Baja Eats: September/October 2016

 

September 9, 2016

Baja EatsIssue 20: September/October 2016

I have spent the better part of the last decade as a busser, barista, prep cook, server, host, and office manager. I’ve seen the ins and outs of many restaurants, both in my hometown, Tucson, and in Portland, Oregon, and Brooklyn, New York, where I earned my MFA in fiction. Aside from food, my interests include board games, music, public land use, and literature.

I have been eating for as long as I can remember—breakfast, lunch, dinner, the occasional snack. Now I am thrilled to put that practice to use as the new writer of Baja Eats, Edible Baja Arizona’s weekly column highlighting noteworthy places to eat in the Arizona borderlands. With Baja Eats, my goal is to capture what makes each of these places distinctive and worth visiting. It might be the mind-blowing enchiladas or the impressive array of velvet paintings. It might be the killer service or complimentary bibs or tableside salsa bar or house pickles, or all of the above. Style comes from confidence and clarity of vision. Greasy spoon or fine dining, deep-fried pizza or refreshing ceviche—if it has style, it’s worth the trip.

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Goodness (clockwise from top left): Smoothies, chicken brie sandwich, original breakfast burrito, Thai chicken bowl.

Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher, said, “Treat those who are good with goodness, and also treat those who are not good with goodness. Thus goodness is attained.” While, doubtless, he was not referring to the Goodness on Campbell Avenue, his words felt especially resonant during a visit to the fresh food and juice bar.

It was noonish on Saturday, and some of us had been good—
eight hours of sleep, yoga in the morning. Others, not so good—mezcal, cheap beer, and a Simpsons marathon. Goodness’ offerings met the needs of all parties.

Choosing what to order was no small task, as the menu is extensive. Goodness offers breakfast, salads, savory bowls, acai and pitaya bowls, wraps, sandwiches, tacos, smoothies, juices, baked goods, and Savaya coffee. By the time we made up our minds and placed our order at the counter, there was an urgency behind our need for sustenance, so we got a slice of the gluten-free banana-date bread to tide us over. The bread didn’t look like anything special, but it was. Moist and dense with an almost caramel sweetness from the dates, it’s a must-try.

Our well-rested yogi chose a 16-ounce Hot Tropic smoothie ($6.50) and the Roasted Chicken & Brie sandwich ($8.50). The color palette of her meal—gray and beige tones—belied its true flavorful and satisfying nature. The sweet and tart of green apple chutney on the sandwich was a perfect complement to the crispy leeks and melted brie, and the smoothie was fruity, tropical, and rich with quality ingredients.

Though many of our fellow patrons looked like they had just come from the gym, Goodness’ overall vibe is welcoming and relaxed. People of all ages and body types sat around tables and at the bar, having a family lunch or grabbing a quick smoothie. There was none of the pretention one might associate with wheatgrass shots and acai berry bowls.

The hungover duo settled on a 16-ounce Solar Power smoothie ($6) and an aptly named The Cure juice ($5.50) alongside an Original Breakfast Burrito ($8.50) and a Thai Chicken Bowl ($8.50).

The Cure—pineapple, carrot, celery, cucumber, ginger—was dominated by pineapple and carrot, fortunately, as drinking celery juice sounds sad. It was sweet and light with a faint earthiness of root vegetables, and it lived up to its name.

Solar Power had elements of both the Hot Tropic and The Cure, but it wasn’t as tasty as either. Vanilla and carrot proved to be an odd flavor combination, but the smoothie—rounded out with coconut, banana, honey, and orange—was still quite drinkable.

Both the Original Breakfast Burrito and the Thai Chicken Bowl came in generous portions. While the burrito suffered from the same bland color palette as the sandwich (whole wheat tortilla, quinoa, eggs, and turkey sausage aren’t the most vibrant) the Thai Chicken Bowl, which comes with either quinoa or brown rice, was a bounty of rich color and texture. Both dishes hit the mark in terms of flavor and sustenance, and with full bellies the three of us walked out into the blazing Tucson heat feeling that we had, indeed, attained goodness.

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Wild Garlic Grill’s spiced-rubbed BBQ St. Louis ribs.

Wild Garlic Grill is the Steely Dan of Tucson restaurants—familiar, unpretentious, and completely enjoyable. The restaurant, on First Avenue just north of Grant, is housed in a funky, low-ceilinged, 1950s-style building and has bar seating, a dining area, and a patio. The atmosphere is at once casual and nice enough for an occasion. The food is thoughtful and well balanced. The tablecloths and uniformed waiters clash with the low ocotillo ceilings and diners wearing cargo shorts, but it all works together to create a very Tucson take on French-inspired California cuisine.

To get a sense of the food, one need look no further than Chef Steven Schultz’s background. A Tucson native, Schultz received his degree from Ècole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris. His time in France, paired with his love of the California wine country (including Gilroy, whose garlic is the restaurant’s inspiration), has clearly shaped the dishes at Wild Garlic Grill. Those familiar with Schultz’ previous restaurant, Red Sky, will recognize his style. Crowd pleasers abound, and while you’re not going to find much uncharted territory, you will almost certainly find something that delights. We ordered the Roasted Beet Salad ($8.50) along with a delightful Pinot Noir from Et Fille, a winery in the Willamette Valley. The wine list at Wild Garlic is unchallenging but solid. Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon dominate, but other styles can be found, and there were a number of choices in various price ranges. It would be hard not to find something you like on the list.

The same goes for entrées.

Main courses include San Francisco Pier Stew, New York Strip Steak, Roasted Garlic Chicken, hamburger, grilled salmon, and linguini Bolognese. There is something for everyone, even vegetarians, who can order an entrée salad of grilled Portobello mushrooms.

The spice-rubbed BBQ St. Louis Ribs ($15) were served with garlic mashed potatoes, braised field greens, and, in theory, red chile onion rings. The ribs were slightly sweet and falling off the bone—just like you’d hope.

Wild Garlic Grill has a number of specials priced a little higher than regular menu items. Our server, who had likely spent the better part of her busy night listing and then repeating specials, patiently did the same for our table. It was hard to catch the full list, but there was something about filet mignon with bleu cheese, pistachio-crusted lamb, and sea bass ($23), which was an ample portion of fish over lemon-dill risotto, topped with a relish of corn, avocado, and tomato and accompanied by a small salad and vegetables in beurre blanc.

The dishes shone with the confidence of a chef who had been making the same type of food for decades. Schultz knows his strengths. He knows what ingredients will work together, and how to complement various proteins. He knows what makes people happy. Nothing here will upend expectations, but neither will it disappoint.

Wild Garlic, from the indecisively casual atmosphere to the approachable food to the candid service, provides the perfect backdrop to nearly any dining experience. In the same way that Steely Dan creates an atmosphere of comfortable, nostalgia-infused fun, Wild Garlic Grill offers quality, unfussy food and an atmosphere nice enough for a special occasion without worry—Uncle Frank can get his burger, Aunt Jane can get her lamb, the cousins can have French fries, Mom can get her salmon, and you can have whatever you like, all at a price that, given the quality, is very reasonable.

Miss Saigon’s khai vị thập cẩm sampler plate.

Miss Saigon’s khai vị thập cẩm sampler plate.

The month of June is never an easy one in Tucson, but it was made all the worse this year, at least for those living in the downtown area, by the temporary closure of Miss Saigon’s downtown location. Fortunately, monsoons weren’t the only relief brought by late summer—the Vietnamese staple has reopened its doors, and it’s bigger and better than ever.

Miss Saigon is exactly what downtown Tucson needs more of. Affordable, delicious, and quick, it has enough atmosphere to make lingering over drinks an enticing option, but it is also perfectly suitable for carry-out or a quick workday lunch. It doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard to be on-trend, and the recent makeover, which includes an expansion and blue lighting behind the bar, is refreshingly unpretentious. While the two other Miss Saigon locations in town offer the same menu, only the downtown location has a full bar and a late night menu.

The menu is expansive, and includes a variety of soups, rolls, curries, stir fries, and drinks. Though entrée portions are generous, it would be a mistake to skip appetizers. The ch giò is a favorite—fried egg rolls filled with pork, mushrooms, and carrots and served alongside lettuce cups, vermicelli, and fish sauce. ($5.99) All elements combine to make little flavor bombs of hot and cold, crunchy and soft, sweet and salty. The spring rolls are good too, especially the chao tom cuon—grilled shrimp paste with shredded greens and vermicelli ($4.75)—and if you can’t decide what to start with, go for the khai v thp cm, a sampler plate that includes several spring rolls and two egg rolls. ($9.99)

It’s hard to go wrong at Miss Saigon, though some dishes wow more than others. A personal favorite is the com ca cari dua, grilled catfish topped with coconut curry and served alongside jasmine rice and greens. ($8.99) The sauce is a little sweet and a little spicy. It makes for a lovely, balanced meal and is a great choice if you’re not in the mood for soup.

The soups at Miss Saigon come in three categories—beef broth with rice noodles (ph), chicken broth with rice noodles (h tiếu), and chicken broth with egg noodles (mì). Soup comes with a side of fresh bean sprouts, cilantro, lime, and jalapeño.

The chicken broth has been known to cure colds, the flu, and malaise. It’s rich and sweet and needs little more than noodles, lime, and chile sauce to become a satisfying meal. The same can be said for the beef broth, which is the standard for pho, though both broths act as the backdrop for a variety of proteins.

On a recent visit, we branched out and tried the bún bò huė, a spicy beef noodle soup with thick vermicelli, broiled beef slices, and Vietnamese pork paste. ($7.99 small/$9.25 large). The soup, described by one patron as “scrumdiddlyumptious,” was spicy not so much for heat, though there was a mild kick, but for actual spice—clove, cinnamon, and star anise—which gave the broth a depth of flavor. The result was something rich and complex, but not oily or overcomplicated.

The B Line’s fish tacos.

The B Line’s fish tacos.

Come for the desserts, stay for the desserts. Whatever your approach, don’t miss the desserts, which are the highlight at The B Line. Pastry chef Terri LaChance and her team have been filling the case at B Line (and the other Wilke establishments—Time Market, Wilko, and Exo) for years, and their rotating selection of pies, cakes, cookies, custards, and more is a testament to the chef’s skill and taste.

The raspberry rhubarb pie is tart and fresh, and I challenge you to resist it on a summer’s day, even if you’re already full from a big plate of lunch. The key lime pie is one of the best I’ve tasted, down to the graham cracker crust. It isn’t easy to make something that is both creamy and refreshing, but this pie pulls it off. Part of the joy of dessert is in the presentation, and B Line’s offerings deliver on that front as well. Pie crusts are arranged in adorable patterns, and garnishes are added to pots du crème with attention to detail.

Of course, the precursors to dessert are worthy of note, too. The B Line’s menu covers a lot of ground for such a little place. Lists of pastas, burritos, tacos, sandwiches, salads, and breakfasts line the walls near the front counter, where you place your order. The menu has a bit of this and a bit of that, and while it couldn’t hurt to do a little reconfiguring every now and then, there is some comfort in knowing that you can grow up in Tucson, leave for several years, and return to get the same Feta Jack Burrito you remember loving in high school.

Their tuna salad is great, too, and it’s possible to have just half, served on Time Market’s toothsome levain, alongside a cup of soup ($7.95). On a recent visit I opted for the soup of the day, gazpacho, and the pairing made for a refreshing summer lunch.

The fish tacos, two mahi mahi soft tacos with avocado, cabbage, cheese, and sauce on corn tortillas ($10.95), feature a generous serving of beautifully cooked fish alongside rice and beans. At first glance the price might seem high for fish tacos, but the quality fish and the portion account for the cost.

The B Line offers wine, beer, coffee and tea, and it tends to draw a laid-back crowd. Casual counter service makes it a good place to meet with friends, as there’s no need to worry about separate checks or members of your party showing up late. It’s also a nice family brunch spot, or a good place to read or study solo over coffee or a glass of wine. Space is a bit of an issue—it’s pretty small and seating is broken into three separate sections—so it might not be the best choice for a big group. Otherwise, it fits the bill for most any occasion.

El Güero Canelo’s Sonoran hot dog.

El Güero Canelo’s Sonoran hot dog.

Daniel Contreras, the founder of El Güero Canelo, opened his first hot dog stand in Tucson in 1993, and he hasn’t missed a beat since. In addition to owning and operating four El Güero Canelo restaurants and a meat market in Tucson, Contreras runs a bakery and tortilla factory in his hometown, Magdalena, Sonora.

El Güero Canelo has gotten a lot of well-deserved press for its Sonoran dog—a hot dog wrapped in bacon, topped with pintos, pico, mayo, mustard, and onion, and served in a bolillo bun ($2.78). What sounds like a heavy and potentially indigestible meal goes down easy thanks to the thinly sliced bacon and soft, slightly sweet bolillo, and there is no shortage of additional condiments should you find you want your dog a little more spicy or covered in cheese. With roasted onions and jalapeños, pickled vegetables, fresh limes, and a variety of salsas, their toppings bar is easily the most extensive in town.

Though El Güero Canelo got its start as a hot dog stand, the restaurant’s offerings go well beyond that today. Burritos, tortas, tacos, and quesadillas round out the menu. The carne asada torta ($6.59) comes on a toasted bun piled high with chopped beef, lettuce, and mayo. Order a side of guacamole and chips ($5.29) so that you can add a little avocado to the sandwich. The guacamole, served in an ample portion, makes a great side regardless. And of course, make use of the salsa bar.

I’d like to take a minute here to dwell on the often-underappreciated bean and cheese burrito. Three simple ingredients—refried beans, cheese, and tortilla—excel in combination. As with anything simple, execution is the key to success. A perfect bean and cheese burrito is hard to find, and El Güero Canelo does it just right. Creamy, well-seasoned beans and mild cheese wrapped in a soft, chewy tortilla, it is the ultimate comfort food. Conveniently, they offer burritos in various sizes, so it’s possible to avoid a burrito coma without having to exercise much self-control as long as you opt for a small, but maybe you should get the medium just in case.

Though every Güero Canelo has distinct features, the locations are unified by their casual, almost cafeteria-like, ambiance. At the location on Oracle, where the original hot dog stand can still be found in the parking lot, diners are surrounded by floor to ceiling windows. Orders are called out as they come up, and relics of Contreras’ past, as well as childhood photos, lend warmth and intimacy to the otherwise streamlined aesthetic. 

Laura Horley is a writer from Tucson, Arizona.







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