If you’ve driven past the old Chaffin’s Family Dining location at Broadway and Euclid after 5pm recently, you might have noticed things are looking a little different. The parking lot is full. The mid-century modern building has been renovated and is sporting bright blue, green and pink neon stripes along the decorative roof. The previously easy-to-miss restaurant space just outside of Tucson’s downtown is looking rather…welcoming.
This is Welcome Diner’s second location; the first is a tiny 200 square foot space in Phoenix. The name comes from their original location’s 1940’s diner origins, though the food at both locations aims to be anything but typical diner fare. “We’re the un-diner,” says owner and chef Michael Babcock. He considers the purpose of a diner to be a community space, describing Welcome Diner as a place for “travelers and community members to come and enjoy comfort food.” The menu is derived from Babcock’s love for American Southern cuisine, particularly that of New Orleans and Nashville, and is rooted in the beginnings of the company as a southern food truck. From the start, Babcock says, Welcome has done things “the long hard stupid way,” putting a strong focus on ingredients and preparation in order to accomplish their unique take on locally inspired cuisine.
About that cuisine: Welcome Diner emphasizes local sourcing whenever they can, and Babcock estimates that approximately 40 percent of their menu is currently sourced from within Arizona. Opening a Tucson location has meant finding new purveyors, located closer to Tucson. Babcock explains, “We try to cook with the identity of being in Tucson,” and points to heritage crops being grown by Ramona Farms as ingredients that he likes to use because “it tastes like this area and you want to honor that.” As to the development of the menu, general manager Corey Greenhill describes the collaboration that goes into the food: “We’ll do roundtables where we all sit down, and there will be a dish where we start out, ‘Oh it’s awesome!’ and then we’ll tear it apart. Everyone takes the feedback and uses it to really hone their product.”
The positive result of that honing was certainly on display when our party of five scooted into Welcome Diner’s powder-blue corner booth on a recent Sunday night. We started things off with drinks: the Sleepy Little Rivertown ($9), a cocktail named after Jack Kerouac’s description of Tucson, the Del Bac Date ($12), a date-infused slug of Whisky Del Bac available on the rocks or neat, and a house-made Ginger Beer ($4). To make the Sleepy Little Rivertown, bar manager Connor Mansager adds salt-preserved limes to a blend of rums, grapefruit, and honey. The preserved limes and grapefruit juice keeps the cocktail from becoming too sweet, while the honey lingers on the tongue after each sip. For those who prefer to savor their liquor without mixers, the Del Bac Date has all the bite and smoky mesquite flavor of Whiskey Del Bac, yet is transformed and sweetened by the infusion of the dates into an entirely different experience. The Ginger Beer offers a sweet and fizzy alcohol-free option, with enough heat on the side of your tongue to let you know you’re drinking something made from the real stuff.
Deciding what to eat was an ordeal: Welcome Diner’s menu isn’t overly long, but with so many tempting options available it might be easier to flip a coin than try to choose just one. In the name of research, we agreed to all share: we chose three small plates, four entrees, and two desserts, and crossed our fingers in the hope that we would have room for it all. A note here about “ordering”: Greenhill is on a mission to remove that term from Welcome patrons’ lexicon. “We like to make it feel like we’re taking care of our friends,” he says, and just as you wouldn’t order your friends to do something, you don’t need to order a staff member at Welcome Diner to get your food. Instead, he emphasizes the “Southern hospitality” component of Welcome’s philosophy. “I’m trying to provide people with the tools to be able to talk to strangers and make them feel comfortable.”
Greenhill’s tactic was clearly in effect; there wasn’t a person there who looked to be having a bad time, whether working or not, despite the completely full main dining room soon-to-be full overflow dining room. Meanwhile, our stomachs were also beginning to fill up: our small plates arrived, beautifully arranged and piled with a surprisingly large amount of food for something described as “small” – Babcock characterizes them as “diner tapas,” capable of standing alone. The Chicanoyaki ($?), a southwestern and seafood -inspired take on hush puppies, featured octopus as the meat ingredient and was garnished with chunks of fresh avocado and slivered raw jicama that completely removed the dish from the realm of traditional fried fare. The Mac and Cheese ($6) was creamy and smoky, rich enough to stand on its own yet with plenty of room for any of the suggested add-ins: Brussels sprouts, Andouille sausage, chorizo, or bacon can each be added for $2. Our third small plate, the Pima Grits ($9), utilized a perfectly cooked over-easy egg, coarsely ground cornmeal, green chili compote, and jalapeños to bring a regional flavor profile to a classic Southern dish, and the roasted okra served on the side was beautifully charred.
We had just finished devouring the small plates when our entrees showed up. The Bumblebee ($10), from the “Biscuits and Sandwiches” portion of Welcome’s menu, featured one piece of fried chicken, topped with house-made mustard, bread and butter pickles, drizzled with local honey, and stuffed between two halves of a biscuit. The meat was juicy and flavorful, brined and sugared before being fried in a Southern-style buttermilk dredge batter to crispy perfection. There are no complicated spice blends here: Babcock says the secret behind their batter is keeping things simple, with flour, salt, pepper, and buttermilk. The mustard and the bread and butter pickle played off delightfully against the honey, and the light texture of the biscuit created the perfect backdrop for the sweet, salty, and sour result.
There are four burgers currently on the menu at Welcome; the No Way Jose ($13) is undoubtedly the one with the most bite, thanks to the jalapeño relish and chipotle ranch dressing that crowns the 6-ounce cheeseburger. The smoked gouda and muenster cheeses add a richness to the final flavor, as does the arugula, but does little to cool the overall heat. This burger may push the limits for tamer palates, but if you’re seeking a spicy burger that actually lives up to its name, the Jose should be right up your alley. It’s available with or without sides; we opted for a side of Brussels sprouts. Salted and roasted to perfection, they were a delicious compliment to the burger.
One of Greenhill’s favorite plates is the Pork Posole Rojo ($12), citing the depth of flavor that the soup gains when the mole black pudding garnish is stirred into the soup itself. I tried it both ways, and can state confidently that while the posole is good on its own, it truly excelled with the addition of the pudding, which enriched the broth and completely changed the texture. Served with some of Welcome’s flatbread instead of the traditional tortilla, the hearty soup brings a good level of heat, and promises to be an excellent option for warming up on cool winter nights.
Last, but not least, I may have found my new favorite vegetarian entree in Tucson: Welcome’s Vegetable Cassoulet ($12). Consisting of a rich stew of vegetables and tepary beans served over hand fire bread and topped with smoked pumpkin and crème friache, the variety of textures and flavors present in this dish make it intensely satisfying. The bread soaked up the juices of the stew without losing any of its body, adding a chewiness that balanced the lighter mouthfeel of the vegetables, while the sweetness of the pumpkin complimented the savory stew and kept my tastebuds at attention.
There was one final stop to make on our dining extravaganza: dessert. We decided to try both the Lemon Chess Pie ($6) and the Tepary Bean Tarte ($6). The lemon pie arrived garnished with fresh blackberries and candied pistachios. The filling was dense and moist, and the sweet and tangy blackberries played off nicely against the lemon flavor. The crust was one of the best I’ve had, very light, with a crackly feeling reminiscent of puff pastry, and just the right amount of salt. The tepary tarte, meanwhile, set itself apart thanks to the ingenious use of Corn Nuts (yes, those Corn Nuts) as a salty garnish that contrasted with the lightly sweet filling. The filling’s flavor reminded me of a cross between pumpkin pie and sweet red bean paste, and the tarte’s whole wheat crust brought a nuttiness to the overall flavor profile. We also wanted to investigate the Chocolate Souffle, but took pity on our stomachs and saved that for another day.
Welcome Diner will eventually be open 9:00am to 2:00am every day, with a “soft close” taking place between 3pm and 5pm during which drinks and a limited menu will be offered. Among the breakfast items to look forward to: the Holy Puerco, a crispy grit cake topped with braised pork, an over easy egg, a house-made, mustard-based Carolina-style barbeque sauce, and homemade crackers. I can’t wait.
902 E Broadway Blvd
Tucson, AZ 85719