I first 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 Saguaro National Park East, since 1956. A 1949 Chevy car 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 a year and a half ago, 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 opted to try Saguaro Corner’s Jalepeño Moscow Mule ($8), and was not disappointed – plenty of spice from the ginger, a nice touch of heat from the jalepeño in the back of my throat, 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 entrees. 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 onions 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 patty, fresh veggies, fried jalepeño 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 & 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.
I asked Hamm if there’s anything he’s hoping to do in the future at Saguaro Corners. He says he wants 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 chooses to experiment with a dish. Hamm’s 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.” With live music performed Wednesday-Saturday night, Happy Hour offered daily from 3 p.m. – 6 p.m., and Saguaro Corners’ Acoustic Brunch on Sunday mornings, there are plenty of reasons to head to the far east side to see what he comes up with next.
3750 S. Old Spanish Trail
Tucson, AZ 85730