Dining out in Tucson
Dig In … At New Digs
By Scott Barker
Photo by Thomas Veneklasen
Here, there, and everywhere, many eateries around Tucson have either moved to a different location, or opened a second or third spot. Although there are too many such restaurants to include all, here’s the scoop on five of them.
7401 N. La Cholla, 87-SUSHI
3048 E. Broadway, 326-4700
When Sushi Garden decided to move to Broadway Village, they gained a lot more than just better parking. They’re now in a historic location (that previously housed Elle — A Wine Country Restaurant); they increased their dining area; have upgraded their parking space; and added clientele.
“We knew we wanted to be closer to UA,” says co-owner Chun Kim. “We’ve been getting a lot of students, and as more hear about us, I think that will increase. Often they come here first, and then go to Fourth Avenue because it’s so close by.”
Chun, who shares ownership with his mom Chae Su Kim and his wife Heejung Han, has been working in restaurants since he was a kid. “I pretty much grew up in the business. When they opened I was still in high school.”
One glance around the eatery and you’ll know it’s not a traditional sushi shop. The bright green, back-lit area behind the sushi chef’s station features multiple big screen TVs, and niches filled with colorful bottles of spirits and doll-like figures in kimonos. The ceiling is open, with exposed ductwork, and the green theme continues in the main dining room, nicely complementing the bright red of the bar.
“We’re able to seat just about everybody who comes in,” Chun comments about the booths, tables and bar seating the new restaurant offers. “Friday and Saturday nights we may still have a line, but at the old location, people wouldn’t wait. They would go somewhere else.”
One of the reasons they come to Sushi Garden is for the diversity of offerings. You can get bento boxes, Korean dishes like barbecue short ribs and spicy squid, rice bowls, noodle dishes, teppan dinners, and tempura. And the array of sushi includes items you won’t find everywhere, such as the Burrito Roll, which has spicy tuna, shrimp tempura, cream cheese, avocado and cucumber wrapped in soy paper, served with avocado, tomato and onion and honey jalapeno sauce. And if zing is your thing, there’s the Spicy Fiesta, with six kinds of spicy sushi.
Many lunchtime patrons come in for the popular buffet, and all day long, customers opt for the all-you-can-eat option. “Everyone takes advantage of that because it’s such a good deal,” Chun explains. “It’s Sunday through Thursday, from opening until one hour before we close. We stop it an hour before we close because you wouldn’t get your full enjoyment out of it. On Friday and Saturday, we stop at nine o’clock because we do a reverse happy hour at 10 p.m.”
Hours: Mon-Thurs: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri: 11 a.m-12 a.m.; Sat: 12 p.m.-12 a.m.; Sun: 12 p.m.-10 p.m.
Guadalajara Fiesta Grill
750 N. Kolb Road, 296-1122
Guadalajara Original Grill
1220 E. Prince Road, 323-1022
When you walk into the Guadalajara Fiesta Grill, you may be tempted to check your coat pockets for your passport. The look of the place — from the sunny yellow walls to the murals of Mexico — is authentic South of the Border. Add to that the sounds – recorded Mexican music during lunch, live mariachis seven nights a week for dinner. It’s like taking a mini-vacation as you dine.
That perception is no accident. Owner Seth Holzman understands that running a restaurant is about a lot more than the food. “The competition is any and all places that offer quality entertainment,” he explains. “An American restaurant, an Italian restaurant … even a play. The question is, ‘What are you going to do between six and eight p.m.?’ My mission statement is to entertain people, and that goes from the service to the ambience to the food to the music to the salsa.”
The first location of the grill opened on Prince Road near Campbell Avenue in 2002; it moved west into the former Mountain View Restaurant location in 2008. When Holzman opened the eastside location in October 2010, he had learned a lot from the Prince experience. “We’re able to have a floor plan that flows very well in terms of the customer walking patterns and the server patterns, as well as a larger bar. We really wanted to have a full horseshoe bar where you could sit down.”
A happy accident of sorts is the fact that the Guadalajara Fiesta Grill shares parking space with the Century Gateway 12 Theaters. Not only has this given the eatery a lot of space for parking, it also catches a lot of traffic with diners coming in either before or after a movie to catch a bite to eat. The much larger lot also has allowed Holzman to put in a patio (at press time approved but not completed) that will seat as many as 100.
But having lots of tables and live music won’t guarantee success without the right menu. Guadalajara Fiesta Grill boasts some 86 entrées, with everything from seafood to chicken to steak to vegetarian specialties. One of the things that the restaurant is known for is its fresh, “totally customizable” tableside-made salsa.
A customer favorite is the Molcajete Ultimo, served in a hand-carved volcanic rock bowl and featuring a tomato-cheese sauce paired with vegetables, green onions and seafood, chicken and steak.
Customers may be a little confused by the name changes between the two locations, but there’s a simple explanation. The restaurants were started by Holzman with this then-wife, Emma Yolanda Vera; they’ve since divorced, with Vera taking full ownership of the Prince Road location, and Holzman owning the Kolb Road spot. For the time being, there are no big differences in the menus or operations between the two eateries.
Holzman and his ex-wife Emma have split ownership of the two locations (she owns the Prince Road eatery) and he has more changes planned for the Guadalajara Fiesta Grill. “We’ve been doing fundraising events with charitable and non-profit agencies, making connections with the neighborhood associations. We need to keep finding ways to give back and become further embedded in the community.”
Hours: Mon-Sun: 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
3719 E. Speedway
If you had only visited Feast after it first opened in 2001, and then didn’t return until it settled into its current location … you might not believe the two places are related at all. The first spot was very casual, fun, and a bit crowded. An expansion in 2005 made the place more spacious and upscale.
But the new locale, which seated its first customers in September 2010, is hip — a bit of LA style in our desert. From the warm but calming color palette, to the carbonized bamboo flooring, to the jazz on the sound system, Feasts announces that it’s a place to have a culinary adventure — without pretension.
Ask Chef/owner Doug Levy why he moved west down Speedway to his new location, he answers with a smile, “It’s nice to have more space. We had lots of guests asking for a private dining area, and we just couldn’t do that before. We also now own the property, and we finally have good parking and a patio.”
You might not expect to find a patio at a restaurant in the center of one of the busiest streets in town, and this one is a little tucked away, but it isn’t exposed to traffic noise or fumes.
And there’s something else that might surprise you about Feast … out back: a chef’s garden.
“We have two different kinds of lemon trees, two different types of limes, kumquats, pomegranate,” Levy says, showing off the compact but very functional garden. “We have tomatoes, chiles, peas, carrots of different types, beets ... we could never have had this in the old space.”
In case it’s not immediately clear from a glance at the menu, Levy is one of those chefs who loves to play with his food. Who but someone who is truly inspired would offer items such as Avocado Custard with apple-basil pesto, oven-cured cherry tomatoes, and crispy shallots, or Moroccan Spiced Goat Stew with tomatoes and dried apricots, served with couscous and pumpkin.
The emphasis with the cuisine, which Levy jokes is a “hodge podge,” is on fresh, seasonal, local. It’s also on listening to his customers and taking some risks. Each summer he asks diners to weigh in on what they’d like to see on the menu, and he tries things out in the kitchen. “Someone asked for banana-bacon doughnuts, though they’d never had them,” he recounts of a recent request. “We tried it out, and they were a runaway hit.”
The menu changes monthly, and is posted online for your drooling pleasure. Longtime fans of Feast (“Feasties”?) know that despite the fact that Levy’s background is in Mediterranean cooking, you’ll find a world of influences in his food. And despite his love of change, even he knows where to draw the line. “There are some items that, if I ever take them off the menu, there’ll probably be a revolt.”
Hours: Tues- Sat: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun: 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
Acacia Real Food & Cocktails
3001 E. Skyline Drive
Gallery Row would seem to be the perfect location for Acacia — a restaurant dedicated to the art of food is an ideal match for a complex filled with galleries.
Indeed, when you first enter Acacia, what hits you is how “artfully” conceived the whole space is. Originally Soleil, and then totally reworked as Sur Real, the building had a lot going for it as a new spot for Acacia, which originally opened at St. Philip’s Plaza in 2004. When Chef/owner Albert Hall decided to find a more affordable spot he knew he would have to move fast. Restaurants lose money in downtime, and Hall didn’t want a six month build-out before he could start up again. He shuttered the first location in December of 2010, and opened at Campbell and Skyline in a matter of a few days.
“This space was basically turnkey,” he says. “We changed paint, carpet, upholstery and some of the lighting, and took out a few things that conflicted with the view. That was it.” Gained: bigger private dining spaces and an amazing nighttime view. Fans of the fabulous green bar and the red counter of the exhibition kitchen from the Sur Real days will be pleased to know that they are still there.
But most of all what Hall has continued is his commitment to the food. “I’m very careful about what products I use, and I try to use all-natural and organic ingredients, as well as buy locally whenever it’s possible. Over the last few years, those products and local provisions have become more available and affordable. We’re watching our carbon footprint, and we’re also offering sustainable items that are actually good for people.”
Good for everyone, too, is structuring the menu in a way that will allow more people to enjoy Acacia, and do so frequently. “Our biggest obstacle is letting people know that you can go to Acacia and have a really high-quality experience in the lounge and get in and out for $15 per person.” There are a variety of small plates, making it easy to sample several different things, especially if you’re dining with a table full of guests who can all share.
Order a hearty bowl of Cioppino, with steamed clams, mussels, shrimp, salmon, scallops and crab in a spicy tomato-pepper broth; or try out the unique flavors of a sweet corn and green chile custard, served with braised spinach, grilled asparagus, portabella mushroom, polenta with goat cheese and edamame, braised red chard, eggplant, baby broccoli, zucchini and roasted sweet peppers. Gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan and customization for other dietary needs is available upon request.
For Hall, who was recently inducted into the Arizona Restaurant Association’s Hall of Fame, running a restaurant is more than just a career. “I’ve been able to spend the last 30 years without having to get up and go to work because I have a blast doing what I do.”
Hours (winter): Sun-Thurs: 11 a.m. - 9 p.m.; Fri-Sat: 11 a.m. to close
943 E. University Blvd, #191, 207-5504
4205 N. Campbell, # 125, 395-0266
The aroma of fresh coffee wafting through the air, classic rock on the sound system, original, local art adorning the walls, plenty of work space to study or write the Great American Novel … the hardest thing about the latest location of Caffé Lucé might be forcing yourself to leave!
The original location by the university opened in 2007, with the Campbell and Limberlost spot opening up in the summer of 2011. “The second location was a natural expansion for the company,” says owner Michael Foster. “I wanted to move away from the university corridor to access a new clientele and bring a higher grade of coffee to other parts of Tucson. Once you leave the university corridor, good coffee shops tend to become very scarce. This second store is a bit more refined than the original, but it still maintains the essence of who we are.”
Who they are is a local company that roasts its own beans and sells them by the half and full pound, as well as makes a dizzying array of coffee drinks, hot tea, iced tea, hot chocolate, Italian sodas, bottled water, juices and soft drinks. In the mood for an Aztec Mocha with Mexican chocolate, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice? They have that. How about Dirty Chai (chai and espresso)? They’ve got you covered there, too. Among the biggest sellers are the cold brewed toddy and the espresso macchiato.
“The menu at the new store offers our unique selection of distinctive blends and varietal coffees prepared in varied methods from regular drip to espresso, toddy, pour-over and aero-press,” Foster elaborates. “These different methods allow us to bring the most out of any particular coffee.”
If you love the coffee you had that morning, take some home to brew up. They have a good selection of blends and varietals, for the breakfast crowd, they also have goodies like scones, muffins, brownies and bagels, but get there early or you might miss out!
Foster has made a point of reaching out in numerous ways. “We offer catering for special events and have donated a great deal of coffee to fundraisers. A commitment to work with the Tucson community has always been a key focus for the company.”
Hours: Mon-Thurs: 7 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri: 7 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sat: 8 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun: 9 a.m.-7 p.m.