Baja Eats: September/October 2017


September 7, 2017

Baja EatsIssue 26: September/October 2017

Mama Louisa’s Cannoli.

Mama Louisa’s Italian Restaurant has been serving up Italian-American food on Tucson’s southeast side for more than 60 years, so it’s no surprise that some regulars don’t bother to look at the menu. “You get people who come in, you hand them the menu, and they hand it back to you,” chef Michael Elefante says.

For diners who have been eating at Mama Louisa’s since it opened in 1956, Joe’s Special ($11)—featuring house-made linguini, hot pepper seeds, garlic oil, and the house red sauce—is the dish that they know and love. But when Elefante took the reins at his family’s restaurant in 2014, he felt it was time for a change. He analyzed the previous 10 years of sales data and kept the bestsellers of the past, then added a section he’s calling the Third Generation Menu. This gives the up-and-coming chef, who was the runner-up for Iron Chef Tucson 2017, room to play with fresh dishes and his own take on “the kind of food you’d eat for Sunday dinner at your Nana’s house” while still catering to the clientele who have kept their doors open for the past six decades. “If you still want to get your Joe’s Special, you can have the same experience as you did 60 years ago, but now you can also check out the newer stuff on the menu,” he says.

I arrived at Mama Louisa’s intending to do just that—after witnessing the peach-stuffed Ravioli Elefante created as part of his menu for Iron Chef Tucson, I was eager to see what else he had up his sleeve. What I discovered was a Third Generation Menu worth venturing outside of your comfort zone—and your zip code.

We started our meal with the Relish Tray ($13), a rotating selection of modern takes on traditional pickled classics. Among my favorites: the Tuscan Gigante Bean Salad, featuring large creamy beans and roasted red bell peppers dressed in a house vinaigrette; delicate mascarpone-filled Peppadew peppers that beautifully transitioned from a subtly sweet flavor from the cheese to a spicy vinegary flavor from the peppers; and tender and sweet pickled cipollini (pronounced chip-oh-LEE-nee) onions, which Elefante lets sit for two months before serving. There was plenty to go around, and one order can easily serve a table of four.

Next came the Mac ’n’ Cheese ($7), an appetizer that can easily function as an entrée. Featuring house-made campanelle pasta (all of Mama Louisa’s pastas are made in-house) and a perfectly melted, salty, creamy blend of provolone, Parmesan, house-made mozzarella, pecorino, and white cheddar, this dish made both my inner child and my outer adult’s mac ’n’cheese-loving day. Why those particular cheeses? Elefante chose the provolone and white cheddar for sharpness, the mozzarella for stringy, creaminess, the pecorino for saltiness, and the Parmesan because, “Well, it’s Parmesan.”

Mama Louisa’s Relish Tray.

We chose the pork chop from the Third Generation Menu. Brined in a mix of salt, sugar, and apple cider vinegar, the meat was tender and well salted, with a beautiful char and smoke flavor from the grill. Plated alongside a small salad of greens dressed with house vinaigrette, the pork chop was served on a bed of puréed polenta and drizzled with a sweet-but-not-too-sweet raspberry gastrique. The polenta was smooth, rich, and savory, cooked in milk and seasoned with mascarpone and Parmesan cheeses, leaving me wishing I could order a small bucketful to eat later.

No dinner at Nana’s house would be complete without dessert, and the Cannoli ($6) turned out to be exactly what we were looking for. Made from a fine-grain Tenera Ricotta, chocolate chips, cinnamon, sugar, and a secret warming ingredient that Elefante wasn’t willing to reveal, all wrapped in an extra-crispy shell from the bakers at Viro’s, the lightly sweet cannoli embodies what Elefante views as a traditional, Old World take on sweets. I asked him what makes a good cannoli. “The filling is the key component, and the shell,” he says. “You don’t want to bite into it and have it taste like chalk and grittiness.

“You can’t do Italian food without being full,” Elefante says. “I want to make sure people are taken care of, like they just got done eating with family.” Mama Louisa’s has been run by his family for three generations and weathered 60 years of changes in Tucson’s food industry. Now, Elefante says the restaurant is entering a new chapter. It’s worth making the trip to experience it.

Saguaro Corners’ Shrimp and Grits.

I discovered Saguaro Corners when I was out looking to stargaze on the eastern edge of Tucson. Its hand-painted sign, featuring a neon saguaro outline, proclaims that the restaurant has occupied its spot nestled in the desert, less than a quarter mile down the road from the eastern part of Saguaro National Park, since 1956. A 1949 Chevy sits at the edge of the parking lot, adding to the sense that Saguaro Corners hails from the past—but its menu, and the chef behind it, are very much living in the now.

Chef CJ Hamm took over in 2016, revamping the menu right from the start. “You can’t call yourself a chef if it’s not your food,” he says. Hamm likes to update the menu on a seasonal basis, rotating dishes at least four times a year, and says the philosophy behind his menu is “Tucson comfort food that people want to eat.” While he’s happy to pull inspiration from just about any region, he describes the majority of Saguaro Corners’ food as “American classics with some Southwestern influence.” Adding to the variety, Saguaro Corners keeps 22 rotating craft beers on tap, with at least half of the taps occupied by Arizona brews.

Tempting beer list aside, I tried Saguaro Corner’s Jalapeño Moscow Mule ($8), and was not disappointed—plenty of spice from the ginger, a nice touch of heat from the jalapeño, and just the right amount of lime juice made this a sweet and refreshing cocktail to wash away a hot day in the desert.

We headed straight for the entrées. Saguaro Corners offers a variety of mix-in options for their Classic Mac ($9 for the dish, $2 per mix-in), and we added caramelized onions, bacon, and mushrooms. The curly cavatappi pasta arrived coated in a creamy white cheddar cheese sauce, with a good amount of mushrooms, bacon, and onion scattered throughout, and was finished with a dusting of breadcrumbs. Turns out we aren’t the only people who like that combination. When asked how he likes his mac ’n’ cheese, Hamm says, “You can never go wrong with bacon and mushroom.”

The Saguaro Burger came with a generous helping of golden, crispy fries. The brioche bun was sweet, fluffy, and supported a stack of thick beef patties, fresh veggies, fried jalapeño slices, and fresh chunky guacamole. The guacamole and brioche served to temper the spice of the jalapeños, making this a burger with appeal for all but the most heat-averse palates.

My favorite was the Shrimp and Grits. The grits are prepared as a solid cake and pan-fried, instead of the more common cereal format. “Grits dry out if you keep them soft,” Hamm says. “I liked the idea of frying it up and giving it a different textural note.” He’s also tweaked the flavors to have a more Southwestern edge, adding roasted corn, jalapeños, and Oaxacan cheese into the grit cake. The sauce poured over the top is rich and lightly sweet, built on a base of mesquite-smoked tomatoes, with cream, butter, and a bit of the same citrusy velouté sauce Hamm uses for his salmon dish. This gives the sauce a bit of extra acidity and creaminess, which complements the tender shrimp and savory andouille sausage. The inclusion of lightly sautéed spinach added an element of freshness to the dish.

Hamm says his plan is to stay the course: “I really like the direction we’re in and what we’re doing.” Saguaro Corners has stayed busy, and he trusts his customers and staff to let him know if he missteps when he experiments with a dish. Hamm is also on the lookout for things he can do better: “I don’t get complacent; you get complacent, you get boring and lose your drive and creativity. I’m always asking ‘What can I do to improve this?’ I want to keep doing what we’re doing, but always keep improving it.”

Twisted Tandoor’s Tandoori Flower Cocktail.

Few Tucson restaurant openings have been more anticipated than Twisted Tandoor’s brick-and-mortar location. In 2015, Mukhi and Roop Singh were on the verge of opening the restaurant that would allow them to expand their popular food truck’s menu and bring their family’s take on traditional Indian food to a larger audience. Mukhi’s death the day they were set to open put those plans on hold, as the community mourned the loss of a beloved man.

Two years later, with the help of JAM Restaurant Concepts, Roop has seen her dreams, and Mukhi’s, become reality. The restaurant is spacious, with chic décor and an open kitchen that Singh says recreates some of the feeling of the food truck. Twisted Tandoor’s new location comes with another change: “We used to cook the food ourselves, and now someone else does,” says Singh. “We’re trying to get the food to how I make it, and it’s getting there,” she says. Still, “You can make the same recipe, but when somebody else makes it, it’s going to taste just a little bit different.”

Singh makes sure to greet guests when they come through the door, if she can. “We always had a one-on-one interaction and knew everyone’s names when they came back to the truck,” she says. Perhaps the biggest change Twisted Tandoor has undergone is marked by the smiling portrait of Mukhi that hangs on a wall overlooking the dining room.

One thing that hasn’t changed: Singh’s dedication to serving traditional dishes reminiscent of what she ate growing up in a Punjabi family living near New Delhi. She says when people eat her food, they’re “surprised that it’s not that hot, but Indian food isn’t really all that hot.” She says, “It really depends on where you’re from and what your palate allows.” Instead of ordering a dish spiced mild, medium, or hot, Singh says in India people order the food that matches their palate: “You don’t want a lot of heat, you order a different dish.”

We started out our meal with the Amritsari Fish appetizer ($10), a tender white fish fried in chickpea batter, served with a mint and cilantro green chutney and a relish of red onions and tomatoes. The chickpea flour used in the batter is made from the gram chickpea, which Singh says has a nuttier flavor than its well-known beige cousin.

Paapdi Chaat ($6) is Twisted Tandoor’s take on a traditional Indian street food, featuring thick wheat flour crisps piled with kabuli chickpeas, roasted red potatoes, yogurt, and a sweet-and-savory chutney. “What makes this dish,” she says, “is the sauces and the yogurt.” Think super nachos, Indian style. The savory green chutney plays against the tangy sweetness of the tamarind chutney, and every bite is a messy, multitextured delight.

Twisted Tandoor now offers a cocktail menu. Singh says one of her favorites is the Tandoori Flower ($10), an elegant floral cocktail that is as pleasant to look at as it is to drink. A blend of rosewater and hibiscus results in a drink that is sweet without being saccharine, with an enthralling scent and complex flavor.

For our entrée, we went with something more familiar: Twisted Tandoor’s Chicken Tikka Masala, with its creamy orange sauce, tender chicken, fluffy rice, and red onion relish. I was surprised to learn from Singh that Tikka Masala is not a dish you’d be likely to find in India; it’s thought to have originated in the United Kingdom, though it does bear some similarities to the traditional Indian Butter Chicken. Singh says the first time she ever made the dish was for the food truck, and she credits Tikka Masala with being a gateway food for people unfamiliar with Indian cuisine.

Piggies in a Bandera from a Gastronomic Union of Tucson dinner.

The founding of the Gastronomic Union of Tucson (GUT) may be the start of something big for Tucson’s culinary community. Devon Sanner, executive chef at The Carriage House in downtown Tucson, says it started out as a small Facebook group where Tucson chefs “shared pictures of dishes, solicited advice on purveyors and products, passed along kitchen/gallows humor, and celebrated the crazy life of [chef] sisterhood and brotherhood.” As the group grew, Sanner says, it became clear there were a number of members looking for a more direct way to “come together as a chef community,” and in September of 2016, a group of 20 chefs met at Ermanos Craft Beer & Wine Bar to discuss their goals for future collaborations. These chefs, and those who have joined them since, make up the membership of GUT, who describe their mission as “to foster a culinary community of creativity, professional development, and community engagement.”

Among GUT’s current efforts is an ongoing pop-up dinner series. Featuring five courses crafted by a rotating roster of local chefs, the dinners are a delicious and inspiring demonstration of just how strong Tucson’s food game can be.
The inaugural GUT Pop-Up Collaboration Dinner was in June 2017. Its theme, Snout to Tail, referenced GUT’s goal of cooking with a whole animal, and the locally raised pig, provided by E&R Pork and butchered by Forbes Meat Company, was just one example of their emphasis on locally sourced ingredients.

A few highlights: The bite-size appetizers offered big flavors: arepas stuffed with Fiore di Capra chèvre, local peach salsa, and bacon offered a chewy, savory contrast to the delicate and tangy melon and cucumber gazpacho verde garnished with a crisp piece of prosciutto. The salad, called Pig & Fig, featured tender handmade agnolotti pasta stuffed with a salty and rich guanciale, with a taste similar to bacon and a melt-in-your-mouth texture. This was topped by a cluster of pungent arugula dressed with Midnight Moon, fennel, orange, and Sambuca syrup. A scattering of sweet dried figs completed the salad. A dish called 3 Sisters, 1 Hog paid tribute to the primary crops of indigenous North American agriculture. A dense blue corn sope with perfectly crisped edges provided the base, with a creamy white tepary bean purée and a tender circle of smoked porchetta pibil were stacked on top. A tumble of calabacitas en escabeche and a generous drizzle of cilantro crema finished the arrangement, and the combination of textures and flavors to be had in every bite was delightful.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of attending a GUT dinner is the opportunity to watch culinary collaboration in action. While only a few member chefs are assigned to create the menu for a dinner, everyone works together to run the dinner service, and being able to observe chefs shift from an executive role during one course to being part of the crew during the next course was an inspiring demonstration of the group’s team spirit. Sanner says it isn’t easy to cook with an unfamiliar crew and he credits the success of the service to each chef being “mission-focused, egoless, and ready to lean into the strike zone to take one for the team.” GUT chefs who weren’t contributing to the first dinner’s menu took on the roles of commis, server, busser, and dishwasher, with some chefs “taking their only night off during the week to come plate up, bus tables, and wash dishes for this event.”

GUT’s dinner series is ongoing, with three goals in mind. “Foremost,” Sanner says, “we want our guests to be wowed by a great meal.” Secondly, he says GUT dinners “aim to be fun,” for guests and chefs alike. Finally, the hope is that those who join GUT for these monthly experiences will “come away with an appreciation of the quality of local product and the dedication of those who make it.”

Oink Café’s Oink Bacon Bloody Mary.

As their slogan—Breakfast, Lunch, Bacon—might suggest, The Oink Café goes through a lot of bacon: about 340 pounds per week and 17,500 pounds per year. This east side restaurant helps bacon-loving diners get their fix by incorporating salty, crispy bacon into everything from an eight-slice bacon flight served on a wooden board to a margarita that features pig-shaped ice, a bacon-salted rim, and a bacon garnish. I asked owner Heather Clauser to describe the philosophy behind The Oink Café’s menu. In a word? “Bacon,” she says. “We tried to think of something that was on-trend when we opened, and we kind of built from that.”

If you prefer your breakfast and lunch pork-free, there are some delicious nonbacon and veggie-friendly options to choose from as well. As Clauser says, “You have to appeal to everyone.”

Hailing from the bacon-loving side of the menu, the Oink Bacon Bloody Mary ($8) features house-blended tomato juice, a bacon-salted rim, and a garnish of lemons, limes, and olives—and, of course, a slice of bacon alongside the standard celery stalk. This Bloody Mary isn’t very spicy; let your server know if you like a Bloody Mary with more heat. The bacon-salted rim offered explosions of bacon flavor with every sip, backed up by the drink itself, which Clauser says is infused with a bacon syrup they make by boiling leftover bacon for four hours in water and brown sugar.

Staying on the bacon train: the Oink Breakfast Chimi ($11.49) comes slathered with a freshly made creamy chorizo cheese sauce and is stuffed with pork confit, home fries, scrambled eggs, and cheddar cheese, wrapped up in a fried and locally made tortilla. The confit is delicious, made from pork rendered for seven hours in a combination of its own juices and fat from Oink Café’s jalapeño bacon, the meat was fall-apart tender, with the kick of jalapeño and added richness from caramelized onions.

The tasty doesn’t stop with bacon. The Oink Café’s French Toast ($3.99 for a side order and $10.49 for a full-size plate) comes drizzled with a scratch-made berry sauce and topped with whipped cream and fresh berries. The berry sauce was striking in its simplicity: thicker than syrup, with a sweetness that came primarily from the berries. But the pièce de résistance is the crumbled Captain Crunch cereal that coats the toast. Each bite included a hint of crunch, adding a new texture to French toast.

The most popular item at The Oink Café is the Oink BLT ($10.49)—a sandwich with six slices of bacon, offered on bread or as a wrap. I opted for the wrap, choosing jalapeño bacon and adding avocado at Clauser’s suggestion. The result was a wrap bursting with smoky bacon flavor. If you want something heartier, Clauser suggests the Oink Burger ($12.49), or, for maximum smoky bacon flavor the 50/50 Burger ($11.49) is a solid bet with its patty made of ground beef and bacon.

For dessert, try their Best of Phoenix award-winning Maple Bacon Donut ($2.49). Served warm, this doughnut is thick and crumbly and covered with a thick layer of bacon atop a maple glaze, and large enough to share with a friend. Still haven’t reached your bacon quota? You can always order the Flight of Bacon ($9.49), which features eight slices of bacon, seven in standard flavors—applewood, jalapeño, sugar cured, apple cider, pepper, honey, and hickory—and one in a chef’s choice flavor that changes monthly.

If you love bacon, or if you love someone who loves bacon, and you’re looking to eat at a family-owned and operated restaurant for breakfast or lunch, The Oink Café has your back. Or perhaps, your pork belly.

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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