Baja Eats: November/December 2015

A trip around the world, right here in Tucson.

November 16, 2015

Baja EatsIssue 15: November/December 2015

Here’s a crêpe story. Michele Frazier knew her husband, Joe, wanted a café of his own after 30 years working as a chef in corporate America. “So,” she says, “I Googled ‘restaurant for sale.’ It was ironic. I didn’t know anyone who could help me, but I thought maybe I could find some people to talk to.” Instead, she found their future: a crêperie for sale on Fourth Avenue. That was in 2009. She laughs, “Who buys a restaurant when the economy is down? We did.”

Bridget-Shanahan_Baja-Eats-Nov-15_Edible-Baja-Arizona_01

The rest is Café Marcel history. Cooking in a space so cramped they could barely turn around without bumping into each other, by the winter of 2015 they’d relocated to their new location, the old Checkerboard Café on Oracle just north of Grant.

Michele says, “It’s comfortable.” It’s all that plus a slice of mom-and-pop paradise. Black tables, black and white tile, pine paneling. The ideal cozy spot to hang with friends for breakfast or lunch. And there’s plenty of parking.

Whatever you call crêpes, they’re an egg-based batter poured out onto a griddle in a big circle that is used as a vehicle for fillings, then rolled up. Café Marcel’s are light and huge, even their half orders. My friend says a crêpe is the French version of the taco. To new customers, Michele describes it as a French burrito. Technically, they’re very thin cooked pancakes. Originating in Brittany, they’re considered a national dish in France. Many cuisines have similar dishes: Africa has the injera; Mexico, the tortilla; India, the dosa.

Now, chef Joe can get all fancy with his seasoned-to-perfection grill. My friend and I split the half order of ham, brie, spinach, and tomato with a side of their creamy herb sauce and our forks dueled in competition ($5.60). It was just the right amount of fresh filling before we lit into the spinach, tomato, pesto, and feta cheese crêpe ($4.75), and tasted more magic. The feta really made the flavors pop.

Café Marcel offers sweet and savory fillings. I never turn my back on dessert, so we split the pear, apple, brie, and honey crêpe with a drizzle of confectioner’s sugar, whipped cream, topped with berries (half $5.25). It was sweet, but not overwhelming.

They’re known for serving Arbuckles coffee—local, organic, fair trade—with its share of enthusiasts who show up daily for their Arbuckles fix ($2.54). One woman even calls in her coffee order ahead. And Joe created the popular Nutella Mocha ($3.75) that has stirred up quite a following. Great food; happy local owners. 2281 N. Oracle Road. CafeMarcel.biz. 520.623.3700.

It’s a balmy night, and my friend Jennifer and I are ready for our culinary tour of Kalina’s Russian Restaurant and Tea Service, so close to the local library I can almost sense the ghostly presence of Dostoevsky drinking his homeland’s most popular libation. So raising a glass to the famous and the dead, we tasted some of Kalina’s abundant vodkas. Trending lately are varieties with two and three ingredients; we sampled an infused bison grass, so smooth it went down without any afterbite.

Our tsarina of food, Natasha Kalina, the owner, started our adventure with an assortment of sweet and savory tastes—baked spinach robed with dill cream cheese wrapped in salmon, eggplant caviar, walnut-crusted blue cheese bites with an edge of raspberry sauce, stuffed egg, and thin salami slices. Which goes perfectly with vodka, Kalina instructed as she handed another shot of a Polish distillation to Jennifer.

With Mother Russia, there is always a story. A bit of drama. Even with their dumplings. Kalina explains, “They’re usually made and kept outside in the icy cold, and when someone is hungry for a warm meal, they’re dunked in boiling water for a few minutes.” Traditionally, pelmeni dumplings are packed with meat while their cousins, the vareniki, are vegetarian.

The pelmeni are lightly seasoned, round, chewy dough balls of pork and beef served with a side bath of vinegar and topped with sour cream. The vareniki are folded dough pockets crowded with seasoned smashed potato, served with sour cream and caramelized ribbons of onion. And with Russian food, there is always fresh dill marking the landscape.

It’s the perfect Russian Federation. Everything’s cooked in house, and daily, the way Kalina remembers growing up back in Ukraine. With family recipes passed down, Kalina’s warm version of borscht, from her Ukrainian grandmother, is dense with root veggies, while the cold soup, from her Jewish grandmother, was slightly sweeter, with a bright sparkle of cooked purple-red beets, boiled egg, and cucumber slices. (cup $5/bowl $7).

Drinks also get their due here. There’s nothing like a trip back in time with the Russian Quaalude, a salute to the 1970s, a blend of vodka, Fratello, and Irish Cream Liqueur ($8).

The various Russian/Polish vodka tastes kept pace with the food, but no trip to Russia would be complete without authentic beef stroganoff. I could live off the stuff, the sauce rich with earthy mushrooms and sour cream, the steak chopped, the noodles tender ($20.95). For dessert we polished off a house-made mint sorbet and pastry stuffed with real whipped cream and strawberries. We sat and watched the monsoon storm whip tree branches across the parking lot as Kalina said, “I want people to experience my food the way you would in Russia. Slow paced and social, spending time with nice food, nice drink. It’s almost sacred,” she says. “You’re creating memories.”

8963 E. Tanque Verde, Suite 210. 520.360.4040. KalinaRestaurant.com.

Bridget-Shanahan_Baja-Eats-Nov-15_Edible-Baja-Arizona_04

Since 1970, Rosa’s Mexican Food has been dishing out its traditional recipes, long enough to have been visited by Johnny Cash, ZZ Top, and Willie Nelson, and earning its status as a Tucson institution. Tucked away in a strip mall at Fort Lowell and Campbell, Max and I head to a corner table.

I go out to eat food that I either can’t cook or will never be able to learn to cook well. And really good Sonoran-style cooking, which the Old Pueblo can claim as its own with an air of knowing superiority, falls flat in my hands. After having eaten Mexican food in New York, California, Texas, and New Mexico, all those meals just made me homesick for the flavor blends that only happen in Tucson. To me, food that even Phoenicians make a pilgrimage down to sample speaks for itself. Well, that’s Tucson and Mexican eats. And it’s definitely Rosa’s.

It’s a down-home, family-friendly, fiesta-colored two-room paean to Mexico, including the hand-painted murals by local legend Frank Franklin. All of which gives Rosa’s some charm and history.

Here, the white corn chips are light and house made—never greasy—and their salsa has some Bridget-Shanahan_Baja-Eats-Nov-15_Edible-Baja-Arizona_03fiery kick with a garlicky finish that might make your nostrils flare, but sets up your palate for the next course. We dip into some creamy guacamole, thick with avocado and a hint of dairy.

Max creates a sampler plate of what he thinks are Rosa’s standouts: Chile relleno, white cheese cocooned in a roasted poblano green pepper (not too spicy) blanketed in yellow cheese, is melt-in-mouth excellent. And their shredded beef tamale was both piquant in flavor and perfect in texture. They’re known for their interesting combo plates, and this one, including the mound of carne seca, with its filaments of well spiced shredded beef, caramelized onions and green chile, is all chowed down with a side of serious frijoles. I make short work of my bean-stuffed enchiladas, half covered in red sauce, the other half in their house green-pepper sauce (Ortega style), which registers as ideal on my comfort food meter.

Rosa’s cooks its dishes with the deft hand of tradition on one side and experience on the other. Their combos run $10-14 a plate. 1750 E. Fort Lowell Road. 520.325.0362. TucsonMexicanRestaurant.com.

Yoshimatsu Healthy Japanese Eatery has a food-dojo-meets-Japanese-pop-culture-theme park vibe with a collection of bizarre toys, anime, karate-superhero, and kaiju paraphernalia peppering the interior. It’s all housed in a cavernous building that’s been through several incarnations as 24-hour chain diners. A cool edifice with high ceilings, it’s acoustically one of the best places I’ve eaten without the decibel level going into the land of infinite reverb. (How do you say “amen” in Japanese?).

Since they opened at this location in 2002, Yoshimatsu has been serving healthy Japanese cuisine with a minimum of chemical enhancements. They avoid MSG, use only canola oil, and try to serve organic foods, all while aiming to keep costs down.

My group of four decided to embark on a food adventure by picking a selection of random tastings. We started off with salted edamame ($3.50) and crispy pan-fried pork gyoza ($5.50). Then Miles insisted, “I want the fried squid tentacle roll.” Hey, I don’t say no to a 9-year-old wanting to eat something I’d be afraid to run into in the dark. So, along came the squid, its protruding chewy appendages wrapped in sticky rice with a hint of smoky and spicy ($4). Miles’ face lit up, so his younger brother Ian tried two pieces, though he preferred the karaage fried chicken—think, Japanese popcorn tenders. ($6.50).

Bridget-Shanahan_Baja-Eats-Nov-15_Edible-Baja-Arizona_06The spicy tuna roll ($5) was perfectly Sriracha’d and complemented the warmed, bitter Sake ($4) while the vegetarian merry-go-round roll—a mélange of mizuna, asparagus, yamagobo, sweet egg, nori, and cream cheese all dipped in tempura and fried, was some dense real estate packed in an epically-sized vegetarian roll ($9.00). We also ordered a small bowl of vegetable yakisoba (buckwheat noodles), ($3.95) cooked just right, that had a nutty sesame flavor and a pleasing al dente feel.

With Japanese food, it’s all about the subtlety of the flavors and the dipping sauces that give contrast. Yoshimatsu’s menu is extensive and their food has a homemade feel. And I cannot get enough of the cultural touches—like the glass cabinet holding elaborate plastic food replicas, called sampuru, once used as home decorations until restaurants in Tokyo began installing them to attract customers.

Yoshimatsu is a full service restaurant, but Sushimatsu, their sushi restaurant, is in a separate dining room in back—you can order off that menu in the main dining room. We came while it was still happy hour (5-7 p.m.), when appetizers and drinks are discounted. And there’s a nifty gift shop. 2660 N. Campbell Ave. 520.320.1574. Yoshimatsuaz.com.

There are some days that only pasta will do. And preferably the delicate kind kneaded with eggs and flour and rolled out by hand. So when that kind of mood strikes, I head to Tavolino Ristorante with my mom, who appreciates anything she doesn’t have to cook (hey, she burns water).

I love their space, large with vintage family black and white photographs, enormous windows, plenty of light, and upmarket without pretension.

We were doing lunch family style, and tried the beet ravioli ($14), the Bolognese lasagna ($12), the chicken cannelloni ($14), and a salad of burrata, tomatoes, prosciutto, and basil strands.

Bridget-Shanahan_Baja-Eats-Nov-15_Edible-Baja-Arizona_02

Like an answered prayer, all the pastas were thin and made from scratch. Their traditional Bolognese lasagna in tomato sauce is airy and light, the kind that you walk away from having eaten every bite but don’t feel weighted down ($12). The cannelloni is a tube of handmade dough, with a fresh blend of spinach, ricotta, smoked mozzarella, and pulled rotisserie chicken, showered in red sauce ($14). And the beet ravioli, again, a purple pasta square, stuffed with goat cheese, with just the right amount of chew, with marinara on top. (Me and tomatoes are going steady).

They have a cheese guy and he is very, very good. Their burrata is fresh mozzarella with real cream hiding out, kind of like a cheese piñata, with my mouth as the bat.

The chef and owner, Massimo Tenino, pays tribute to the rustic Northern Italian recipes taught him by his mother and grandmother. And in paying homage to family, he stocks plenty of wines from his brother’s vineyard in Italy, as well as a full bar.

Tavolino’s is a full-scale authentic Italian eatery, from just-charred wood burning pizzas to rotisserie meats to house-made pasta dishes. And check out their happy hour menu—it’s a joyful salute to Italy. 2890 E. Skyline Drive. 520.531.1913. TavolinoRistorante.com.







Previous Post

The Plate: November/December 2015

Next Post

A Plant's View