The Light Stuff
Here are a few restaurants that offer small plates and tapas.
BY Sarah Burton
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Thomas Veneklasen
It’s a fresh, new year ahead. We spent the holidays saying yes to rich seasonal flavors, family recipes, and savoring those decadent treats. We’re ready to get serious, buckle down, and clean up our acts a bit. But the food-lovers out there can still enjoy a perfect bite out in local eateries — maybe just scaled down a bit. Here are five local spots where you can enjoy a smaller plate, or lighter fare.
The popular style of dining in Japan known as Izakaya has something in common with Irish pubs and tapas bars. It’s all about gathering with friends and family after a long day to relax and catch up while sharing several smaller dishes. Ginza Sushi offers an Izakaya-style dining experience, with both sushi and classic Izakaya menus.
You can order any of their signature sushi rolls, sashimi, or really go for the full experience and incorporate a few orders from the Izakaya offerings like fried baby octopus, green mussels, pork gyoza, fried Japanese eggplant, broiled mackerel, or even some yamaimo (Japanese mountain potato).
Contigo Latin Kitchen
You really can’t go wrong with the fresh, bright flavors found throughout Contigo’s menu. Inspired by recipes from South America and Spain, the made-from-scratch offerings span everything from gazpacho and jicama salad to short rib tacos and a beef-and-chorizo burger to die for. But you also can select smaller plates from their tapas menu.
Come with friends and order several to share — as is the traditional way to enjoy a tapas menu. First and foremost, you must start with Contigo’s house-cured olives. Another small plate you’d be remiss to leave out, and one of their most popular, is the one featuring Spanish chorizo-stuffed dates. Go for the carpaccio with a juniper-tarragon vinaigrette, the empanada of the day, or an ever-changing cured meat and cheese platter.
Take special note, with Contigo’s prime real estate on site at The Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa, the view and food go hand in hand. If it is warm enough, aim for a spot on the patio, where weeknights during happy hour you can save money while you sample many of their tapas and other small-plate versions of their regular menu.
Commoner & Co.
On Tucson’s northeast side, Commoner & Co. offers a new take on American cuisine. And although some of their fan favorites could be considered more on the hearty side (think chorizo mac and cheese or flat iron pork), many of their inventive entrées will give you all of the flavor in just a few right-sized bites.
Starters such as plump empanadas, roasted beets with goat cheese, or the goat cheese tart promise all of the flavor and none of the uncomfortably stuffed feelings. Of course, there’s also the classic mussels and fries (here cooked in a Thai curry). Or if you can’t make up your mind, simply let the chef decide for you: The chef’s tile always promises a delectable assortment of meat and cheese.
“We have several great options for smaller plates or tapas, our most popular being the house-made pork carnitas empanadas and brûléed goat cheese tart,” points out Chef Kyle Nottingham. “Sharing small dishes family style is our favorite way to dine, and the best way to get the full Commoner experience.”
The Tasteful Kitchen
Another no-brainer for locales where you can dig in and not feel overloaded, is an eatery dedicated to plant-based foods: The Tasteful Kitchen. Most of the dishes in this modern vegetarian restaurant are vegan and gluten-free, and change seasonally. Fresh vegetable dishes abound here, and many are prepared with little oil or salt.
“After indulging in heavy calorie-laden holiday foods, people are looking for lighter, healthier fare, which they’ll definitely find here,” says Chef Laura Clawson. “Our favorite light appetizer is our spring rolls, which are virtually fat free and very refreshing.”
Another approach is to follow suit with regular customers, and go for The Tasteful Kitchen’s most popular year-round dish: Miso eggplant. Here, glazed eggplant is paired with coconut black rice and bok choy — rich enough to satisfy during cold months but not make diners feel weighed down when ordered in the summer.
Café à la C’art
Café à la C’art steps up to the smaller plate or lighter fare challenge with their own well-curated style of New American cuisine. Dine inside this historic adobe building, or choose the patio, where you can nosh beneath a shade canopy and twisting vines. You’ll have fun trying to choose from the likes of pork belly sitting atop a bed of roasted Brussels sprouts or a carefully balanced avocado and peach salad, with cotija cheese and fresno chiles.
“For those craving something hearty but light and satisfying, our most popular salad is the grilled flank steak with mixed greens and arugula,” says Owner Mark Jorbin. “It has all the right stuff: heirloom tomatoes, feta, grilled red onions, olives, roasted sweet peppers and crispy onions with a citrus balsamic vinaigrette.” Lighter still, the house salad is another tempting option, a bed of organic greens with fennel, pepitas, roasted peppers, and an herb vinaigrette.
There are plenty of other less-filling choices on the menu of this unique spot, like the grilled salmon served alongside perfect flavor matches of oranges, red onion, greens, fennel and kalamata olives. Whatever you choose, make sure to allow plenty of time to stroll around the grounds, which the café just so happens to share with the Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block.