Taste

May the Source Be With You:
Farm to Table
In Tucson

My, how they’ve grown! Business is booming for
farmers and ranchers
across the state who are
supplying numerous Tucson restaurants with sustainable and organic ingredients.


Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails
At Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, Chef/Owner Janos Wilder has been sourcing from local ranchers and farmers since before the phrase “Farm to Table” became trendy. “We have been doing this since 1983,” recalls Chef Wilder, “working with local products, farmers and gardeners has been part of our ethos.” A long-time supporter and promoter of sustainable and indigenous foods, just about every forkful of food here is connected to local sources.

“In the last three to four years there has been a sprouting of local small producers and farmers so we can get our products from a variety of sources,” he comments. “The landscape has completely changed in terms of availability, and in my mind that works for everybody — this has created opportunity for small farmers. Now we easily can access locally grown, locally raised product and that is tremendous.”
His list of local purveyors is a long one: “We use San Xavier Farms in Tucson for cholla cactus buds; Forever Yong Farm, Avalon Gardens and Sleeping Frog Farms for lettuces and other produce; Fior de Cabra goat cheese; grass-fed beef from Double Check Farms and tepary beans from Ramona Farms. We use artisan honey and local citrus; all different kinds of vegetables, meat and poultry; plus our own garden and the garden at the Children’s Museum Tucson.”

All these wonderful products find their way into the ever-changing, highly adventurous and creative menu. So much is sourced locally that it’s almost impossible to highlight individual menu items. The leafy green, crispy hearts of romaine in the classic Downtown Caesar are likely from one of several local farmers or even from the restaurant’s own garden. Dressed with a housemade Caesar vinaigrette, crunchy garlic croutons and garnished with shaved Grana Pandano cheese, it’s a wonderful starter.

The signature cholla bud escabeche, available on the dinner and Sense of Place Menu, features several indigenous ingredients. Hand-harvested, sun-dried buckthorn cactus buds foraged by San Xavier Co-op Farm in Tucson on the Tohono O’odham Nation are tossed with meaty brown tepary beans grown by Ramona Farms in Sacaton, whose many fertile acres are devoted to growing indigenous foods. The jalapeño-orange vinaigrette owes its citrus tang to fruit picked in local orchards.

The tender slow-braised beef cheek is one of many grass-fed organic beef items sourced from Double Check Ranch. Its meaty goodness fills
soft corn tacos, garnished with crunchy cilantro-cabbage slaw, thinly sliced radishes and napped with a spicy chiltepin salsa. Another top choice is the grilled marinated flank steak (also from Double Check), which is marinated, grilled and served with a sweet potato pave and a shredded cabbage salpicón.

Summer months bring heirloom tomatoes, fragrant leafy herbs, corn and much more from local farmers and the gardens. All find their way into the summer “Downtown around the Globe” menu that highlights local producers.  

“We’re just beginning to scratch the surface. In a way it’s come full circle for me,” he reflects, “What you’re seeing now is young people getting established and having such tremendous belief in the value of authentic and pure food that they’re willing to take the risk to get into the riskiest business there is — farming. They believe so much in the correctness of their path that they’re willing to put their lives and their savings on the line. The result improves the food culture for all of us because we have the availability of really fantastic products that even 10 years ago was unheard of.”

Proper
The historic Rialto Building downtown on the corner of 5th Avenue and Congress is home to Proper, where sustainable, local and organic are part of the daily mantra. You can’t miss the distinctive, airy space, with large plate-glass windows that open onto the avenue. Even the space gives a nod to sustainability — much of the interior has been created out of reclaimed materials and wood salvaged from renovations at the Rialto itself. Deep partnerships with farmers and ranchers throughout the state make this menu truly Farm to Table.

For your appetizer, start with the House Board. “It’s one of the things that highlights everything we do,” explains Sous Chef Justin Lightsey. “When you look at the board you can see all we are sourcing from.” This impressive appetizer arrives with great flair, beautifully arranged atop a two-foot-long wooden board. Looking like a still-life painting, it features assorted mixed greens from farmer Joe Marlow of SouthWinds Farm in Benson; crispy housemade cracked pepper and Parmesan lavash made with artisanal flour from Hayden Mills in Cave Creek; two different meats — either cured and sliced paper thin or a selection of house-made patés; a Chef’s choice of two artisanal cheeses; soft mission figs and briny house-pickled vegetables from McClendon’s Farm in Peoria.

Joe Marlow is responsible for the tender mixed greens that are featured in the aptly named SouthWinds Seasonal Salad. His farm is run primarily on solar energy and uses sustainable and organic methods, including rainwater harvesting, to produce delectable greens. Tiny baby lettuces and tendrils of arugula are lightly dressed with a tasty vinaigrette and garnished with dollops of creamy fresh artisanal chevre sourced from Black Mesa Ranch, whose humanely raised Nubian dairy goats frolic on 280 acres just outside the town of Snowflake.

“The majority of our produce comes from Bob McClendon,” explains Chef Lightsey. “He sends a list every few months regarding the produce he’s growing and what is coming out. He has seasonal availability and we can choose from that — he picks it the day before we get it — it’s literally right out of the ground. It’s awesome to be able to work with a farmer who cares so much about his produce and can get it to us daily.” McClendon operates a certified organic farm, McClendon’s Select, on 25 acres in Peoria, where three generations of his family grow more than 100 varieties of organic fruits and vegetables. His products appear on much of the eclectic menu — don’t miss the “Twisted Cauliflower,” snowy white florets deep-fried in rice flour to a crispy crunch and tossed in a spicy sweet chile sauce served with a creamy garlic aioli.

For your entrée, try the Roasted Top Knot Chicken Breast sourced from Top Knot Farms in Benson, founded in 2013 by brothers and native Tucsonans Luke and Matthew Mathart. They pride themselves on offering pasture-raised chickens, ducks and turkeys using innovative feeding techniques — their healthy diet even includes beer grain from local breweries! In this preparation the breast and thigh meat are brined for two days, then roasted to perfection and served with paper-thin slices of sautéed seasonal vegetables on a pool of creamy Dijon emulsion. “You can tell how different the product is from something that has been mass-produced,” shares the chef. “There is a noticeable difference in flavor.”

For dessert, he highly recommends the Olive Oil Cake. “It is made with stone-milled polenta from Hayden Flour Mills in Queen Creek and lemons from McClendon’s farm. Our pastry chef uses what is in season and the dessert menu is constantly changing to reflect that, but this cake is a real favorite!” Dense and delicious, the cake is studded with chopped pecans and dates, layered and topped with housemade lemon curd and sprinkled with a dusting of powdered sugar.  

“I believe that now it’s a bigger deal than ever that people want to know where their food comes from and it’s important for us to be part of that process. That’s what we’re about,” explains Chef Lightsey. “It’s not easy to do, it takes a lot of footwork and research to be able to find the suppliers but it really make a difference to us, to the farmer and ultimately to the diner.”

Harvest
Reza Shapouri and his wife Lisa are dedicated to taste, quality and sustainability. As the owners of Harvest on River and Harvest Oro Valley, they are committed to sourcing locally, and purchase their products from local farmers, ranchers and distributors for both restaurants. Reza worked for many years in the food distribution business and in restaurant consulting, and has used this experience to create a menu that showcases local producers. “I am so passionate about great food and it’s so fun,” he shares. “Our mission is to partner with local purveyors — I love it!”

Menu planning begins with a visit to the farmers market and discussions with local purveyors. “Our first step is to come up with ideas for the menu, then take these ideas to the purveyors to source the products,” he explains. “We talk to farmers for inspiration and ideas, and then we play with food one day a week, tasting and recipe testing.” What results is a menu that features local and seasonal products.

“We’ve had a relationship with Sunizona Family Farms for years,” shares Reza. “Every Tuesday we get a bunch of boxes and it depends on what they have. All our tomatoes, some lettuces, some herbs come from them.” Founded in 1996 and operated by the Smith family, Sunizona Family Farms in Willcox has a vegan-organic growing system that perfectly harmonizes with Harvest’s commitment to sustainability. Ripe, red juicy tomatoes, specialty herbs of all kinds and beautiful mixed green lettuces are used in the salads offered on the Harvest menu. The signature Harvest Salad, a winning blend of flavors and textures, features organic mixed greens tossed in house-made grape-champagne vinaigrette, tossed with slices of tender burgundy wine-poached pears, crunchy candied walnuts, roasted pumpkin seeds and poached cranberries.

One of Reza’s favorites on the menu is the Harvest Soup. “We make our own stock from scratch,” he says with great pride. The soup, which changes daily, features a “chef’s choice” of seasonal vegetables, all sourced locally. “I found out that local products really taste better.”

The Harvest burgers made from locally sourced, grass-fed beef are one of the most popular items on the menu. The top seller is the one and only Brandy Burger. The giant half-pound juicy patty sits on a soft buttery bun and is topped with a melt of sharp white cheddar, sweet caramelized onions and drizzled generously with a rich, delicious house-made brandy sauce made with brown sugar, a generous glug of brandy, garlic and soy.

“We are getting grass-fed ground beef from Double Check Ranch,” reveals Reza, “We buy 300 pounds a week. We only buy this from them, and we pay more for this because of the taste. We researched it, did tastings and checked flavor profiles, and Double Check won the prize!” Located on more than 200 bucolic acres in Winkelman, family ranchers Paul and Sarah Schwennensen raise their cattle the all-natural way — they graze freely all year on native grasses and are hormone and antibiotic free. No wonder the burger is so sublime.

The wine and beer menu offers 10 beers from local breweries on tap at the River location and 7 at the Oro Valley location, and several wines from local wineries.

Another way to experience even more locally sourced foods is Harvest’s Arizona Wine Dinner. Offered only during the summer at both locations, it features 4 courses (1 appetizer, 2 entrées, 1 dessert) all locally sourced, inspired by the season and the farmers market and paired with Arizona wines.

“It’s all about taste, it’s our Number One thing,” shares Reza, “Each day we taste everything — it’s a religious thing with us. If you have tasty food, people understand and know what they’re getting — fresh, locally sourced and made from scratch. People tell me it tastes fresh and we get a lot of great comments.” t