Taking Hunger By the Horns

The restaurant’s name means bullfighter, and the cuisine executes an artful pasodoble between tradition and innovation. Read all about the delicious details!

By Betsy Bruce / Photography by Shannon Christine

 

The Matador has waved his cape and given the historic El Torero on Tucson’s southside a fresh new look and fresh new offerings to enjoy. Tucked away on 26th Street between 4th and 6th Avenues, this popular restaurant has been welcoming customers hungry for a taste of authentic Sonoran cuisine for more than 65 years.

Once run by Adelina Borgarro, the restaurant is now in the hands of her nephew, Michael Hultquist. Michael, his brother Brad, and son Mike Jr. mastermind all that goes on behind the welcome sign, which features a jovial bullfighter hoisting an enchilada plate, alongside his beer-sipping bovine companion, a lime wedge on his mug, a rose on his back.

Mike Hultquist Jr., and Brad and Michael Hultquist

The salmon-pink stucco exterior is original to Aunt Adelina’s makeover of an American Legion hall into a bar and restaurant in 1956. The interior, with its soaring ceilings, has been refurbished without losing its historic patina, with tile floors giving way to polished cement, and a new bar of corrugated metal topped with dark wood greeting regulars in need of a cold cerveza. A vintage Rock-ola jukebox sits patiently waiting for repair, its playlist reflective of the restaurant’s longevity, ranging from Booker T. Jones to The Beatles to Mariah Carey. Wrought-iron lanterns illuminate the all-white dining room; garlands of colorful painted flowers adorn entryways.

Mike Jr.’s sweet, round face belies his serious nature. The restaurant biz is, after all, a detailed, competitive business. He wears a short beard and a head of dense, soft hair. At 31 years of age, the younger Hultquist is credentialed in the kitchens of two legendary family owned restaurants; Lerua’s — a fixture on East Broadway for 60 years, and the exquisite La Roca, just over the border in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico.

“I was a big, chubby kid … I loved to eat,” the junior Mike reflects. “My grandmother, MammaBon, was in the kitchen most of the day cooking and writing recipes in her beautiful handwriting. Her cold beef tenderloin and corn tortillas were incredible. She also had a guava empanada recipe that was my absolute favorite. And my mother Alicia is the best cook I know. There was never a recipe she followed. A few of her specialties were Bolognese, turkey burgers and cherry pie. She is my inspiration.”

In 2015, Mike Jr. earned a degree from San Diego School of Culinary Arts, an intensive six-month program that favors technique over recipes, and mandates studying all aspects of running a successful restaurant. As part of his education, he and some fellow students engaged in a Top Chef-like challenge to create their own restaurant, bringing to life Burratti St., an Italian steakhouse featuring scratch-made pastas and hand-cut steaks.

After graduation, he came back to his hometown to put what he learned to work, discovering that the Old Pueblo was definitely in line with food trends. When Tucson was named a UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2016, it came as no surprise to the young chef. “The seasonal menu isn’t a new idea … it’s the way we’ve been doing things in Southern Arizona forever. Whatever is fresh and in abundance we incorporated in the menu.”

An already generous menu has been further expanded by Mike Jr., who knew he had to be thoughtful with his additions to a classic lineup. “I needed to utilize my creative skills and still be true to the cuisine and customer base.”

New plates to delight at El Torero include creative combos. Blackened Mahi Mahi Tacos are dressed with poblano slaw, crema, salsa tatemada (dark, smoky) avocado and avocado sauce, queso fresco and lime. Vera Cruz Tacos incorporate fresh-grilled sea bass, salsa Vera Cruz (olives, capers, tomatoes, onion, garlic), avocado, crispy onion and lime. And Pozole Carnitas feature pork shoulder, onion, garlic, chiles and hominy (course-ground corn) simmered for hours, ladled into a bowl and served with fresh tortillas.

A chef taking on the complexity of mole sauce makes it his or her own. Mike Jr.’s mole is composed of dozens of ingredients, including smoky poblano and Pasilla chiles, garlic, roasted dried fruits, and dark unsweetened chocolate — “The most expensive I can find,” he reveals. “Mole is like wine. Notes bring out other notes, flavors melding and changing as time passes.”

While studying in San Diego, Mike Jr. met a pair of entrepreneurs who had concocted a hot sauce that he found wildly delicious and unique: Truff Sauce — black truffle-infused hot sauce. “It is so delicious I was inspired to make a dish just to put under it.” His version of the classic tamale pie was born, featuring tender braised pork carnitas and green corn tamales layered with Mornay sauce and sharp cheddar, spiked with roasted green chiles and crispy onions, beans, queso fresco and cilantro doused in the black truffle- spiked hot sauce. Bottles of Truff Sauce can be purchased at El Torero if addiction takes hold of you after a single encounter.

Special orders have never upset the crew at El Torero. Take Tucson Realty and Trust CEO and Hultquist family friend Hank Amos. Years ago Amos requested what has become the “El Hank” — diced rib eye, salsa ranchera, beans, tortilla and green corn tamale. An obvious conundrum ensues: what if Hank has a hankering for something other than El Hank? Says the former UA Regent, “I order it about 95 percent of the time, but sometimes I will order one of Mikey’s specials. He’s very good.”

Over the years, El Torero has drawn not only local celebs, but also the world famous, including Oscar-winning actor Lee Marvin, who lived here for a number of years. Sometimes it’s the restaurant’s specialties that bring them in. Adelina Borgarro was vegan long before it was cool; the plantbased diet simply was what made her feel her best. It was 1976 and word reached part-time resident Linda McCartney that El Torero had vegan options, including calabacitas (chunky spiced summer squash and zucchini), beans cooked without lard and green corn tamales.

McCartney, who attended the University of Arizona, brought her husband Paul, wearing a sweat-soaked T-shirt raked with dirt from yard work. “My jaw would not stop shaking,” Mike Sr. confesses, then all of 21 years of age. El Torero’s wait staff was comprised of older Hispanic women who had worked there for decades and were both charming and tough. The McCartneys chose a two-top against a wall, in Jesse’s section. “Jesse was about 1,000 years old,” Michael says with an affectionate laugh. “She wore army-issue glasses, a Peter Pan collar shirt, white gloves and white sneakers every day.” Jesse approached her new customers and said, “My boss says you have a band?” Linda stifled a laugh. “How much do you charge?” Jesse continued. “My granddaughter has her quinceañera coming up.” The rock royalty couple returned at least half a dozen more times.

A legend of a different kind leads menu pursuers to narrow their choices. A green leaf identifies vegetarian options; a circled stalk of grain slashed through means “can be made gluten-free.” The chile pepper means “Hot.”

For first timers to El Torero, Mike Jr. suggests ordering a classic, enchiladas or tacos, then upon a second visit, trying one of his specials. Mike Sr. recommends starting with the notorious “Patty Taco,” seasoned ground beef enclosed in a fresh corn tortilla and sizzled in the deep fryer, served with rice and beans. Or their famous cheese crisp, which starts with a 18-inch tortilla grilled on the flat-top to crunchy perfection, then smothered in cheddar cheese and popped in a 550-degree oven for two minutes. The toppings include carne seca, green chiles and guacamole.

El Torero 231 E. 26th St. 622-9534. ElToreroTucson.com.

Adapting Deliciously

Here are three local restaurants that have been creative — and socially conscious — in responding to the pandemic.

By Betsy Bruce / Photography by Thomas Veneklasen

Nourishment is around every corner of our city. Breathtaking mountain ranges and blossoming succulents are food for the eyes. Cultural diversity, a rich history and welcoming nature are sustenance for the soul. And our internationally noted, vibrantly creative culinary scene is a feast for the eyes, soul and belly.

As of late we’ve had to modify our lifestyles a bit and not live quite so large. We still hike the canyons and parks but six feet apart. Festivals, concerts, fundraisers and sports have been back-burnered while the curve is flattened.

Comfort comes in the form of pulling up curbside and collecting comfort food from a favorite restaurant. We’ve checked in with a trio of terrific eateries to ask how they are doing, how they’ve modified their business to bridge the tough times, and how they’re giving back to the community.

The Cup Café

The Cup Café in historic Hotel Congress sits at the confluence of Congress, Fourth and Toole Avenues.

Patrons instantly become 10 degrees cooler — simply by entering The Cup. The café has been, and always will be, one of the favorite hangs of our city’s bohemians, artists, musicians and intellectuals. Think part-time resident Diane Keaton clad in denim overalls at a corner table. The Cup’s clay terra cotta floors have been softened by 100 years of footsteps. Walls the color of butter are adorned with sandbox sized sepia depictions of ranch life, and wine bottle chandeliers cast a welcoming glow, white and red striped awnings top picture windows looking out over patio seating.

The Cup Café’s most popular to-go meal is the Mesquite Smoked Rib family dinner.

The Cup has abbreviated its eclectic menu to accommodate takeout. G.M. Todd Hanley explains, “The dishes we offer are a lot of the classics that everyone loves, those that have ingredients readily available, and are efficient to create based on a smaller team of chefs.” The Cup also is selling family size meals, including a sumptuous breakfast called “The Deposition,” featuring cinnamon flapjacks, eggs any which way and peppercorn bacon. Mesquite smoked ribs are a favorite to-go family dinner: laced with cherry chipotle barbecue sauce, accompanied by sides of poblano chile macaroni and cheese and pepper slaw. Grilled chicken with roasted potatoes and seasonal veggies and takeand bake family style meatloaf with bourbon brown sugar glaze are some of the other popular choices. Hanley is happy to report that summer comfort food dishes will be expanded to include vegetarian and vegan options.

A sip to-go from The Cup will soon be dispensed in a sticker-sealed mason jar. Most frequently ordered drinks? The traditional margarita and the Dillinger Day Side Car, the latter composed of Maker’s Mark, Cointreau and lemon. The cocktail’s namesake, legendary gangster John Dillinger, was arrested in 1934 with members of his gang after a stay at Hotel Congress. Hanley knows what he would serve the ghost of Public Enemy Number One should he ever appear from the ether: his eponymous cocktail of course, and, “Our classic Real Thing Burger, finished off with a house-made slice of key lime pie!”

Necessity being the mother of invention, HC Market — a virtual grocery store — was launched when dine-in service was shut down. Guests can order basics, such as produce, bread, milk, eggs and the ever-elusive bathroom tissue. “HC Market has been met with great support and success over all,” Hanley says. “Offering essentials to the community and a safe online/pickup format is a long-term business model we plan to continue. This has been wildly popular, with an average of 100 orders twice a week. The addition of Barrio Bread, Pivot Produce and Decibel Coffee has given us even more exposure.”

Asked what he is most eagerly anticipating once normalcy returns, Hanley observes, “Everyone at Hotel Congress and Maynards [kitty corner across Toole, and under the same ownership] looks forward to the human interaction that’s so critical to the aspect of hospitality. The experience of dining and drinking are not the same unless around fellowship and community.”

Seis Kitchen

Wife and husband Erika and Jake Munoz have grown a food truck into dos locations for Seis Kitchen. The inaugural outpost in the Mercado, just west of I-10 on Avenida del Convento, is designed to have diners place an order at the window and grab a seat in the shaded courtyard. Opened seven years ago, the enterprise proved so popular that the couple decided to open their full-service Seis Kitchen on River Road in the Joesler Village. A stone-topped bar, adorned in argyle black and white, anchors the dining room. Open ceilings are painted sky blue, and from them hang brushed gray ampersand chandeliers. It’s a mod atmosphere in which to enjoy Mexico’s beloved street food.

Mexico City-style Quesadillas are a fan favorite at Seis Kitchen.

The sumptuous burritos are the takeout stars at Seis in this temporary reality (probably doesn’t hurt that they don’t need a fork and knife to eat). Most popular is The Surf and Turf: steak marinated in spices and grilled shrimp, wrapped in a fresh flour tortilla with smashed or black beans, rice, cheese, cabbage, pico de gallo and Seis sauce. Vegetarians can opt for a calabacitas burrito: savory summer squash, zucchini and tomato, simmered with onions, garlic and spices.

Popular pick-up quenchers are Seis’s agua frescas: house-made infused waters such as strawberry-limón, watermelon cucumber and horchata, a sweet cinnamon rice beverage.

Houston Astros pitching coach Brent Strom, who makes his home in Tucson in the off-season, wanted to show his appreciation to each of the selfless frontline employees at St Joseph’s Hospital with an extraordinary lunch.

Mutual friends connected Erika and Jake with Rob Canton, the CEO of Athletes and Causes Foundation, the organization that fulfills such requests through “Project Frontline.” The Munozs readily agreed to match the generous donation and cater the display of gratitude.

It was the afternoon of April 23 when the staff at St. Joe’s encountered the irresistible aromas of Seis Kitchen’s chile verde pork and grilled poc chuc chicken conveying the message, “Thank you for your commitment and passion.” “We received so many gracious and kind words,” Erika recalls. “It was quite overwhelming, actually. The hospital staff were so humble and appreciative, and they are the ones we should be thanking.”

Ninety employees make Seis tick like a Swiss timepiece, and they were the first thing the owners thought of when mandated closures went in to effect March 17. “We were reduced to takeout orders, so we knew sales, and therefore staff hours, were going to be decreased,” comments Erika. “We immediately devised a plan with the help of our general managers and management team to help our crew. We developed a rotating schedule offering hours to everyone and we haven’t furloughed anyone. We put together weekly food boxes of both fresh and pantry items for all of our staff and their families. We are restaurant people. We are food people. This is how we give and show our love and gratitude, through full bellies. They are our family and this is the least that we can do.” For their efforts, the Munozs were honored by Ben’s Bells.

El Charro

In Mexican culture everyone is a part of the family, so Chef Nana Carlotta has taken over cooking dinner for many Tucson families as of late. Carlotta is Carlotta Flores, the Dona of Flores Concepts restaurants, with three El Charro locations in Tucson: Oro Valley, Kolb and Sunrise, and the downtown original spot. Established in 1922, El Charro has been deemed one of Gourmet Magazine’s “Most Legendary Restaurants.”

During the shutdown, El Charro’s extensive menu was streamlined, indicates Ray Flores Jr., Carlotta’s son and president of Flores Concepts. It focused on dishes that “travel” well, taking into consideration production by a smaller kitchen crew.

El Charro Café’s Taco Pollo Arizona is a frequent takeout order.

“Enchiladas are the best sellers for takeout, all flavors and types — carne seca, pork carnitas and chicken mole are all favorites,” reveals Ray. Four family portioned meals are available, serving from four to six adults and up to eight if los niños are at the table. Among those are Nana Carlotta’s build your own tacos — with shredded chicken and carne seca to be folded into a warm tortillas and garnished with whatever the hungry “builder” desires, including cheese, shredded lettuce, and pico de gallo, with sides of beans and rice. Carlotta’s “Enchi-style” chilaquiles is another family takeout favorite — a casserole of Sonoran descent, with local corn tortillas, layered queso Mexicana and choice of red or green enchilada sauces y Mas!

At press time, eighty percent of El Charro’s business was curbside pickup, with larger orders delivered by staff and the balance ferried by third-party services.

Flores is on Pima County’s task force that is helping to guide community efforts to re-open Tucson responsibly.

“As much as it hurts us, we’ve been able to spend time working on projects that have been on our ‘To Do’ shelf for a long time,” Ray says. These include a new on-line ordering system and the food subscription site Tamaleofthemonth.com, where the “tamale challenged” can have Chef Carlotta’s handmade creations shipped to them monthly or quarterly, as well as send delicious tamales as a gift to family, friends and clients.

 

“We’ve launched several efforts,” adds Ray, “from feeding all of the first responders and fire departments in Southern Arizona for the entire month of April, and then feeding all of the front line nurses and doctors via Tamalesforheroes.com, as well as many other smaller efforts. El Charro has provided free meals for TIHAN [an organization for AIDS patients], TROT [Therapeutic Riding of Tucson], The Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, the YMCA and other groups.”

What Ray most desires to do once the pandemic subsides has nothing to do with either food or business, and everything to do with family. “I’m most looking forward to hugging my parents,” he observes.

Live help

They’re Killin’ It

They’re Killin’ It

Two brothers built a thriving restaurant empire with sandwiches and pizza that’s a cut above.

By Betsy Bruce / Photography by Shannon Christine

It should come as no surprise that the Tucson brothers behind a quartet of popular restaurants called Serial Grillers have matching tattoos of the Grim Reaper. The cloaked specter — scythe in hand — appears on the right forearm of 40-year-old Will Miller, and the beefy right quad of 38-year-old Travis Miller. What might come as a shock is that the tats have nothing to do with the scary name of their wildly popular restaurants; it’s a nod to their late father who had the same ink. Says Travis, “He lived his life the way he wanted and stayed true to himself.”

The original Serial Grillers incarnation was a food truck built from the ground up, primarily by Will, who loves rolling up his sleeves to build, exposing more colorful tattoos including a flower that eats his elbow. Will explains about the eateries, “This wasn’t my dream, it was Travis’, but I wanted to help launch it.” The mobile eatery cost the brothers $15,000 to assemble in 2012; now, a pre-built food truck can cost as much as $80,000. Travis, who is in charge of most every other aspect of the business, was inspired by a truck he saw on the Food Network’s Great American Food Truck Race. The mobile kitchen, based in California, was called “Grill ’Em All” — a play on Metallica’s inaugural album Kill ’Em All, and offered burgers named after ’80s and ’90s metal bands. “I thought that’s such a cool idea … what could we do to make our truck stand out?” Travis knew a creative name would bring customers. He also knew he could make really delicious Philly cheese steaks. “No one was doing them at the time, and we wanted to focus on quality ingredients.” The best-sellers — then and now — are the “Hannibal,” featuring grilled sirloin, grilled onions, hot cherry and sweet peppers, tomatoes and pickles tucked into fresh-baked bread from Viro’s, topped with white American cheese; and “Psycho,” grilled sirloin smothered in caramelized onions, jalapeños, avocado, cilantro mayo, tomatoes and pepper jack.

You don’t have to check into the Bates Motel to have your hunger slain by the Psycho Cheesesteak.

Launching the rolling business had its bumps in the road. “We fought the very first night,” Will admits. Parked at a “food truck roundup,” the queue of customers lengthened as Travis spoke with a newspaper reporter. Imagine screams of “help!” emanating from a truck brandishing the name “Serial Grillers.” Will read the riot act to his younger bro and Travis got back to manning the order counter. Both laugh about it now. The cheesesteaks were a hit and the truck rolled for six years, listed in Forbes magazine’s “25 Coolest Food Trucks in America” and featured on Cooking Channel/Food Network’s Eat Street.

The Serial Grillers logo has caricatures of the brothers’ faces — Travis in the Hannibal Lecter face mask, and Will as Leatherface of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame, sporting his signature glasses with heavy black rectangular frames, like those worn by Hollywood directors.

In the flesh, Travis wears a baseball cap, and hasn’t shaved in three days, while Will’s beard is short but not accidental; both of their faces are garnished with lush dark lashes and beautiful smiles. Although technically Will followed Travis into the food business, it was Travis who decided to follow his older brother into the Air Force around 2000. Will, though, was given a pass by the service because, “I could not walk on my heels.” Travis passed the test of flexibility, and after a five-year stint achieved the rank of Senior Airman Below the Zone. The S.A.B.Z. says he utilizes more acumen accrued from the Air Force than from his two years earning a bachelor’s degree from UA’s Eller School of Management. “No disrespect,” he observes. “It’s a great program.”

The Millers drive to and from work in the same 2017 Dodge Ram truck because they live together in the same 1,000-square-foot house. They are not inseparable, they are simply a good match; Travis’ yang (impatient, fearless, and talkative) to Will’s yin (measured, quiet, and steady). For Travis, a spare room in his married-with-three-kids brother’s house suffices. A bigger house is on the horizon and Travis then might find his own habitation after 10 years of communal living.

Living arrangements are not the only way Serial Grillers is a family affair. Note to the patron who recently devoured a mini Bone Collector pizza at the Marana store — your crust was hand-tossed by four-year-old Bruno Miller, with freshly scrubbed hands, of course.

An edgy theme for a food truck is one thing, but the killer ambience of four brick and- mortar stores needed to be tempered. “We did not want to go overboard with the theme,” says Travis. Polished concrete floors, open ceilings featuring matte silver air ducts, industrial metal chairs the color of a fire engine surround dark wood four tops and high tops that accommodate six. A communal high top is positioned in direct sightlines of four big-screen TVs.

Killer Food is spelled in tin-surrounded Broadway bulb letters each a foot high. The names of favorite horror flicks are painted in a variety of sizes and fonts on a single wall, created by Tucson artist Ashley White. Forty to 60 beer and wine choices appear on electronic panels that resemble airline arrival and departure boards.

Serial Grillers is a “quick service” operation. Customers grab a menu from a stand positioned near the entrance and orders are placed at a counter. A stanchioned number is handed over and patrons choose their seats. Non-alcoholic beverages are help yourself.

It might be a crime to miss out on the Jack Of All Trades sandwich, topped with guacamole, chipotle mayo, French fries, bacon, and pepper jack cheese.

The “meat” of the menu is the cheesesteaks and burgers —including “The Red John”: premium ground Angus slathered in marinara, topped with mozzarella sticks, bacon and provolone; and “Fallen,” premium Angus beef, grilled onion, sliced jalapeño peppers, cooled by cilantro mayo, avocado, tomato and pepper jack cheese. You can choose quarter-, half-, or three-quarter-pound patties.

Pizza comes by the slice or in four sizes from the 8-inch Mini to the 16-inch Large. Popular picks include the “Copycat,” black bean spread, smoky chorizo, mozzarella, provolone, jalapeños and avocado slices topped with a swirl of chipotle ranch; and “The Bone Collector,” a trio of gooey cheeses — mozzarella, provolone and cheddar — topped with boneless chicken wings, scallions and swirled with ranch and buffalo sauces. Calzones, hot paninis, cold sandwiches and salads offer something for everyone.

You’ll scream for the Ghostface pizza, available as a four-slice mini, with ricotta, spinach, mozzarella, provolone, black olives, red onions and mushrooms.

The brothers say that the names of their menu offerings are for fun, not actually to represent a totem of a film or character. They did, however, take some heat from a customer who was aghast that a vegetarian sandwich was named “Michael” after the Shape character in the Halloween movies. The email rant opined that a serial killer could never be a vegetarian.

When they are not building a new joint, the Brothers Miller can be found driving high-powered all-terrain vehicles built by Will, naturally. Speedster Travis actually made the podium in a Lucas Oilsponsored stadium racing event. He admits, “Will is a better driver, but he’s not as fearless.” And Serial Griller-in-the-making Bruno Miller already has three dirt bikes — one for inside the house. No wonder it’s time to move.

Serial Grillers Locations: 5975 E. Speedway Blvd.; 1970 W. River Rd., Suite 100; 5660 W. Cortaro Rd., Suite 100; 7585 S. Houghton Rd.

Note: Midtown Taproom “Craft, A Modern Drinkery” on Speedway and Toro Loco Tacos y Burros on East Broadway also are Miller Brother enterprises. And coming this fall, the brothers are collaborating with Red Desert BBQ on East Speedway Blvd.

Where the Chefs Eat

They can all take the heat, but we asked six of Tucson’s most renowned chefs to get out of the kitchen and name their favorite dishes at spots other than their own.

Betsy Bruce

The average human tongue is covered in 10 thousand taste buds … sensory receptors that detect sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami … then communicate to the brain the rapturous message: this is delicious. But Tucson Lifestyle isn’t interested in average taste buds. We asked the most well-known, award-winning, food-obsessed chefs in Southern Arizona where they go when they crave a favorite dish. Just one rule applied to their passionate picks — no choosing their own establishment.

DOUG LEVY: CHEF/OWNER, FEAST

CARLOTTA FLORES: CHEF/OWNER, EL CHARRO CAFÉ

RYAN CLARK: EXECUTIVE CHEF, CASINO DEL SOL

 

Bisbee Breakfast Club’s Chicken Fried Steak with sunny-side-up eggs.
 

JANOS WILDER: CHEF/OWNER, DOWNTOWN KITCHEN + COCKTAILS

Prep & Pastry’s Monte Cristo Sandwich.


Breakfast

Best Breakfast

You’ll find the frenetic line chefs cracking eggs for El Charro Café’s Carlotta Flores at her favorite breakfast hang, Frank’s on Pima at Alvernon — a true neighborhood joint. Choose a plate-covering omelet, such as Ham and Cheese or Denver, accompanied by home fries — chunks of savory potato, sautéed skin-on — or crispy hash browns. And because well-enough is never left alone at Frank’s, diners must also choose from a fresh tortilla, buttermilk biscuit or half a dozen types of toasted breads. Classic diner stools overlooking the grill are in high demand … there is always another customer waiting to climb aboard.

Casino Del Sol’s Executive Chef Ryan Clark moseys around the corner from his Barrio Viejo home to 5 Points Market Restaurant for their signature Smoked Salmon Benedict with poached eggs. Chef Ryan describes his favorite savory side as “that delicate potato pancake … sooo good.” The restaurant scores another point from Kingfisher Chef Jim Murphy, who zeroes in on their Huevos Rancheros: over medium eggs atop a fresh corn tortilla, white cheddar, pintos and avocado slices crowned with cilantro-serrano pesto and pico de gallo. Travis Peters of The Parish jokes, “If I have something to prove, I’ll definitely go after the King Kong at The Baja Café on Ina.” The towering plate layers together crispy hash browns, sausage, ham, bacon and over-easy eggs, blanketed in smoked gouda cream sauce. Chef Travis further admits to being “a sucker” for Bisbee Breakfast Club’s chicken fried steak, with sunny-side up eggs and  hash browns.

Bisbee Breakfast Club’s Chicken Fried Steak with sunny-side-up eggs.
 

The Smoked Salmon Benedict from 5 Points Market Restaurant.
 

CHEF/CO-OWNER, THE PARISH

Brunch

Best Brunch

Three-time Tucson Iron Chef Ryan’s pick for brunch is “everything at Loews Ventana Canyon on Sunday mornings. Chef Ken Harvey and his culinary crew crush brunch. Blues, Brews and BBQ is nationally acclaimed and is a must stop if you brunch professionally.” Tucson Weekly’s Best of Tucson Winner Chef Travis agrees, “Chef Harvey dreamed up something really special here — all your brunch favorites plus lots of delicious beers.” The Ritz-Carlton is Chef Jim’s brunch best-of, featuring fresh seafood, meat carving and omelet stations, decadent cheeses and buttery house-made pastries. Chef Carlotta’s brunch favorite is Prep & Pastry, where classics are elevated. Biscuits and Gravy becomes Herbed Cheddar Biscuits with Duck Fat Gravy, and the Monte Cristo is composed of honey-roasted ham, Swiss cheese and pineapple-jalapeño mascarpone on brioche French toast.

Lunch

Best Lunch

Chef Ryan’s go-to lunch spot is Reilly’s Craft Pizza and Drink downtown. “A mini pizza, or Pizzatta as they call it, and a salad with all the Italian fixings is the way to go,” he says. “Who doesn’t like a lunch that simple and delicious?” A quartet of great lunch spots are offered up by Chef Carlotta: the Cup Café in the Hotel Congress, Rollies Mexican Patio on S. 12th, In-N-Out Burger, and Pub 1922 in Sahuarita, which she says is worth the short venture south for all-natural burgers, house-made pizza, and 22 beers on tap. It features a mod atmosphere, with beer kegs hanging from the open ceiling (empty, we hope) and scroll-back stools positioned along an endless blonde bar. Ask Chef Travis to roll up his sleeves and his lunch favorite becomes apparent. He has the elfin characters of the Lucky Wishbone logo tattooed on his elbows. The Tucson native says even the iconic restaurant’s gizzards are delightful, washed down with the fountain black cherry soda. You’ll also find him hunkered over a bowl of Tonkatsu Ramen (sliced pork belly) at the near northwest side Ikkyu Japanese Restaurant at least once a week, observing, “It’s absolute magic, with a perfect balance between flavor and texture.” Smokey Mo’s Turkey Melt sandwich with a side of collard greens is Chef Jim’s lunch pick, made up of house-smoked turkey, pepper jack, tomato, lettuce, avocado and chipotle mayo on marble rye. Though Feast’s Chef Doug Levy admits he doesn’t get to eat out often, he “loves those tacos” at Boca Tacos y Tequila on Fourth Avenue. The 24 varieties — meat, veggie and seafood — are served with warm, fried-to-order tortilla chips. And when a carb craving kicks in, Chef Doug heads for Za’atar on North Country Club for “their amazing bread.”

The Turkey Melt at Smokey Mo.

OBON Tucson’s Rainbow Poke Bowl and Sashimi Assortment.
 

Seafood

Best Place for Seafood Dishes

“Even though we are in a desert” says Chef Travis, “we have some great spots for seafood, such as the always-delicious Kingfisher — a favorite for oysters — or Charro del Rey downtown. But my personal favorite is Mariscos Chihuahua on Swan. I’ve been ordering their Chihuahuita (oysters, shrimp and ceviche cocktail) for more than 20 years. Fresh and filled with both cooked and raw seafood, I squeeze tons of fresh lime and lots of hot sauces all over it. It is probably one of my favorite things to eat, period.” Chef Ryan gives a nod to Kingfisher as well. “I love their signature steamed mussels with just the right amount of Sriracha. James Beard Award-winner Chef Janos’ pick is the Rainbow Poke and Sashimi at OBON Tucson on East Congress downtown. The Poke bowl combines fresh tuna, salmon, yellowtail and shrimp atop cucumber, jalapeños, seaweed salad, avocado and sushi rice or mixed greens. Chef Doug makes it a triple play for Kingfisher, named in Tucson Weekly’s Best of Tucson every year since 2003.

A Pizza the Pie

Harvest Restaurant owners Reza and Lisa Shapouri opened Oro Valley’s newest pizzeria quietly last September, but it’s certainly left its mark — its char, if you will — on Tucson’s far northwest side culinary scene. Charred Pie stealthily slid into the space left vacant by Harvest Moon and later Sakura Sushi next to the Century Theaters at Oro Valley Marketplace and diners are abuzz about its amazing eats.

Reza Shapouri did his homework. After enjoying wood-fired pizza in a Phoenix eatery, he bought an outdoor pizza oven and got to work on perfecting a recipe over the next year and a half. Just as he got things dialed in, he met Chef Luke Smith and decided it was go time. And the pies started flying. Actually, they began spinning. The wood fire/gas combination oven that serves as the visual centerpiece in Charred Pie is unique (and may be the only one of its kind in the state). It spins the pies so they evenly enjoy its 800-degree heat for three minutes or so. The house-made dough is cooked through and kissed with a perfect char making it easy to handle and capable of inducing eye-rolling ecstasy on the palate. No joke. It’s that good.

What exactly is the formula for such creations? It seems to be fifty-fifty ingredients and process. “We use a more germinated flour with more structure to it and we mix our own yeast,” explains Shapouri. “The dough is mixed in a special Italian mixer that uses a paddle, a gentler process, to let the yeast do its job.” This process takes a little longer, but it’s well worth the time investment by Chef Luke and his team. That dough, topped with imported tomatoes tasty enough to be eaten on their own, as well as myriad other beautifully fresh and creative ingredients, gets fired to perfection and voila! Pizza pie to die for.

Standout pies include the traditional Margherita (red sauce, mozzarella, basil and extra-virgin olive oil); the Prosciutto & Arugula (also featuring red sauce, mozzarella, ricotta, red onion and pecorino), and the Sausage & Fennel (red sauce, mozzarella, Italian sausage & roasted fennel). If you’re not a pizza fan, the Roasted Veggies & Hummus sandwich (veggie hummus, roasted portobello mushroom, onions, red bell peppers, avocado, and radish sprouts on house-made multigrain bread) is uhmazing. The Bloody Mary Grilled Cheese and Korean Wings are simply outstanding finger-licking options. The latest addition of Charred Eggplant (oven-roasted eggplant, red sauce, Parmesan Reggiano, ricotta, basil and extra-virgin olive oil) is making quite the splash. Trust us when we tell you that plans for a return visit will be solidified by the second bite of whatever is ordered.

Beyond offering excellent food, incredibly friendly service and inside/outside dining make this a great spot. But it’s going to get even better with renovations to the patio that will allow for all-weather dining with a view. Work to enclose the patio for a slightly modified (clear enclosure) alfresco experience should be complete by July.

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