling is “home,” and he says that the staff of Sazerac is “dedicated to giving everyone that experience.” ✜

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

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