After the winding drive from Phoenix to Tucson, it was time to hit the ground running. Chef Devon and the GUT chef’s collaboration invited me to join them on a tour of food and fun all around the city. We head to a historic site, San Xavier Co-op farm to meet with their staff and learn about the local traditional foods they were growing.
Red and White Tepary Beans, Pima Lima Beans, Black and White Beans, Tohono O’odham Peas, Bo:sol and Ga’iwsa, Ciolim (Cholla Buds), Mesquite Flour, Raw Honey were all for sale in their shop and Chef Devon taught me about how the Cholla Bud can be rehydrated, pickled, jarred, and used for all sorts of dishes. Not only do they have a storefront, it is a working and learning farm where members of the community can get in touch with nature and work to eliminate food scarcity and hunger. With respect for elders, plants, animals and sacred water, the team here works to support one another always.
After sampling the ancient foods, it was time to explore newer traditions. Primarily the Senora Style Hot Dog. A family divided rules the scene in Tucson with many people claiming BK or Guero Canello had the better dog. In true culinary fashion, we decided to try both side by side. Piled high with beans, onion, tomato, and a variety of sauces, this bacon wrapped dog is a treat regardless of which house you side with. Warm soft rolls overstuffed with toppings is never a bad choice. While Guero Canelo did the recipe the James Beard nod, BK has more toppings and grilled peppers.
We cruised by Tacos Apson for our last round and I learned how mesquite mixed with charcoal can be a very great thing. The flavor profiles are very different from most taquerias I have been to. While Tex-Mex and interior Mexican hold special places in my heart, I was delighted by these new-to-me experiences. From the lingua to the spare ribs, everything was soft, rich and deeply flavored.
The tour ended with sangria and two courses at Maynard’s Kitchen next to the train station I would be departing from the next day. Chef Brian is young, passionate, and looking for fun ways to innovate and elevate the dining experience. His fig flatbread was seasonal, colorful and well balanced in flavor. We followed this with a playful take on a traditional grain bowl. Grits as the base with colorful veggies. Both of these were complemented nicely by the sangria and company, I was joined by members of the team at Maynard’s and Hotel Congress who were excited for me to visit the City of Gastronomy they had created.
After returning to the Downtown Clifton Hotel, I met up with my dear friend Genia. A residents of Bisbee, artist, social media maven, and an active member of her community, she was willing to make the trek north to Tucson just to see little ol’ me. As we debated what to do on the gorgeous brisk evening we were given, I received a text from Delice over at Hotel Congress. Not only is it a 100 year old hotel, it is home to a number of touring bands and considered the premiere event space in Tucson. Genia and I strolled over to meet with our new friend. Delice showed off the bar, event space, rooms, and views that this property has to offer. My favorite view of course is from the backside of the property facing the train tracks. We three sat sipping beers and musing about what it must have been like when trains first started rolling through the region and how the town like som many other out west grew around the tracks.
With the time difference my staff call the following morning had me awake at 6am. As I nailed down the last few days of Summer By Rail and updated the Rail Passengers team, Genia hunted for a good breakfast destination before she had to drive back to Bisbee. As my call was wrapping up, Genia jabbed me in the arm multiple times mouthing the words “breakfast poke” excitedly. We ventured through the Historic 4th Ave Arts district to find TallBoys. This is definitely a great spot for hangover breakfast, pregaming, or happy hour. There is something on the menu for everyone.
As I bid my dear friend adieu and watched her drive south I couldn’t help but consider how her own community would benefit from expanding the multimodal accessibility in Tucson. How would the economic expansion of this city with a focus on accessibility help the smaller towns to the south that are dependent on its draw?
Good questions to take with me to tamale lunch with Farhad Moghimi, Executive Director, Pima Association of Governments & Regional Transportation Authority. Farhad invited a number of community members and transit activists to commune over a plateful of Tucson Tamales courtesy of Chef Todd Martin. We discussed a number of topics as we tucked in to a gorgeous array from Chile Relleno to Sweet Pumpkin filling.
One thing we discussed at length was how to gather interest around the streetcar and incentivizing ridership. My proposal was focusing on the people transportation brings together. Something like art hop or pub crawl along the existing street car line would be a fun way to engage the community. Not only is Tucson a cute town, they have a wealth of art, history, gastronomy, and culture just waiting to be explored. As the population increases in Arizona, so will the need for transit. There will be more people to entertain, transport, and thus more people spending money. To make sure that stays in local shops and restaurants working towards the betterment of the community means regional transit solutions that keep people connected.
After a gorgeous conversation and hearty lunch, it was time to head to a special surprise with Johnathan Mabry, who had worked tirelessly for the UNESCO City of Gastronomy recognition for Tucson. Also hailing from Central Kentucky originally, Johnathan had arranged a tour of Whiskey Del Bac Distillery. I am a whiskey fan to start with, but I was really intrigued to try this new take on an American Single Malt. We were served 3 different styles and all were absolutely intriguing. While the Classic had a lot of the traditional oaky caramel flavors one would expect, the Dorado was a game changer. The barley being malted and smoked over mesquite radically changed the flavor profile and the smokiness altered the finish in a way I’ve only seen rivaled by one specific whiskey and barbecue restaurant in Texas. It’s not often the variety in small batch production is so very different but the team at Del Bac has crafted some really amazing whiskeys. The Old Pueblo had its own charms as well, also mesquite smoked but unaged, it was surprisingly light and clean. Maybe growing up where I did unaged clear liquor is expected to be a little harsh, but the Old Pueblo is ready to replace a lot of mezcal and tequila I had been using in cocktails previously. This is one of those surprise places where once one steps off the path and fills a glass, the possibilities are endless.
The biggest surprise to me on this stop was the reception at the Southern Arizona Transportation Museum. As Johnathan and I arrived, we were met with snacks, smiles, and a whole cast of locals excited for their station to be featured in my coverage of Summer By Rail. Not only did the mayor toast our trip, I met with a number of local media professionals and the museum staff. This was such a warm welcoming and unexpected moment. The hostess of Boom Goddess Radio invited me to interview with her as well as local TV host Maria Powell, though these segments have not yet aired, I had a blast with these ladies describing all the adventures the trip had brought thus far.
My last meal before departure was dinner with local darling Chef Janos of DOWNTOWN Kitchen + Cocktails. If you are looking for an intimate upscale experience in Tucson, this is the spot. From the mouthwatering topped tostones to the main courses each rich, vibrant and decadent the experience here is amazing. Chef and Johnathan both told me about the importance of Tucson’s UNESCO designation and how it has been a driving factor in the food culture resurgence they are currently experiencing. Not only does it help them to get more teens into the culinary arts, it has helped create and influence local long term jobs within the hospitality field.
With the train delayed, I was able to squeeze in one more destination, one I was afraid we would not make it to but I really wanted to see – Mission Garden. The garden is best explained by Katya their volunteer coordinator as follows.
Mission Garden is a re-creation of the Spanish Colonial walled garden that was part of Tucson’s historic San Agustin Mission. Located on its original site west of downtown Tucson at the corner of Mission Road and Mission Lane, the Garden features heirloom Sonoran Desert-adapted fruit orchards and vegetable gardens interpreting 4,000 years of agriculture in Tucson…Following the initial planting of the Spanish Colonial Heritage Fruit Tree Orchard, in February and March 2012, Mission Garden is expanding to interpret the timeline of our remarkable agricultural story – starting with the Early Agricultural period and continuing with Hohokam, Pre-contact and Post-contact O’odham, Spanish, Mexican, Territorial and Statehood Chinese, Yaqui, Anglo and Afro American farming, and ending with Tomorrow’s Garden to combine all the ancient knowledge with modern experimental solutions to the challenges we now face.
Being in this magical place as the sunset over the hills, Seguaros standing tall backlit by the hues of the desert and stars appearing above, had a profound impact on me. Not many people have experienced the unique beauty of the American Southwest and I was deeply appreciative to have this moment in the town of Tucson. As I made my way to the sleeper car of the Sunset Limited, I felt so much renewal from the community I was leaving. I hope the best for Tucson and will hold these memories and the people that helped create them close to me for a long time to come.