Fish tacos and burgers named after Burt Reynolds. Not the most traditional pairing ever, but consider that this is happening on Downtown’s Fourth Avenue, where anything can happen and, on good nights, does. Jimmy Hula’s is the name of the restaurant and it’s going in at the old Boatner’s Gas Station on the corner of East University Boulevard and Fourth Avenue. Think funky fish tacos and hamburgers drizzled with hot sauce and humor. Let’s get a few things straight: Jimmy Hula’s is technically a chain restaurant from Florida. And, yes, these Floridian tacos are being introduced into a city famous for stuffing anything into a tortilla and serving it in millions of ways.Even so, co-owner David Blair says Tucson is ready for his fish tacos, and if his restaurant sits along the light-rail path, right on a heavily trafficked route between the UA and Fourth Avenue, then all the better. “Yes, there are other Jimmy Hula’s, but we’re trying not to make it your typical chain feel,” said Blair. “There are just not a lot of fish tacos out there. From a food standpoint, having been to the one in Florida and the one in Oklahoma, the fish tacos are really good and it’s just a fun concept.”
His biggest challenge of the night turned out to be a solution in disguise for this now award-winning bartender.Leave it to the lychee.Brad Walling has been mixing drinks in Tucson for six years, but had never thought about entering a cocktail competition until he was invited to participate in the “Cocktail Fight” earlier this month at Playground Bar and Lounge.The popular downtown club hosts four different Tucson-area bartenders every month for a mixology melee of sorts, where the grand prize is “title and glory” and the money raised is donated to charity. Walling thought it was the right time to strut his stuff, especially when doing it in the name of a worthy non-profit organization, and agreed to suit up for battle.“This was the first cocktail competition I had ever been a part of, and not knowing the secret ingredient until the competition actually began made preparation a challenge,” said Walling, bar manager at Brother John’s Beer, Bourbon, and Barbeque, 1801 N. Stone Avenue.Competitors are required to concept, create, and serve two cocktails to a panel of judges, each containing a mystery ingredient which isn’t revealed until the contest starts, within a timeline of 12 minutes.
Beer brought Eric Sipe beautiful things.It brought him love. He and his girlfriend fell for each other among the coriander and citrus notes of Deschutes Brewery’s Chainbreaker White IPA. He recalls that moment and the beer they were drinking with all the fervor of a romantic poet. Beer would go on to play a leading role in many moments the 26-year-old Tucsonan recalls fondly, whether it was celebrating successes or making new friends over a quiet pint or two. It’s a faith in fermented beverages that borders on obsession, one that eventually grew beyond the boundaries of his personal life and into a new craft brewery opening this fall on Tucson’s north side. Dillinger Brewing Company will pour its first pint this October at 3895 N. Oracle Road, about a mile down the road from the Tucson Mall. Sipe spent a year revamping the building and raising the ceiling to make way for the towering stainless-steel tanks required to make high-quality suds. He also knocked out a few walls to make way for a tasting room and storage areas for grain, hops and other supplies.
When restaurateur Kevin Bedient set out to create the perfect barbeque rub, little did he know that the journey would last 18 months.I guess it pays to be perseverant if the heavy traffic pattern of guests at his eastside steakhouse, where this dust is shaken on virtually everything on the menu, is any indication.In preparation for my annual judging duties at the Nugget Rib Cook-Off in Sparks, Nevada, the biggest rib event of its kind that attracts more than 500,000 people every Labor Day weekend, I sat down with Bedient to get the inside shake – er, scoop – at the very place where rub reigns.“We say ‘You can’t beat mesquite’ here, and we knew from the start that the perfect rub had to work with the earthy flavors of this wood that we use for smoking and grilling,” said Bedient, partner at the Horseshoe Grill, 7713 E. Broadway Blvd. “It took us a year and a half to come up with the right recipe, and we think we nailed it.”He describes his rub as a balanced blend of salty, spicy, and sweet, with a little earthiness coming from ground pasilla chiles, and there’s nary a protein on the menu that isn’t dusted-up. While his ribs, brisket, and other barbeque dishes get a healthy shake, the rub finds its way onto hand-cut steaks, burgers, fries and chicken wings as well. Even the seared Ahi tuna gets a sprinkle.Bedient crafted the recipe with his parents and restaurant partners Lisa and Ken Bedient, his sister Logan, and his executive chef Andy Romero, admitting that their “tongues were raw” after all the rub research. But given that the restaurant is currently kicking out nearly 35 pounds of rub every week, it sounds like the palate-pounding was well worth it.
When Chef Travis Peters wants to integrate the flavors of prune, ginger, clove, and nutmeg into a dish, his first thought is whether there’s a doctor in the house.Encouragingly, for both Peters and his patrons, there’s rarely a time when a doctor isn’t on duty at his Northwest side gastropub.Dr. Pepper, I presume.Peters was first introduced to the idea of using the bountifully flavored Dr. Pepper in cuisine as a kid growing up in the small Texas town of Spicewood, less than 100 miles from where the popular soda was created, and his ongoing fascination with the 23 distinct flavor profiles that reportedly define the drink has made it a permanent fixture in his kitchen at The Parish, 6453 N. Oracle Road.“Growing up in Texas, I can tell you that there was always Dr. Pepper in the barbeque sauce,” said Peters. “Actually, our barbeque sauce back in those days was only ketchup and Dr. Pepper, that’s it.”Peters later discovered that the rich and complex flavors on which the drink is built had potential beyond the backyard barbeque, and today he lovingly calls it “Texas umami.”
It may be the biggest exhibition of barbeque brutality that we’ve ever seen in downtown Tucson when more than 500 pounds of butts take a beating at the Hotel Congress on June 4. But first, all you barbeque beginners can relax. The butt is just a nickname for the upper part of a pig’s shoulder and a cut commonly used on the competition ‘cue circuit. Pulled pork traces its origin back to the butt, which is slowly roasted or smoked and ultimately pulled apart to yield succulent strands.Pulled pork will be this year’s featured protein at the second annual Southern Arizona Smokin’ Showdown, and as local pit masters prepare to battle for the best butt in town, I sat down with Tucson’s reigning Iron Chef Danny Perez for some Butt 101. Perez tells me that these well-marbled butts are subjected to many hours in the hot box, a painstaking process that often times exceeds 10 hours before they officially succumb.“The butt requires smoking at a low temperature over a prolonged period of time to achieve the desired texture and flavor,” said Perez, director of food and beverage and executive chef at the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort, 3800 W. Starr Pass Boulevard.“You run the risk of toughness if it’s not done right,” he warned.
Chicago’s Alinea went to a ticketed system, ditching the standard reservation process. Other James Beard award winners, like Chez Panisse in Berkeley, have done away with tipping. It seems no matter where you look, fine dining restaurateurs are tweaking the typical protocol in order to find a system that works across the board: a good quality to price ratio for guests, a fair wage and sane hours for employees and a workable amount of cash leftover for the owner.It might sound simple just to list those three things, but achieving them, especially in a town like Tucson where the median household income is about $5,000 less per year than the rest of the state and about $10,000 less than that of the U.S. as a whole, is another story entirely.That’s where chef Albert Hall comes in. At 60-years-old, he’s been in kitchens for 45 years, and has seen some dramatic shifts—particularly in the last 11 years while his fine dining restaurant Acacia was in business. But, on Sunday, May 15, Acacia closed its doors for good.When the announcement that Acacia planned to close was made in February, many articles said approximately the same thing, culled directly from the restaurant’s press release:“It has been our great pleasure to have served the Tucson community since 2004”, said Chef Hall. “In the years since, we have been blessed by the many extraordinary friends and acquaintances who have enjoyed countless meals and good times at Acacia.”But behind that sunny media-ready quote is a man preparing to say goodbye to his preteen child.
If Charles Dickens were alive today, he most certainly would have found his “fabled orchards where the fruits were jewels” on the southeast corner of Sunrise and Kolb.Springtime means fresh, and for one Foothills eatery, fresh means fruit in abundance.“Our new seasonal menu is built around the flavors that make us feel good, and I’ve always loved the way that fruit makes me feel,” said Ginny Wooters, chef and partner at Commoner and Co., 6960 E. Sunrise Drive. “If you think about it, that’s what food should do, right?”Of the 23 dishes on the restaurant’s new menu, fruit plays prominent roles in 16 of them.Dickens might have started his tour of Commoner’s fabled orchard with the bruleed goat cheese and lemon thyme tart with strawberry jam, or the duck confit empanadas with cheddar curd, cilantro crème fraiche, and golden raisin red chili jam.“The duck empanadas is a super fun dish that brings me back to my southern roots,” Wooters said. “I just dig on golden raisins, and love how their fruity sweetness balances out the bigger flavors in this Mexican-style dish.”
The Tucson region recently saw the addition of several new choices when it comes to getting a burger. No longer are options solely limited to the drive-thru or value menu, with the only reprieve being high-end, gourmet meals. Sliding in between two buns, and two markets, are a couple new locations in Tucson: the area’s first Blake’s Lotaburger and the first Smashburger to open its doors in Oro Valley.Hailing from New Mexico and known nationwide for its award-winning Green Chile burgers, Blake’s Lotaburger proudly opened for the first time on April 1 to an enormous crowd of hungry and eager guests. Even several days into operation, the store, located at 2810 E. Speedway Blvd., was seeing traffic backed up into the road waiting for the drive-thru. “The Tucson community has welcomed Blake’s Lotaburger with open arms and great reviews of our signature Hatch green chile cheeseburgers and our awesome breakfast burritos,” said Kevin McCaslin, the Tucson region’s district manager. “We are thrilled to be here and look forward to opening our second location at 1600 W. Valencia at the end of May.”The restaurant chain also has 75 locations in New Mexico and three in El Paso, Texas. The Green Chile burger has been named by National Geographic as “The World’s Best Green Chile Cheeseburger.”While not exactly a new name in the region, Smashburger opened its fourth location in the area on April 6. The first Smashburger opened in 2012 at 4821 E. Grant Road, followed by 3837 E. Broadway Blvd. the next year. The third location is at 6970 E. 22nd St.
When a challenge was thrown down to see who can brew the best beer on the Arizona pro-am circuit, it should come as no surprise that local firefighters were the first to answer the call. First responders, right? I guess it’s in their blood. I’ve since learned that firefighting and brewing have a lot in common, and this pro-am competition will be one of the highlights of the Baja Beer Festival on April 23 at Rillito Park. All told, the event will feature hundreds of craft beers, served by more than 50 breweries, along with local food vendors and live music. But it’s the festival’s pro-am competition that got me hooked, a contest which will pit teams of Arizona firefighters and professional brewers against one another for best collaborative beer. Local firefighter Brian Sturgeon has never walked away from a challenge, whether it’s responding to an emergency or preparing for a brewing competition. Sturgeon has spent the last six years honing his skills as a home brewer, and today, as part of his fire station’s amateur brew team called the 38 Specials, he speaks passionately about the bond that exists between these two communities. “Firefighting and brewing are both about team-building,” he said. “It’s about getting everybody together to reach for the same goal.”
I can’t help but roll my eyes anytime I see one of those lists that set aside, inventory and rate women in a particular industry. I’d even go so far as to say that I’d be interested in seeing what would happen if the men and women’s soccer teams were blended—maybe then the U.S. team would have a shot competitively when it comes to what people actually watch, but I digress.In the food and beverage industry, which has been male-dominated in the back of the house since forever, people love to make lists of female chefs and the like—proving that hey, there are some. It’s really ground-breaking stuff. Also, it gives writers the opportunity to cram all of the talented women in the industry into one list, allowing them to ignore their strides the rest of the year.I look at a restaurant like Birrieria Guadalajara, which runs with three women in the kitchen and occasionally an additional to help take orders, and I see the antidote to that sort of pandering. I see those three women working hard, kicking ass at what they do and making some of the most consistently delicious, yet accessible (in price as much as content) food in town.Upon arrival, you’re met with a little part-indoor, part-outdoor stand, which is painted a shade of orange that has to be a relic from the ‘70s. On the patio and near the counter inside, you’ll find other bits of the past—brightly-colored and hand-painted signage, wood paneling and red vinyl-topped bar stools. It might seem a little dingy, but that’s all part of the space’s interminable charm. This isn’t a “restaurant concept,” after all. Plus, I’ve never felt the table, counter surfaces or any of the plates or cutlery were unclean, and that’s what really matters.I’ve heard a couple warnings about the birrieria before going. People say the service is bad and they also say to bring cash. On the first point, I’ve found that this is absolutely the opposite of the truth, though I will admit the staff’s English seems limited. (But, we all realize there’s a difference between English being your second language and being rude, right? Great, I thought so.) On the second point, it’s true: Birrieria Guadalajara is cash only. It isn’t exactly convenient, but it is worth the stop at the neighboring Quik Mart to pull some cash out.Once you’re properly cashed up, you can begin exploring the menu, which spans breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert and even large family-style take-away options with heaps of your meat of choice, tortillas, salsa, beans and more.
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