The day after the first summer monsoon, Travis Peters is in the kitchen at The Parish, putting the finishing touches on a new brunch special. Egg whites—whipped to a stiff peak and dyed gray with activated charcoal—surround a salt-cured yolk and rest on a lightning-esque cheese crisp. In their table-ready iteration, the eggs will be topped with guajillo chile sauce, arugula caviar, and chicharrón dust.
“I’m calling them storm cloud eggs,” says Peters, The Parish’s executive chef. “I’ve toyed around with this idea for a while. I knew I wanted to wait for the monsoons to happen, for the storm to crack.”
This might seem like an odd special for a restaurant that bills itself as a Southern fusion gastropub—and has a menu packed with down home classics like boiled peanuts, gumbo, and barbecue pork—but Peters and his co-owners, Steve Dunn and Bryce Zeagler, view southeastern cuisine as a starting point, rather than a constraint. Peters and The Parish kitchen team embrace a wide range of flavors and techniques, many of them local.
“I try to grab onto some Mexican influences and Arizona influences,” Peters says. The Parish serves a goat cheese relleno; its salmon is mesquite smoked; and Peters’ favorite dish, BBQ Tail Confit served with South Carolina gold sauce, comes with pickled onions and peaches.
“The pickled onions are straight up Tucson-style taco onions,” says Peters, who was born in Texas but grew up in Tucson and Prescott. Peaches—strongly associated with the South but also used in Southwestern dishes like peach salsa—have become a sort of lucky charm for the restaurant.
In June, Peters, sous chef Ricazsandria Rances and prep management team member Jerry Morgan competed in—and won—Iron Chef Tucson. The annual Stella Artois-sponsored contest involves two teams of finalists—each led by a chef from an area restaurant—cooking on stage. Both teams are given the same secret ingredient, which has to appear at least once in each of the competition’s four courses.
“I told my business partner, ‘If we get peaches we’re going to win.’ Only because we use peaches so much,” says Peters, who was given a list of possible secret ingredients the night before the competition.
Peters’ confidence wasn’t misplaced. On the night of the competition, the sweet stone fruit was announced as the secret ingredient, and both crews—Chef Michael Elefante of Mama Louisa’s led the competing team—went to work. Peters, Rances, and Morgan raced the clock while dealing with numerous kitchen catastrophes—at one point, Peters’ glasses wouldn’t stay on, so he cooked nearly blind for about an hour.
Despite the setbacks, their four winning courses, including a soup incorporating Stella Artois Cidre, must have been delicious.
The best part?“All the chefs involved kind of made light of it,” Peters says. According to him, the attitude was: “Let’s have fun and be a community instead of ‘It’s us against you.’”
The Parish’s dining room is pure New Orleans: Walls striped two carnival shades of pink, velvet curtains, wood-topped tables, and wrought iron railings. There, diners can try dishes like the Drunken Angel Pasta—angel hair noodles, shrimp, and crawfish in a lobster broth doused with red pepper cream sauce—and the award-winning, red onion marmalade-slicked Parish Burger.
Cocktails—both classic and signature—are prepared at an antique-looking wood bar illuminated by chandeliers. Alongside the typical array of wine and liquor bottles is a shelf full of The Parish’s homemade alcohol infusions, including blueberry vodka, jalapeño tequila, and brown butter bourbon, a nod to The Parish’s inventive bar program and award-winning bartenders.
In early June, bartenders Stephanie Kingman and Kris Carr competed alongside five bartending teams for a chance to have a cocktail they designed accompany a meal prepared by Janos Wilder and served at the UNESCO Creative Cities Network Conference, held outside of Paris on June 28. Wilder was at the conference representing Tucson, designated a UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2015, and wanted a cocktail that would showcase local ingredients and talent.
“We were definitely viewed as the underdog,” Carr says. The other finalists were bartenders from prominent downtown bars and restaurants, including 47 Scott, Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, and The Tough Luck Club. The Parish, located on the north side, can sometimes feel far—certainly geographically, although not culinarily—from this trendy sphere of influence.
But that evening, the duo’s sotol-based Ahumado Fresca flew off their table, along with baseball-sized recipe cards that listed the Fresca’s ingredients and explained that the drink was inspired by “one of Tucson’s favorite treats, raspados.”
The pink-hued Ahumado Fresca—inspired, in part, by the Hemingway Daiquiri—combines sotol reposado from Hacienda de Chihuahua with Kingman’s homemade tamarind syrup, local honey mesquite-smoked in-house, and lime juice. It’s light with a nice sweet-and-sour balance and a rich honey flavor that coats your lips as you drink it.
I ask Kingman and Carr, who both grew up in Tucson, how their work as bartenders connects to the UNESCO designation. “It’s about our creativity. Being a food and drink city means not just making everything a margarita. It’s up to us to take that influence and those ingredients and do something different with it,” Carr says.
Both bartenders have signature drinks on The Parish’s summer menu. Kingman’s cocktail, the Southside Sandia, is made with raspberry gin, fresh watermelon chunks, tamarind, and Louisiana-style Crystal Hot Sauce, a nod to The Parish’s southern roots in a drink that’s also Old Pueblo-inspired.
“Sandía is watermelon in Spanish,” Carr says. “Southside is because of our heritage, hanging out at the Tanque Verde swap meet, where we’re trying pulparindos.”
Carr’s drink, the Swiftwater Snakebite, is named after the water that rushes through Tucson’s usually dry washes during monsoon season. It combines cold brew coffee, Dragoon IPA, bruto, and honey.
“It’s unique and yet there’s a familiarity to the flavor,” Kingman says. “You recognize the hops and you recognize the cold brew bitterness. They come together in a way you didn’t think was possible.”
Kingman and Carr attribute their Cocktail Challenge win and The Parish’s inventive bar program to the restaurant’s community-oriented culture. “These guys are some of the best bosses I’ve ever worked for, because they really foster and nourish the creativity that we have,” Kingman says, referring to Peters, Dunn, and Zeagler. And it’s a collaborative effort. The Parish bartenders—Kingman and Carr are two of an eight-person team—work together to experiment with flavors and build each season’s cocktail menu.
Peters says it’s important to him to project The Parish’s community ethos outward, so he tries to work with southern Arizona food producers and organizations. Of course, there are limitations. “We try to be as local and sustainable as possible,” Peters says, “But obviously we’re not getting any Tucson shrimp.”
Shrimp and grits, a dish with its roots in the Lowcountry cuisine of South Carolina and Georgia, appears on The Parish’s menu in two distinct iterations. The Creamy BBQ Shrimp and Grit Bowl, served at brunch on Sundays from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m., comes with aged white cheddar and is topped with sunny-side-up eggs; the dinnertime shrimp and grits come with creole BBQ cream sauce, a white cheddar grit cake, and greens. They’re favorites among customers who come looking for Southern classics, although the most popular item by far, Peters tells me, is the bacon popcorn.
“We take raw bacon and the popcorn, and all of that cooks at the exact same time,” Peters says. “It’s just bacon fat, bacon, popcorn, salt, pepper, butter, done. Real simple, but people love it.”
Peters is among the 30 or so chefs and food professionals who have joined GUT, short for the Gastronomic Union of Tucson.
GUT’s mission is threefold: Building upon Tucson’s designation as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, they aim to strengthen Tucson’s culinary community, as well as provide opportunities for professional development and community engagement. So far, this has meant a series of snout-to-tail pop-up dinners prepared by area chefs and featuring takes on local specialties.
While Peters is excited about this collaboration and figuring out how to incorporate Tucson’s UNESCO goals into The Parish’s menu, the newfound attention UNESCO is bringing to his hometown makes the chef a little nervous.
“It can be negative, too, you know? You get swarmed. I hope it doesn’t lose its personality,” Peters says, referring to Tucson. “I want the money to come and I want everybody to be successful but not forget our roots.”
If The Parish’s homegrown talent, community-minded culture, and success in combining local flavors with Southern comfort foods are any indication, Tucson’s roots are deep, strong, and able to bend without breaking. ✜
The Parish Gastropub. 6453 N. Oracle Road. 520.797.1233. TheParishTucson.com.