Baja Eats: November/December 2016

 

November 11, 2016

Baja EatsIssue 21: November/December 2016
Govinda’s all-you-care-to-eat buffet.

Govinda’s all-you-care-to-eat buffet.

There is something indulgent about a buffet—that sense of limitless abundance, and total agency over how much of what food ends up on your plate.

Govinda’s Natural Foods Buffet hits all the satisfying marks of a buffet, but you won’t find the hot pans of gummy mac ‘n’ cheese and mystery meat that characterize some all-you-can eat joints. The vegetarian restaurant, which is attached to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) temple and gift shop, has been providing Tucson with flavorful, healthy options for 22 years.

After entering through the gift shop, which sells clothing, books, incense, and more, you’ll be surrounded by food: freshly baked bread and crackers near housemade tea on one side, and a salad bar and hot food along the other. You can eat at tables and chairs indoors or outdoors, or eat in the temple, where floor mats and low tables are provided, and shoes are prohibited.

The food is hearty, and the portions are unlimited, though you get the impression that Govinda’s is the type of place where waste is, rightfully, frowned upon. Start with a bowl of salad and a plate of well-seasoned rice with vegetable curry. You can come back for seconds, or to try additional offerings. For people who are maybe less hungry, or satisfied by a more simple selection, Govinda’s offers a soup, salad, and baked goods option for $7.50. For adults, the all-you-care-to-eat buffet is $10.95, and there are discounts for children, students, and seniors. While dishes vary on a nightly basis the menu has a definite through-line. Curries, samosas, and fritters make a regular appearance.

If you go often enough, you will develop a taste for certain staples, like the halvah, a traditional Middle Eastern dessert of soft, dense, sweet cubes, and the salad dressings—full-bodied bends of nuts, miso, and spices in various combination that are good enough to warrant a write up about salad dressing.

The food is mostly Indian-inspired, but you can find nods to traditional foods from other cultures—Tex-mex fajitas made with seitan, a wheat protein, for example, or, on a recent visit, “meatballs” made from lentils and chickpea flour that left me wanting for neither the flavor or the protein of meat.

Wednesday and Thursday are vegan night, and every Sunday Govinda’s hosts its Sunday Festival, an evening of music, dance, and mantra meditation followed by a vegetarian feast. More information on special events related to the temple can be found on the ISKCON website, HarekrishnaTucson.org.

Babylon Market’s combo platter with manaeesh and fatoush and filo honey pistachio desert squares.

Babylon Market’s combo platter with manaeesh and fatoush and filo honey pistachio desert squares.

It’s hard to know where to begin at Babylon Market. The international and Middle Eastern food market on Speedway carries halal meat, spices, candy, pickles, canned goods, fresh produce, prayer mats, dry goods, bulk grains, hookahs, and more, but might I suggest the hummus ($4.99). Bright with garlic and lemon, it’s the creamiest I’ve had.

The hummus, along with myriad other prepared foods, is available at the casual counter service restaurant within the market. Don’t let the unassuming facade fool you. The kitchen behind it produces quantities of meat, rice, salads, soups, bread, sweets, and condiments. Meats are marinated, rice is vibrant with saffron, salads feature fresh vegetables, but it’s the sauces that tie it all together and make a meal shine. At Babylon, the hummus, tzatziki, baba ghanoush, mutabbal eggplant, and lebni can and should be added to just about anything. Dressed with olive oil and spices, ample sides of the above are offered for $4.99 each, and they are well worth the price.

While Babylon does have a couple of picnic tables outside, the food holds up well to-go, one of the reasons that their catering menu is such an attractive option.

On a recent visit, we picked up the combo platter ($9.99), two kebabs—one chicken, one beef—over basmati rice with grilled tomatoes and two sides. One of the sides, mutabbal eggplant, was smoky, tart, and blended with tahini and chopped green pepper. Similar to baba ghanoush, it was a lovely complement to the kebabs.

The combo platter also came with pita bread, and I also ordered manaeesh ($1.99). Even though we had too much bread for one sitting, I’m glad I did. The manaeesh—chewy, soft—is like some holy combination of naan bread and a perfect flour tortilla. It’s great for making little wraps of meat and tzatziki, but would be equally good served warm and drizzled with olive oil and za’atar.

The fattoush ($4.99), a well-seasoned salad of crisp romaine, red onion, cucumber, tomato, and pita chips, would make a lovely light lunch, or the perfect side to a falafel or shawarma sandwich. We had it alongside our feast, and the lemony tang of the dressing balanced nicely with the ground spices of the kebabs.

Don’t forget dessert—pretty squares of delicate filo and honey-drenched pistachios ($1-$2) tempt you from a case on top of the counter. It’s hard, too, to pass up an impulse purchase or three. A variety of oils, spices, and grains inspire even the most humble home chef with visions of grandeur.

Babylon Market, it should go without saying, is worth a trip even if you aren’t planning to grab a quick lunch or dinner. It’s a haven for hard-to-find ingredients, and walking the aisles is an education in Middle Eastern staples. Employees are friendly and happy to point you in the right direction.

Senae Thai’s thom kha gai and paupia tod with thai beer.

Senae Thai’s thom kha gai and paupia tod with thai beer.

Senae Thai Bistro is a welcome addition to Tucson’s rapidly developing downtown. Rather than chasing a trend—Mason jars, industrial-chic—Senae embraces a classic, timeless aesthetic with nods to the plastered walls and natural wood that are found in some of Tucson’s oldest neighborhoods.

The restaurant’s appearance inspires confidence. Anyone able to pull off such an elegant space has taste, and that bodes well for what comes out of the kitchen. Even the living wall, a vertical garden inside the restaurant, fits nicely into the overall vibe and doesn’t feel forced.

Senae’s menu—simple but complete—also conveys a strong sense of self, which is expected given that the chef and owner, Amonwadee Buizer, has been a restaurateur for more than 30 years. She opened her first restaurant, Sweet Basil, in Berkeley, California, and has since run restaurants throughout the Bay Area, Maryland, and, now, Arizona.

Buizer’s husband, Jim Buizer, is a professor at the University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment. Senae sources produce from the University of Arizona’s Community and School Garden Program. Vegetables, local and otherwise, get star treatment on the menu, where they are featured in starters like the paupia tod, crispy vegetable rolls with sweet chili vinaigrette, and som tum, a green papaya salad with long beans, cherry tomatoes, and peanuts in a garlic-lime dressing.

More familiar starters like satay and tom kha gai are also available. The tom kha gai ($5) is excellent—spicy and intense, a little sweet, a little oily, but not too heavy.

Comfort food in the form of fried rice and noodles has its own section on the menu. Pad thai, pad se ew, and kao soy all make an appearance, and they’re all in the $10 range, making them an affordable choice in Senae’s upscale environment.

Entrées are presented in satisfying symmetry. They are divided into four categories—vegetarian, poultry, meat, and seafood, and each category has four options. The makeur pad ped, with Asian eggplant, shiitake mushrooms, long beans, and bell peppers wok-fried with basil and chili ($13), shines with simplicity.

On a recent visit we also tried karee gai ($15), roasted chicken with potatoes and scallions, simmered in yellow curry and coconut milk. Sweet and rich with coconut, the dish arrived just as described, uncluttered by any superfluous ingredients.

Simple doesn’t mean boring, of course, and many of the seafood and meat options feature intriguing flavor combinations and lovely cuts, though prices are higher than most will be used to paying for similar food in Tucson.

Still, the food is good, and the price is further justified by the ambiance, attentive service, and downtown location. Senae also has a full bar, with local draft beers, wine, bottled Thai beer, and a cocktail menu that incorporates traditional Thai flavors.

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Tania’s 33 coliflor burrito, breakfast platter with soy chorizo, and cup of albondigas.

Tania’s “33,” located on Grande just off St. Mary’s, is a comfortable counter-service Mexican restaurant. With its iconic interior neon sign and homemade flour tortillas, this west side establishment has been satisfying patrons since 1987. Offerings are extensive and classic—tacos, burritos, flautas, caldos, enchiladas, quesadillas—but what sets Tania’s “33” apart is its selection of vegan and vegetarian options.

Most Tucson-area Mexican restaurants in a similar price range offer a veggie burrito, maybe a cheese or flat enchilada, but Tania’s has a wide range of uncommon proteins and veggies that can be added to dishes in lieu of meat. A personal favorite is the coliflor, battered and deep fried cauliflower that adds heft and crunch to any vegetarian dish.

Other meat alternatives include lentejas and calabacitas. For those who want to go veggie but still want some of the texture and flavor of meat, Tania’s has soy chorizo and soya verde.

The many veggie and vegan options do not detract from the quality of Tania’s meat offerings. Machaca, house-made chorizo, albondigas, and green chili beef are among the highlights.

Flexibility is another notable feature of Tania’s menu. Chalkboards line the space above the counter, offering a vast array of sizes and combinations. Burritos come in three sizes, and after choosing a main ingredient, diners can select up to three additional ingredients to design their dream burrito. Classics like the California burrito can be recreated—with potatoes or tater tots—but you can also be as selective as you want without feeling like a nuisance. Every burrito is built from the ground up.

Most everything is available a la carte or as a combo platter, and soups can be ordered in sizes ranging from a small cup to a gallon.

On a recent visit I opted for a coliflor burrito with beans, guacamole, and pico de gallo. It was crunchy and satisfying, with enough vegetables to trick me into thinking I was being healthy. I also tried a cup of the albondigas—a beautifully seasoned meatball and rice soup in a light tomato broth. It was more food than I could consume in one sitting. The burrito held up fine for later, though the coliflor is better fresh as the batter loses its crunch over time.

My partner went for a breakfast platter—soy chorizo and scrambled eggs with beans, rice, and fresh flour tortillas. The soy chorizo is heavily spiced, and, while not a dead ringer for the meat version, it made for a satisfying alternative.

An array of soft drinks fills a cold case, but we both opted for coffee—the kind that sits on a hot plate all day and can be downed cup after cup. In addition to beverages, the cold case contains prepared to-go food. Fresh tortillas and chips are also available, and Tania’s offers party packs and catering.

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Exo’s Whiskeytown biscuit breakfast sandwich.

Exo Roast Co. recently expanded both their physical space and their culinary offerings. The café, housed in an old glass shop on Sixth Avenue and Seventh Street, now serves breakfast out of its Southern Arizona Work Space. Work Space isn’t some trendy throwaway concept—the dining area, with long tables and an open kitchen, also has a large chalkboard and shelves lined with books. Classes and talks are offered several days a week, and range from lectures on water usage to Spanish classes and book releases.

Breakfast is served until noon. Produce, sourced by Pivot Produce, is featured alongside local cheeses and eggs, homemade granola, and baked goods. The menu is simple, and prices are reasonable considering the quality of the ingredients. The ethos behind Exo’s coffee—careful customer service paired with a goal of social responsibility and environmental sustainability—is apparent in their food. On a recent visit, we tried a couple of their breakfast sandwiches.

The Herb Egg Sandwich, with Fiore di Capra chèvre, rosemary, sage, thyme, calamondin lime jam, and greens, was served on a homemade sourdough English muffin. The bite of the goat cheese was tempered perfectly by the sweet and herbaceous jam, and at $5 the sandwich was a great value for the portion.

The “Whiskeytown” Biscuit Breakfast Sandwich ($6) featured the same chevre alongside Sausage Shop Canadian Bacon, San Xavier roasted green chiles, roasted tomatillos from Dream Flower Gardens, and an over-medium farm egg—all piled high on a homemade biscuit.

All produce on the menu is local, organic, and/or wild-harvested. With that in mind, we tried the Fruit Cup ($4). Seasonal and locally sourced, it was unlike any I’ve had. Featuring melon from Cochise County and white pomegranate alongside fresh, tart tomatillos, shaved thin, and perfectly crisp pear, the bowl was a vibrant combination of texture and flavor, and a clear indication that we live in a region with so much great food to offer.

Regional touches pepper the menu—ocotillo, camomile, and ironwood blossoms in the granola and Tohono O’odham h:al squash and I’itoi onions on the sandwiches are just a few examples of how Exo raises the bar on local sourcing by bringing customers ingredients native to the Tucson area.

Pastries from the B Line are still available and still irresistible. We opted for a seasonal pumpkin and cream cheese scone. Not too sweet, dense and moist, it was the perfect snack while we drank our coffee and waited for our food.

The coffee, of course, deserves mention—Exo’s coffee is excellent and expertly prepared, and their focus on sustainability, community engagement, and education are an undercurrent to all they do. In that sense, their expansion into a workspace feels natural.

Lucky for consumers, taste, ambiance, and value do not suffer in the face of such noble underpinnings. Exo would be an excellent breakfast choice regardless, but their use of local ingredients, paired with their underlying values, is a challenge to other restaurants that settle for less. ✜

Laura Horley is a Tucson-based writer.







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