Sustainable Acacia

Much like its hardy namesake tree, Acacia Restaurant has survived recession and relocation to thrive in a corner overlooking Tucson.

January 1, 2014

Issue 4: January/February 2014Table

Nestled in the Catalina Foothills with an expansive view of the city below, Albert and Lila Hall’s Acacia Restaurant fills a specific niche in the Tucson food world: casual fine dining with a focus on sustainability.

“We chose the name ‘Acacia’ because the acacia tree is sustainable,” Hall says. “It’s a tree with a hundred varieties that can survive in nearly every climate. It can tolerate drought, flood, and blistering sun.”

The analogy is apt given the restaurant’s history. Hall, along with his wife, Lila Yamashiro, started Acacia eight years ago in a space at St. Philip’s Plaza and, for a time, the business thrived. Then the 2008 recession hit and “the world collapsed,” Hall says. With diners scaling back, he knew he had to make some serious changes to the business in order to survive. In 2010, the pair moved the restaurant a mile north, to Gallery Row at Skyline Drive and Campbell Avenue in the space formerly occupied by Sur Real. “We lowered our prices and focused on lounge and casual fine dining,” he says.

As for the menu, the focus has always been on what Albert refers to as “good, real food,” something he defines as fresh and local fare, with ingredients produced using organic and sustainable practices. “Whenever possible we buy local, pesticide- and herbicide-free ingredients. We meticulously source everything,” he adds.

Hall uses different vendors for particular items. He has a favored seafood vendor to ensure the fish he serves has no colorant or antibiotics. He purchases some of his produce from Sunizona, a family-owned, certified organic farm in Willcox. While he would like to use local ranchers for all of the restaurant’s beef needs, he uses some commercial vendors in order to keep up with demand.

After relocating and rebranding, Acacia co-owner and chef Albert Hall has found his stride in casual fine dining with a focus on sustainability.

After relocating and rebranding, Acacia co-owner and chef Albert Hall has found his stride in casual fine dining with a focus on sustainability.

Acacia’s menu changes as many as eight times a year to adjust to what’s available. “Our menu is always a reflection of what’s available seasonally,” he says. “Diversity is the key to being happy with food.”

Hall’s devotion to local foods stems from a simple philosophy: Sustainable, naturally produced foods are just better for you. “You should know what you’re eating,” he says.

Hall has worked in the restaurant industry for some 40 years. Born in Arizona, Hall grew up in California and landed his first job at 14: washing dishes. “I was in the right place at the right time,” he says of that first job. He was soon working as a cook, something he found he enjoyed immensely. “I liked the immediate gratification of it, the deadlines.”

He interned at the Statler Hilton in Washington, D.C., and attended the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, New York. Over the years, he has worked everywhere from a luxury rail line to a flight kitchen, from high-end resorts to country clubs.

“Our menu is always a reflection of what’s available seasonally. Diversity is the key to being happy with food.”

It was while working for the luxury rail line that he was introduced to Tucson. The train, Twentieth Century Rail Tours, traveled coast to coast over seven days, with layovers in New Orleans and Tucson. After he got to know the town and decided to stay, he was unable to find a job, so he moved to Phoenix to work at the Biltmore and, later, to Sedona, to work at L’Auberge de Sedona, a high-end resort and spa.

While working at the Biltmore, he and his brother-in-law opened two Japanese-style express restaurants in Phoenix. It was his first taste of owning and operating a restaurant, and he found he was suited to it. Several years later, when he moved back to Tucson to take a position at Hacienda del Sol, he started kicking around the idea of opening his own restaurant. So, he and Lila opened Acacia.

Lila runs the front of the house and manages all group sales and catering. She strives to create a familial environment for patrons as well as employees. “Some of our staff have been with us since we started,” she says. “One lady has been with us since high school. To us, everyone that works here is family.”

With the economy rebounding, business is good for Acacia. The catering side of the business is thriving; Acacia made an appearance at the Tucson Fashion Week as well as the Tequila and Salsa Challenge. Hall plans to offer cooking classes again this fall, with different themes such as vegetarian, harvest foods, and holiday cooking.

Lila best sums up Acacia’s philosophy: “We want to feed people good food and to give them a unique visit and to make them feel comfortable.” ✜

Tucson native Romi Carrell Wittman is a marketing and communications director by profession and a freelance writer for fun.

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