Baja Eats: September/October 2015


September 5, 2015

Baja EatsIssue 14: September/October 2015

Some people eat to live—I live to eat. At least some of the time anyway. I dig food. Eating out. Eating in. Cooking it, studying it, obsessing, tweaking old recipes, and creating new ones. I’m always reinventing the wheel, especially when I fail.

Few of us have been left untouched by food culture. If we’re not talking about food, we’re indulging in it. Like music, certain meals live in our cellular memory. Food is community. And if we don’t eat, we die. Which obviously lends a certain urgency to the whole eating thing. Add geography, culture, and ethnicity to the mix and our passion for food has biological beginnings.

Food is organic design, and our taste buds have gone global. It’s not just the bigger cities that lay claim to tasty morsels of artisan grub. The Old Pueblo holds its own and keeps growing.

The first time I landed in Tucson I was in the prime of youth, with my family, and we opened a restaurant (which definitely chewed up some of that youth). I cooked, waitressed, and lost my temper. First we were blessed with a good review, then we were sent to food purgatory. So I’ve been on both sides of the cash register.

Game of Plates is my favorite series not yet streaming. So stay tuned to each issue as I bring some of the latest dishes: From food palaces to courts, four-star razzle-dazzle to the local pizza joint to the food truck or push cart. How the food goes, so will I.

So if you have news, press releases, ideas, or info, please send them along to or text me at 520.404.4234.

Braised short rib tacos from Harvest.

I seem to move from one craving to another. And this month I’ve been gnawing on some serious Middle Eastern. My new go-to is Za’atar Mediterranean Restaurant, housed in a vintage 1960s drive-through. Owner Ari Badan, who is Kurdish, cooks up authentic Greek-Lebanese-Turkish the way he ate growing up. Lunchtime often finds a line, brought to you by word of mouth raves. I tend to reach for the falafel plate ($8), which is crunchy and well seasoned, and comes with a decent mound of smoked baba ganoush (they grill the eggplant daily) next to a fine rise of perfectly seasoned hummus. The Greek salad (red onion, olives, feta chunks, tomato, cucumber) sounds just the right notes of citrus. And Za’atar turns out some cosmic pita from scratch everyday: small and oval shaped, crusty brown loaves that have a lightness to them. Their cheese bread (think Greek pizza) is sprinkled with three Syrian varieties that Ari christens “sweet cheese.” It bakes in about nine minutes, and watching it crisp, then bubble in my field of vision … well, I’ve found my happy place. They also offer meat and herb versions ($3.50 to $4.50). Menu offerings include chicken, beef, lamb, roasted vegetables, rice, and salads. Check out their daily specials. Seating is limited. Great place for takeout or catering. Za’atar. 2825 N. Country Club Road. 520.323.4074. 

Venturing out of my comfort zone, I wander up to Oro Valley (this used to be land of the rural). And in a little strip mall, not far from golf courses and postcard Catalina mountain views, Harvest Restaurant made a convert of me. With its muted earth tones and cozy feel, once I sat down, I grazed for hours.

Bruschetta from Harvest Restaurant.

Local and seasonal is the song of Harvest. They source locally—the meat comes from Double Check Ranch—and make their food from scratch. Every morning, when the cooking begins, they roast bones, veggies, spices, and herbs, then reduce it for hours, until it goes round the bend into a serious stock. The result is their popular Baked 7 Onion Soup ($6.90) so richly caramelized, it has flavor rings: a puddle of onions on the bottom, toasted croutons, and a curtain of melted Swiss. I found sounds coming out of me I didn’t know were possible.

And the braised short rib tacos ($9) come with a gorgeous rendition of red onion, avocado, and aioli across a soft flour tortilla with a drizzle of queso cotija cheese. Owner Lisa Shapouri says her customers would riot if she moved the dish off her menu rotation. The soup of the day ($4.50-$6.50) was more like a stew, a rich lamb and fig invention, again with house-made stock that had all the texture of velvet sliding down.

No matter what I ate, like the spring mix with salted watermelon and feta crumbles, it made me swoon. And when Lisa mentioned their French fries were the best in town, and put those hand-cut, cumin-parsley babies in front of me, after two bites, I believed it (apologies to other contenders). Whatever their secret (and it is secret), may it continue into the afterlife.

Coming here is like going to the home of a great cook who knows it’s the small touches that amplify the experience. They make their ketchup from the ground up, a gorgeous blood red that isn’t too sweet or too tart. Their bruschetta shines with a house-made pistachio pesto armed with capers, tomato relish, and artichokes, topped with a thick slice of house-made mozzarella.

I finished off my graze with their excellent house churned ice creams. Perfect texture without being cloyingly sweet. Lisa makes all the desserts herself. And for all you gluten free’ers, she bakes her own gluten-free bread and buns.

Reza and Lisa Shapouri were set to open their second Harvest location in September 2015 next to the Whole Foods on River and Craycroft. 10355 N. La Cañada Drive, Oro Valley. 520.731.1100.


One summer, years back, I wandered around New York City just visiting bakeries. I stalk quality-baked goods the way I used to hunt for shoes—with obsessive focus. It’s harder to do in Tucson, as the local bakery scene has been largely absorbed by supermarkets. So when I spied Breadsmith just a few doors down from Harvest, I felt the old familiar stirrings. The irresistible tango of flour, water, and yeast in the form of gorgeous bread loaves.


After years of shopping at their local Milwaukee Breadsmith, a European-style chain, owners Mike and Jan Kruziki, decided to bring the idea of the bakery along with them on their move to Oro Valley. There are 35 Breadsmith stores in 14 states and each one is independently owned; the Kruziki’s own the only Arizona location, and bring a Midwestern warmth to the neighborhood.

Here you’ll find racks of freshly baked bread that send waves of aroma in all directions, from Country Buttercup to Marathon Multigrain, Brioche to Freedom Bread, Traditional Rye or Garlic Cobblestone.


There’s crusty European style as well as American soft-crusted sandwich bread, along with sweeter specialty doughs. Everything is made from scratch daily, with no additives or preservatives, then baked in a six-ton stone hearth oven, steam-injected, imported from Europe. Their dough is never frozen.

I couldn’t resist their coffee cake or Buttertop bread, which morphed into a stellar French toast in my kitchen, soaked through like a pudding but hearty enough to stand up to a fork. And the coffee cake has a fine crumb, perfect with that cup of Joe, moist and rich with spices. Bread leftover at the end of the day is donated to a local food bank. 10355 N. La Cañada Drive. 520.219.7985.

“What I consider a grocery store’s main social function is to bring people in the neighborhood together,” says Paul Cisek, one of the owners of the new Johnny Gibson’s Downtown Market, which opened in the dead of summer to rave reviews and some serious love after a 42-year downtown grocery market drought.


Johnny Gibson’s, named after the late local barbershop owner, weightlifter, war hero, and downtown cheerleader, is an adventure in pure pleasure. The ceilings are high and the exposed red brick offers an old fashioned touch. Rows of fresh colorful veggies and racks of stainless showcase everything from artisan flavored olive oils to milk, eggs, peanut butter, jam, and so on down the food chain. Think of it as the new Mecca of nourishment, minus high convenience store prices.

Without any recent history to chart their current demographic, Cisek says, “We decided to make sure that we put enough of the various lines in: natural, traditional, private label, and gourmet grocery so we would see a trend by virtue of the types of foods people were buying.” After about a year they’ll have a better idea of what to stock based on item sales.


In the meantime, the shop has plenty of local vendors, including Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Company, Isabella’s Ice Cream, Tucson Tamale Company, Sun-Rise Baking Company, Arbuckle Coffee Company, Alejandro’s Tortilla Factory, Don Juan Tortillas, Green Valley Pecan Company, Fermented Tea Company, and others. And they’re excited and open about carrying new local vendors.

They’ve got a full service deli and fresh fish, and their meat market will be up and butchering soon (complete with spit-roasted chickens). The outside back patio is a hidden gem. It’s a community meeting place where you can hang with friends, indulge in some beer and wine, have lunch, and bring your computer (wi-fi is free.)

All this beauty didn’t come cheap—a $1.1 million-dollar build-out, and it shows throughout the market’s 6,000 square feet.

Gibson’s purchases their major grocery items through Bashas’, and Cisek says he loves being affiliated with the Arizona chain because they’re “a family, they’re not looking to open up all over the country. They have opened a warehouse to independents. And they don’t have to do that.”

As for Arizona, it turns out we’re a leader in the grocery wars. Cisek, a veteran of the market business, says, “There are more grocery stores per capita [in the state]. I think we’re No. 1. That’s why you don’t see a lot of independents, because of the competitive nature of the grocery stores in Arizona. They can’t compete.”

Of course, Johnny Gibson’s will prove them wrong. 11 S. Sixth Avenue. 520.393.8544.

Previous Post

The Plate: September/October 2015

Next Post

A Smoker's Connection