Part 1: Tucson The Foodie Capital of Arizona and More!
While it is true that just about every location these days claims to have a unique food and culture scene – Tucson has the chops to prove it! In 2015, Tucson was named one of 116 worldwide cities selected by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Creative Cities Program. In the time since the program began in 2004, there have only been 5 other US cities chosen by UNESCO, and Tucson was the only one selected for Gastronomy! To date there are still just nine US cities (out of 180 worldwide) in the network. You can check out all the others in the Creative Cities Program here - quite a feather in Tucson’s cap!
We began our gastronomic tour of Tucson with a liquid variety of sustenance, rather than the food type. Our first stop was Hamilton Distillers, Inc. Their artisanal whiskey brand is Del Bac, which is an ancient term meaning “where the river reappears in the sand,” which is what is going on in the region of the distillery with the Santa Cruz River surfacing to give the desert new life. Owner and distiller Stephen Paul started his professional life as a furniture designer, specializing in mesquite wood. It was his habit to take the left-over scraps home for his fireplace. And that is where his vision for excellent American Single Malt Whiskey was born. The unique step in his smoked malt process is that the malt is dried over a mesquite fire, rather than peat – as in Scotland. Of the four whiskeys that we tasted, The Dorado and Old Pueblo use the smoked malt, and the other two, Distiller’s Cut and Classic use the more traditional method of drying malt by running heat from a boiler through the kiln. Stephen is justifiably proud of his whiskey and the fact that unlike many other distilleries, everything from the malting of the barley to the labeling of the bottles is done in-house.
After learning all of this about how the whiskey is made, we were ready to do some tasting! Michael’s favorite was the Dorado – which is a mesquite-smoked single malt. The hint of smokiness and a slight tang of chocolate make this a very distinctive dram. My preference was the Classic, with its bright and slightly tart taste with a nose of caramel.
After enjoying so much time in the cozy tasting area – tucked in a corner of the distillery – it was time to say goodbye to Stephen, and the distillery dog, and go find some good food.
Café Poca Cosa did not disappoint. Owner and Chef Suzana Davila learned her cooking skills growing up in Guaymas, Sonora, in the kitchen of her mother. After the family moved to the United States, Suzana opened a tiny restaurant in Tucson in 1984. Her dad gave the restaurant, with just six tables, its name: The Little One – Poco Cosa in Spanish.
Three years later, Suzana’s creativity and energy had outgrown the little space, and she opened a new establishment in the Santa Rita Hotel, while her father and two sisters remained in the original area, which is still serving breakfast and lunch daily. The “big” restaurant, now named Café Poco Cosa, made a couple more moves to its current location on Pennington St. in downtown.
Don’t look for a printed menu – the selections change twice a day, every day, and so the menu is on large chalkboards which the server brings to the table. All the dishes are listed in Spanish, and none of them have the word ‘taco’ in them. This is truly gourmet Mexican food! Michael ordered Carne Asada Salsa, which is a flank steak, served with a roasted tomato salsa (asada salsa). The steak was tender and juicy, and the salsa had a nice, slow, burn. I went with the Pollo Mole. But which mole to choose? There are traditionally seven different types of Mole (which means ‘sauce’). And Poco Cosa had quite a few of them on the menu; this is even more astounding when you realize that Mole is a very complicated recipe, which can contain over 30 different ingredients and take two to three days to prepare! Luckily the decision was made slightly more manageable for me because the menu offered an option of trying two of the selections. So I chose Pollo Mole Negro and Mole Rojo. As the names suggest, the Mole Negro was the darkest, with a complex structure and a sweet tang of chocolate. The Rojo was redder and spicier! Both were delicious, and I was delighted that I didn’t have to name a favorite. Both of our dishes were beautifully plated with a salad and garnish.
While enjoying all this wonderful traditional food, we began to think about how the history of agriculture and the migration of cultures have ended up on our plates. Fortunately, the next day, we found some answers. One question might be: how many years has this particular area been cultivated? The answer might surprise you: 4,100 years! That is the longest known history of cultivation in the United States. You can take a walk through that history at the Mission Garden Project. In the early 2000s, archaeologists uncovered the story of over 4,000 years of agriculture.
Beginning in the winter of 2012, the Mission Garden Project was started as a walled garden, located on its original (1692) site, west of the San Agustin Mission. Currently, the garden features fruit orchards and vegetable gardens that interpret the millennia of local history, starting with the Early Agricultural period and continuing through pre-contact and post-contact native O’odham, Spanish, Mexican, Chinese, Yaqui, Anglo, and Afro-American cultures. It is a living (and edible) museum! Today, the food grown here goes to refugee settlement organizations, area food banks, and of course to the kitchens of the garden volunteers.
As we strolled through the garden, we couldn’t help but notice the enormous letter ‘A’ painted on the peak above us. The official name of the peak is Sentinel Peak, but in 1915, the ‘A,’ made of piled up red, white, and blue painted rocks, appeared after a football victory by the University of Arizona over Pamona College (7 - 6). And so – the peak is locally referred to as the A Mountain.
Our next stop was the Native Seeds/SEARCH retail store. The store serves as the public face of Native Seeds/SEARCH, which is a non-profit founded in 1983 and is dedicated to the conservation and promotion of heritage seeds and beans of native cultures and arid-adapted crops. The non-profit works to ensure the protection of crop diversity, cultural heritage, and sustainable farming. The foundation’s seed bank (also located in Tucson) currently has over 2,000 varieties of seeds.
The first thing out of my mouth when walking into the store was, “Wow – it smells great in here!” To which both workers replied “yeah, we hear that a lot.” The store is divided into three areas. To the right is their retail food section, where you can buy prepared foods such as oils, vinegars, honey, chilies, spices, and of course their extremely popular bean varieties. The number of products was astounding, and many could not be found anywhere else. The center section is the gift area, with local crafts, native art, handmade local soaps and lotions, apparel, and jewelry. To the left you’ll find gardening tools, soils, seeds, and other things you’d find in your typical garden shed. We spent a lot of time in the tiny store – and loved every minute of the “educational shopping.”
After all that education about food, we thought it was probably time to find some! So we made our way into midtown to find Tito & Pep. Opened in 2018, Tito & Pep has earned a reputation as a wonderful neighborhood bistro. The interior is bright, colorful and welcoming. Our first order of business was to order a beer. As we sipped our beer, we perused the menu. For salads, Michael tried the Grilled Pear Salad with hazelnuts, blue cheese, apples, and a spiced cider vinaigrette. It was difficult, but I talked him into giving me a bite – and I could see why he was so hesitant to share. The pears and apples were so fruity and worked well with the piquancy of the blue cheese and the crunchy hazelnuts. I also had a difficult time giving up even a small bite of my Roasted Carrot Salad, served with pomegranate and sunflower seeds, and a lebne dressing. The yogurt-like dressing was a perfect way to bring together the earthy taste of the carrots and the fresh pop of the pomegranate seeds.
Moving on to our main course, I had the Grilled Lamb with pistachio-tomatillo salsa and seared vegetables. I’ve always loved lamb – and this one goes to the top of my list of lamb-experiences to remember. Michael had the Grilled Trout, with sautéed swiss chard, guajillo chile, and fried garlic. The mild heat and touch of fruitiness of the chilis was complimented nicely by the peak aroma of the fried garlic. And the combination with the mild-tasting trout was marvelous. For dessert we shared a Panna Cotta, which is a lighter version of flan, and was creamy and cool, topped with pineapples, raspberries, and mint. Definitely a perfect finish to a perfect meal.
But what about that name? Owner and chef, John Martinez, named his restaurant as a tribute to his grandmother, Dorothy, and great-aunt, Marie. Back in the 1920s when Dorothy was taking care of her younger sister, she would entertain her with stories she made up about two little girls. One of the fictional characters was named Tito, and the other was Pep.
Our host told Michael that he really should try the Quiche of the Day, and he was glad that he followed directions. The Ham and Capers Quiche was delicious. He also had a cup of the Soup of the Day, which was a hearty chicken broth with cayenne and serrano chilis. The heat of the serrano was slightly tamed by the milder cayenne – but the soup packed a wallop!
I had the Depot Salad, which was sirloin steak strips on top of mixed greens, tomatoes, avocado, crispy onions, and parmesan cheese. The roasted shallot dressing adds a unique touch.
Along with such delicious food, the Hotel Congress itself is worth a trip through the doors. Built in 1918, this iconic hotel has a rich history. From heroic acts by hotel staff during the fire of 1934 to the capture of the John Dillinger Gang, the hotel has a starring role in the history of Tucson. It also seems to have a few resident ghosts.
I’m sure that there are 1 or 2 (or 100) great restaurants in Tucson that we haven’t tried. So once again, we return home with our “next-time” list filled out.
Editorial disclosure: lodging, beverages, and food generously provided.