I have the good fortune of knowing many inspiring culinary masters. One of those friends, Kusuma Rao, grew up in Tucson but now lives in Portland. Her family is from India and her cuisine fuses Mexican and Indian influences. When she comes back home every few months, she hosts original pop-up dinners, using ingredients from local gardens and businesses. I recently attended one of her seven course Aramsay dinners. Aramsay, according to Kumi, is an Indian expression for a way of being, usually on Sundays. You work hard all week and then get a day where you drop all cares, rest your body, and fill your belly with great food. As a workaholic, I appreciate this concept very much. Indian and Mexican cuisines have a lot in common: dominance of legumes, use of flatbreads or tortillas for food delivery, and incorporation of chilies, to name a few. With dishes like Thai Kaffir Lime Meatball, White Sonoran Wheat Gnocchi, and Pathrode Lotus Leaves in Crème Fraîche, the culinary excursion was both exotic as well as comforting. Find Kusuma’s recipes at Ruchikala.wordpress.com.
Andi Berlin of the Arizona Daily Star committed to eating tacos every day for 100 days. Tucson Foodie had its month long Taco de Mayo photo contest. Everyone is talking tacos. But for many of us living in Tucson, tacos are just a part of daily life.
I was up in the north side of town recently and dropped by Gringo Grill & Cantina (5900 N. Oracle Road). My girlfriend, Katy, and I shared a mess of tacos—shrimp, Chilean sea bass, carne asada, duck confit—made by John Hohn, a 2014 Iron Chef winner. We also had guacamole and tortillas with chipotle butter (yum). Everything was incredibly fresh and the guacamole was one of the best I have had north of the border.
Walking distance from my home near the University of Arizona is BOCA Tacos y Tequila (828 E. Speedway Blvd.). Maria Mazon is an Iron Chef contestant this year and the chef and owner of BOCA—they just celebrated their five-year anniversary. The food she serves is both authentic and innovative. When you go, expect to be wowed, but don’t expect sour cream. And don’t be in a rush. Most often she is there, making everyone’s food. And because everything is very fresh, it takes time. The food is beautifully presented, but unpretentious (tacos come on a piece of wax paper on a cutting board). Drop by for Exotic Taco Wednesday, when you can find tacos made with exotic ingredients like chicken liver, cow udder chicharrónes, or silkworm. I enjoyed the silkworm tacos—they were almost like eating gnocchi.
Burgers n’ Dogs
4th Avenue Delicatessen (425 N. Fourth Ave.) is a little hole-in-the-wall deli, in the heart of downtown, known for hosting crazy hot dog contests and for its menu items named after some of Tucson’s more eccentric characters and landmarks. Half starved, I recently went in and had the T-Dog with bacon, jalapeños, onions, pepper jack, and spicy T-Town Mayo. There’s nothing like a hot dog to keep you going during a busy day.
Given where I work and live, I am downtown more than anywhere else in Tucson. When it is time to eat, I always try to eat somewhere I haven’t been, or somewhere I haven’t been to in a long time. Elliott’s on Congress (135 E. Congress St.) serves many locals and is often missed by those visiting downtown. It is also open fairly late, and is a great little stop just before you go out to the nightclubs (if you do that sort of thing). After having not been to Elliott’s in ages, Katy and I went in desperate for dinner after missing lunch. We shared a massive jalapeño cheddar burger and fries, and a penne pasta with vodka sauce, bacon, and green beans.
I have been hearing about Wild Garlic Grill (2530 N. First Ave.) for a long time. The unassuming façade does not prepare you for the magic happening within. Chef Stephen Schultz has an advanced diploma Ecole De Cuisine from La Varenne in Paris, France, and is still the man at the helm in the kitchen, making him one of the few chefs in Tucson with that sort of training still sweating in the kitchen. Rumor has it that many chefs in Tucson sit at the bar to watch him cook; the dining room is often populated with Tucson movers and shakers.
Speaking of new, the owners of the popular Prep & Pastry are opening a place for dinner. We went to the soft opening of Commoner & Company (6960 E. Sunrise Drive) and shared two dishes: house made pasta with prosciutto, and flat iron pork. Plan your visit so you have time to camp out, eat, and drink.
I have a lot of heirloom chapalote corn in my house right now, leftovers from an event earlier this year, and I finally found time to make homemade masa. Chapalote (also known as pinole maiz) is an ancient heirloom variety, the first to enter the United States from Central Mexico and one of the celebrated Slow Food Ark of Taste ingredients (SlowFoodUSA.org). Today, we have bred (and genetically modified) corn to have much bigger kernels and bigger ears, and to produce more per acre, often at the cost of taste and nutrition. The old and ancient varieties may not be cash crops for the farmer, but they taste authentic and I prefer them as a consumer and gardener.
When you make masa at home, you have to start with a process called nixtamalization, which involves cooking and steeping the dried corn kernels in an alkaline solution, then cooking them until tender.
The masa I made was chunky and delicious. With tamales on my mind, I flavored the masa with the juices and fat from some Sky Island Brand chuck roast and a homemade chili sauce, and stuffed the masa with shredded beef, cheese, and home-grown, roasted green chilis. Of course, following tradition, I did not forget to add two small green olives (with pits) in each tamal, which call the eater to eat with reverence (or risk chipping a tooth on an olive pit). ✜
Jared R. McKinley is the associate publisher of Edible Baja Arizona. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @HungriestFoodie.