Baja Eats: November/December 2017


November 11, 2017

Baja EatsIssue 27: November/December 2017

Bird’s Beeler’s Pork Chop.

People are flocking to a new restaurant on Tucson’s northwest side, where the food is anything but foul—indeed, it’s rather fowl. Bird Modern Provisions and Bar is the latest offering from Fukushu Restaurant Concepts, the Tucson team behind Goodness Fresh Fruit and Juice Bar and OBON Sushi Bar Ramen. More than a month after it opened in July, reservations were still a necessity for Saturday night. The Southern-food-with-Tucson-twist eatery was hopping, and it was easy to taste why.

A plate of deviled eggs ($7), garnished with mustard seeds, offered an exceptionally creamy texture and a nice smoky flavor, thanks to the combination of bacon crumbles and bacon fat whipped into the filling. A platter of mussels ($14), tender and melt-in-our-mouths, had a distinctly regional spin with a tangy, bright green tomatillo salsa crudo, not to mention the sausage seasoned with shallots, garlic, fennel, and spices. The hushpuppies ($8) are shellfish-free and veggie-friendly, with a thick, crispy exterior and a rich, sweet corn flavor, accompanied by a colorful pepper jelly made in-house with just the right amount of heat. Perhaps most memorable was the enigmatically named F.G.T. (fried green tomatoes; $10), a modern take that features chicken-fried green tomato steaks stacked with crispy pork, salsa verde, savory pimento cheese, and fresh greens. The blend of flavors and textures made this appetizer outstanding.

The entrées proved just as enjoyable. The seared duck breast ($29) sat on a bed of kale leaves, creamy heirloom lima beans, and house-made chorizo. The slightly dry chorizo played well against the duck, and the appeal didn’t stop with texture. Executive Chef Daniel Thomas says he tries to combine the two flavor profiles whenever possible: “The mildness of the duck with the touch of spice from the chorizo goes a long way.”

Beeler’s Pork Chop ($27) is named for Beeler’s Pure Pork, a small family farm in Iowa. “The time and care Tim and Julie Beeler put into their farm is absolutely remarkable,” Thomas says. He believes that care translates into better-tasting meat. Bird’s flavorful pork chop arrived resting on tender broccolini, with a just-sweet-enough piece of cornbread tucked to the side. Thomas gives the Beelers most of the credit for the flavorful chop, saying, “The flavor comes from the pork itself.” The addition of a house marinade and salt and pepper finishes off a dish that Thomas calls “by far one of the best proteins I have ever worked with.”

Of course, we had to try the food Bird is named for. Thomas says, “If there was going to be one menu item we hit out of the park each night, it has to be fried chicken.” The Fried Chicken Entrée ($19) is the result of Thomas’s travels across the country to find the perfect approach to fried chicken. He keeps the process straightforward: “We use all-natural chicken that’s brined for 24 hours and then a simple buttermilk wash and flour dredge.” With a thick crispy crust and minimal grease, the chicken hit all the right notes. With the golden brown, lightly sweet waffles, juicy watermelon cubes sprinkled with a house-made take on Tajin, and Tabasco honey for dipping and drizzling, this plate was a solid win for briners and chicken-and-waffles fans alike.

Thomas says the inspiration behind Bird’s menu is “using simple, seasonal, and local ingredients.” While aiming to “stay Southern” and “stay true to what each ingredient has to offer,” Bird also aims to modernize some of the traditional dishes on their menu. Owned and operated by Tucson locals who are committed to working with local ingredients, Bird is definitely the word for an eatery worth checking out.

Bird Modern Provisions & Bar. 7109 N. Oracle Road. 520.441.9509.

Pastiche’s Macadamia Mahi-Mahi.

The word pastiche refers to “an artistic work in a style that imitates that of another work, artist, or period.” In Tucson, Pastiche is also a proper noun and the name of a restaurant that has been serving up “a hodge-podge of everything,” says Executive Chef Tim Moore.

Pastiche’s founder and owner Pat Connors was diagnosed with lung cancer and died in March. The restaurant was sold to current owners Costas and Judie Georgacas within three weeks of his passing. The couple has carried on Connors’ approach to the types of food served at Pastiche, allowing Moore to continue his work crafting Pastiche’s menu uninterrupted. His approach? Bring in bits and pieces of recipes from diverse sources, source the best ingredients he can find, and allow those ingredients to shine.

We started our meal with the Smoked Heirloom Tomato Caprese Stack appetizer ($10.25). The tower of fried polenta, thick slices of sweet red beet and heirloom tomato, and house-made mozzarella, garnished with bean sprouts and resting on a bed of greens, made for a beautiful presentation. Moore emphasizes that the smoked aspect of this dish contributes a very subtle flavor—the tomato is lightly smoked with applewood chips. “I didn’t want to use mesquite on something so delicate,” he explains. My favorite part of the dish was the polenta cake, which was golden brown and had a nice exterior crisp; it has an extra richness of flavor thanks to the butter and white wine reduction that Moore cooks it in. Moore also suggests the fried polenta ($7) found on the Indulgences section of the happy hour menu—it’s made from the scraps created when they cut the appetizer cakes.

Reducing food waste is a theme in Pastiche’s kitchen, where Moore says they “try to cross-utilize everything in every dish we can.” They make their chicken stock in-house and add in the odds and ends from vegetables used in other dishes to enhance the flavor of the broth. That extra flavor pays off in the Ancho Chile & Beer Braised Pork Osso Bucco ($26), which features a one-pound pork shank nestled in a bed of tender green beans and a flavorful mushroom risotto. The pork shank was fall-apart tender after being braised and glazed for four hours, with an ancho chile and salt rub and a glaze made from Barrio Brewing’s Rojo beer enhancing the meat’s flavor. The risotto was an explosion of mushroom flavor, made with a blend of porcini, shiitake, portobello, and button mushrooms, with light and crispy quick-fried shiitake mushrooms sprinkled over the dish. Mushroom lovers: This dish is for you.

The Macadamia Mahi-Mahi ($22) was another outstanding dish, featuring delicate, flaky fish coated in panko and macadamia nuts, and pan seared. It was served on top of “forbidden” black rice, so called because it was saved for emperors in ancient China. Moore describes the rice as having a “beautiful plate presence,” and its nutty flavor and tender grains played off well against a cluster of buttery green beans still fresh enough to squeak. The mango salsa fresca sprinkled over the plate is made from mangos, red onions, cilantro, lime juice, and honey, and along with the coconut lime sauce, added a citrusy tang to the plate.

Pastiche has a large selection of libations to choose from, including an extensive whiskey list. I opted for the Nutty Jaliscan ($10.50 during happy hour), a riff on a margarita featuring tequila, orange liquor, and almond bitters. With an emphasis on both the orange and almond, it was an elegant and smooth reimagining, and would pair well with either small bites or a full meal.

Moore plans to continue to build Pastiche’s eclectic menu according to the ethos Connors established 19 years ago, including taking inspiration from a variety of culinary traditions and making the dishes his own. When I ask if there is a particular direction he’d like to go next, he says, “no real direction, other than really good food.”

Pastiche. 3025 N. Campbell Ave. 520.325.3333.

Batch’s Knuckle & Claw.

Kade Mislinski and Ronnie Spece didn’t intend to wind up running a doughnut and whiskey bar. When Batch Café & Bar opened its doors on Congress Street two years ago, most people focused on their made-fresh-daily doughnuts and whiskey pairings. But their menu extends beyond whiskey and doughnuts: They offer gourmet and build-your-own grilled cheese sandwiches, a couple of impressively large salads, and bar food and small plate staples, such as pretzel bread, mac ‘n’ cheese, and a tomato bisque.

That said, Batch is unequivocally a whiskey bar. With more than 120 whiskeys from an international range of producers and a handpicked selection of cocktails, local and craft beers, and eight wines, there is something for everyone to drink—especially if what they like to drink is whiskey. I sampled the Arizona Old Fashioned ($13), made with Batch’s single barrel release of unsmoked Whiskey del Bac. In addition to featuring local whiskey, prickly pear juice, and a candied slice of jalapeño, the Arizona Old Fashioned also makes use of a locally produced bitters called Mi Casa, made by Chandler-based AZ Bitters Lab, which adds an herbal element along with the cinnamon spiciness. I also sipped the Penichillin’ ($9), made with Monkey Shoulder scotch. The lemony Penichillin’, served with a candied ginger garnish, has its fair share of heat, thanks to Iconic Cocktail Company’s Spiced Honey, which is made in Phoenix and combines ancho chiles, black peppercorns, Szechuan chile pepper flakes, and cinnamon.

We also tried Batch’s gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches. The sandwiches are made using a panini press, so the bread stays lighter and less greasy than if they were pan fried. The Billie June ($8) features cheddar cheese, chicken, smoked bacon, and ranch dressing on ciabatta bread. A whole lot of bacon flavor mixes with the sharpness of cheddar cheese, with extra body thanks to the chicken. The Knuckle & Claw ($16) is arguably the most exotic of the grilled cheese sandwiches: Between two hearty slices of white bread lies a healthy share of lobster, complemented by mascarpone, provolone, arugula, onion, lemon, and sambal. The spice added by the arugula and sambal was a nice addition to the shellfish, as was the bright note of lemon, and the mascarpone, provolone, and onion provided a rich backdrop for the more dominant flavors. Paired with the sandwiches were house-made potato chips, which are thinly sliced with a mandolin and then crispy fried at Batch’s sister restaurant, Classic.

It wouldn’t be a visit to Batch without a doughnut, and I opted for The Stud ($2.75), a yeast doughnut with chocolate icing, sprinkled with bacon, and a thick maple and bourbon Bavarian cream filling—a rich treat that both asks to be devoured and demands to be savored.

I asked Mislinski where he found inspiration for Batch’s menu. He says the restaurants’ concept is connected to his childhood memories, with the goal being to create emotionally connected, childhood-inspired food. Memories of his grandfather sneaking booze past his grandmother by adding it to breakfast cereal, combined with an interest in reimagining milk cocktails popular at the turn of the century, led to the inclusion of a boozy breakfast cereal option on the menu.

He hopes to increase Batch’s appeal as a neighborhood bar, to make it not just a place that people visit for special occasions but also somewhere people can pick a sandwich up during their lunch break or stop by for a quality casual meal and drink. He has hired two new cooks and anticipates presenting a new menu within the next couple of months. Batch has also resumed lunchtime hours, opening at 11 a.m. Sunday-Thursday and 12 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Whether you come for the whiskey, stay for the sandwiches, or are drawn to the daily doughnut specials, Batch is certain to have something for you.

Batch Doughnuts & Whiskey.
118 E. Congress St. 520.203.7370.

The Dutch’s Breakfast Flatbread.

When the University of Arizona campus reawakened in August, there was something new waiting to be discovered at the corner of University Boulevard and Park Avenue. The Dutch Eatery & Refuge opened its doors in June on a corner quiet without students in town. Now that school is back in full swing, Chef Marcus van Winden and his wife and co-owner, Nicole van Winden, are seeing business grow as people discover the hearty European Gastropub.

The Dutch serves brunch and dinner daily. We began our morning meal with some of their breakfast cocktails and a plate of the “secret” menu item, Bitterballen ($9—ask for it). The crispy-fried-on-the-outside, warm-and-hearty-on-the-inside snack is made from sausage and potatoes, with a dose of Maggi (a German-origin fermented sauce similar to soy sauce), and served with a side of spicy Dijon mustard. While van Winden says the classic bar food pairs best with beer, it also matched nicely with our drinks: a classic mimosa ($3), a Desert Sunrise ($6), and The Urban Cowboy ($10). The Desert Sunrise was a sweet variation on the mimosa, featuring a combination of prickly pear and orange juice with champagne. The Urban Cowboy was a revelation all to itself, with St-Germaine adding a floral note to balance out the earthy whiskey.

For those looking for variety, the Breakfast Board ($13) has a little bit of everything: crispy bacon, two eggs cooked to order, fresh fruit, a mini parfait, and a couple of slices of van Winden’s French toast, which is caramelized and with a sweet crunch similar to crème brûlée.

The B.A.C.T.L.T. sandwich ($10), made with bacon, avocado, cheddar, turkey, lettuce, and tomato on sourdough bread, offered unfussy sandwich satisfaction. There is just the right amount of each ingredient here—the flavors were well balanced, the ingredients well distributed, and the portion generous. And, it comes with a side of crunchy made-fresh-daily sweet potato chips.

Those who like to eat burgers for breakfast have a great option in the Bleu Cheese Brunch Burger ($14), another exceedingly well-balanced sandwich. The burger was cooked just right, with a flavorful char on the outside; the fried egg was soft but not too runny; and the bleu cheese, bacon, arugula, and caramelized onions combined to give the sandwich a flavor that was a little sweet, a little salty, and all good.

My favorite dish was the Breakfast Flatbread ($14). The dense bread is spread with cream cheese and herbs grown in The Dutch’s kitchen herb garden and layered with melt-in-your-mouth smoked salmon, fresh avocado, and a fried egg; it arrives cut into six pieces, making this a great option for sharing. Fair warning: The dish is tasty enough, with quality ingredients in restrained simplicity, that you might not want to share.

There are exciting things on the horizon for The Dutch. A catering menu is forthcoming, along with some seasonal dishes such as Stammpot, which van Winden describes as “a hearty, cold-weather dish of potatoes mashed with escarole, vinegar, and mustard,” served with pork belly. While he stresses that The Dutch is a “modern American restaurant,” van Winden also believes that heritage should play a part in cooking. He invites visitors to come experience his “passion for fresh, classic ingredients and get a taste of my background.”

The Dutch Eatery & Refuge. 943 E. University Blvd. 520.792.6684.

La Roca’s Cabrilla Tacos.

Just south of the U.S.-Mexico Border, down a couple of blocks and across a bridge, tucked behind a row of shops and through a cobblestone courtyard, awaits an idyllic dining paradise. La Roca Bar and Restaurant, built into the cliffs of Nogales, takes its name from the natural rock cave walls that make up one side of the main dining room, with windows offering tableside views of downtown Nogales on the opposite side. Despite facing political and economic challenges that impact international and local guests alike, the restaurant has continued in its mission of providing “a place to create and share memories, a place that reflects a balanced harmony between the past and present, and a space in the day to be in the moment or simply a place that can take you away.” As of January, the restaurant will have been pursuing this mission for 46 years. Our server for the night, Alejandro Arreaño, has worked for La Roca for 38 of those 46 years, starting when he was 19 years old.

The menu was presented on a large handwritten board. Staff at La Roca are used to welcoming visitors from north of the border, and while speaking Spanish is appreciated, it is not necessary. We started with Mochomos ($9), a crispy-fried shredded beef dish served with limes and warm corn tortillas, La Roca Cheese ($11), a plate of grilled queso Chihuahua, crispy potato skins, and tomatillo salsa, also served with tortillas, and a vibrant green guacamole ($6). I particularly enjoyed the novelty of the Mochomos—salty and crunchy, like a chip, but with a rich meaty flavor.

Accompanying our appetizers were some highly satisfying drinks. La Roca makes a mean michelada ($5.50) with only ice, beer, lime juice, and salt, taking what I normally think of as a heavier cocktail and turning it into something effervescent. We also ordered a pitcher of margaritas for the table, which struck just the right balance between tequila and sweet.

On to the main course: The cabrilla (sea bass) tacos ($13.50) were filled with rich, moist fish, with just enough jalapeño in the tomato-based sauce to give them an edge. The garlic shrimp plate ($21) included tender, well-cooked shrimp, made amazing by the slow roasted garlic they were served with. The cabrilla filet ($18) was a popular choice—three of our nine-person group ordered it—and it did not disappoint: flaky white fish with a golden brown crisp and more roasted garlic. The Tampiqueña Broiled Tenderloin ($21.50) came with two large carne asada steaks and chile relleno doused in red sauce. The meat was flavorful and tender, and the chile relleno’s crust had an unexpected sponginess that helped it stand up to the red sauce. Sides of fluffy Spanish rice and perfectly cooked squash rounded out both the shrimp and cabrilla entrées, while the Tampiqueña came with beans and some very satisfying cheesy nopales.

We finished our meal with the Delicia Mexicana dessert ($5.50), with vanilla ice cream served in a waffle cone and topped with cajeta, a goat’s milk butterscotch sauce, and roasted pecans. The cajeta was thick and sweet, the ice cream smooth and cold, and the cone and pecans added just the right amount of crunchiness—the perfect sweet note to end the evening.

With rooms available for private parties, catering services, and a dedicated, friendly staff, La Roca is destination dining you don’t want to miss.

La Roca Bar and Restaurant.
Plutarco Elías Calles. Nogales, Sonora. 520.313.6313.

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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