Billy Elliot, the owner of Elliot’s on Congress, spent ten years as a bartender in Tucson before opening his own place. Most of that time—2003-2011—was spent at Bison Witches, but he also worked in fine dining—Azul at La Paloma and Solaris in Green Valley.
Elliot’s, the bar and restaurant he opened with his wife in 2012, is a reflection of those experiences. It’s casual, affordable, and the menu features bar food staples. They have baseball on the TV during baseball season and football during football season. They have live music, karaoke, a great happy hour, and cheap drinks during brunch. But they also strive to distinguish themselves from an everyman’s bar. They offer house-roasted duck in addition to more traditional proteins, and they have a list of over 25 house-infused vodkas.
Vodka is a neutral spirit—the word vodka comes from voda, which is Russian for water—and it lends itself to infusion. Whereas other spirits, like whiskey and tequila, will retain their original flavor imbued with the chosen infusion, vodka doesn’t assert itself over the flavor of the infusion. “It will take to whatever flavor that you mix it with or, in our case, infuse it with,” Elliot says.
When Elliot’s opened, they started with eight vodkas, but over time their offerings have grown. “It a ton of fun. It’s a pretty simple process,” Elliot says.
Elliot’s uses Heaven Hill vodka. They tried higher-end products at first, but found that once they infused the spirit it was impossible to tell the difference. To infuse it, they merely add whatever ingredient, let it sit for a few days, and then strain it through coffee filters to remove residue. The flavor stays behind. Some of the house-infusions are enhanced by the addition of simple syrup, which helps bring out the sweetness of fruit infusions.
Elliot describes the food—lunch, dinner, and brunch on weekends—as classic American fare with a slight twist. Not upscale, but nice bar food. “We do a lot of unique things. We feature duck in a lot of ways, which you rarely see in a casual setting,” Elliot says. Duck, which they roast in house, replaces other more traditional proteins in many of the dishes—duck sliders, duck tacos, BBQ duck sandwich, duck omlette for brunch.
“I feel like that’s what you have to do, “Elliot says. “Stand out and differentiate yourself from other bars.”
Elliot’s prides itself on being a bar that offers booze at a different price point than many of downtown’s new cocktail bars. During regular hours, house cocktails range from $4.50-$8, and Happy Hour, with $3 house-infused vodka and cheap beer and well drinks, is from 4pm-7pm everyday. At brunch, bloody marys are available for only $3, and mimosas are $2. For one extra dollar, you can add a flavored vodka to your mimosa, while bloody marys come with up to three vodkas of your choice.
“We created a nice niche down here because of [the lower price point],” Elliot says. “We get a lot of the staff, the service industry that works down here. A lot of places that close at 10pm or midnight, their staff comes here because they know where they can get a good drink at a good price.” Elliot’s has a lot of regulars for the same reason.
Some of the vodkas, like ginger and horseradish, aren’t for everybody. They’re spicy and intense, and function best in a mixed drink. Others, berries and pineapple, taste dangerously like juice. Heat can be added to a drink with a splash of jalapeño vodka or, if you’re craving a real jolt, habanero vodka.
The Mexican Candy, one of Elliot’s most popular shots, features the latter alongside strawberry vodka, watermelon liqueur, sour mix, and tajin. Tart, sweet, and spicy, it tastes exactly like a sandia lollipop. Even if you don’t have much of a sweet tooth, it’s remarkably summery and fun to try. Savory shot options abound, as well, and Jack, our friendly bartender, let us try one of the most popular: garlic vodka and pickle juice. Salty and pungent, it totally sated my near-constant summer desire for snacks.
And now! Jack makes The Mexican Candy. Video by Garrett Steffgen:
Elliot’s On Congress
135 E Congress St
Tucson, AZ 85701
Hours: Open seven days a week, from 11:00am until 2:00am.