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Daniel Orr, Ravenous Revelations

Daniel Orr, Ravenous Revelations

Daniel Orr, Ravenous Revelations

Daniel Orr, Ravenous Revelations

Daniel Orr, Ravenous Revelations

Daniel Orr, Ravenous Revelations

Daniel Orr, Ravenous Revelations

Daniel Orr, Ravenous Revelations

Daniel Orr, Ravenous Revelations

Daniel Orr, Ravenous Revelations

Daniel Orr, Ravenous Revelations

Daniel Orr, Ravenous Revelations

Daniel Orr, Ravenous Revelations
Daniel Orr, Ravenous Revelations

Daniel Orr, Ravenous Revelations

Daniel Orr, Ravenous Revelations

Daniel Orr, Ravenous Revelations

Daniel Orr, Ravenous Revelations

Daniel Orr, Ravenous Revelations

Daniel Orr, Ravenous Revelations

Daniel Orr, Ravenous Revelations

Daniel Orr, Ravenous Revelations

Daniel Orr, Ravenous Revelations

Daniel Orr, Ravenous Revelations

Daniel Orr, Ravenous Revelations

Daniel Orr, Ravenous Revelations

Daniel Orr, Ravenous Revelations

Daniel Orr, Ravenous Revelations

 

 

 

Tucson, AZ. That’s the way the tortilla crumbles. A tasty tour on Tucson’s taco trail

From the window of a plane, the five gray brown mountain ranges that ring Tucson look dead and uninviting, as if  you’ve flown into a high-powered microscope zeroing in on the laugh-lines and crow’s feet of an old man’s face. But pull away and you’ll see that what really lies below is the “character” left by the vibrant living of Old Mother Earth. Finally, an aging maiden gets some respect! Tucson is a lot like that: sometimes looking a little worse for wear and rough around the edges yet having the sparkle in the eye of a coquettish young girl. In the kitchen, Tucson adds some chilies, queso fresco, a little tequila or draft beer and she comes alive like those surrounding desert mountains do after a summer storm.

Tucson is different than Phoenix, more Mexican than Native American, or for that matter more Mexican than American. She also has an unexpected secret culinary weapon that makes her different; tucked into the hills are small farms and co-ops that grow a wonderful variety of high-dessert provisions just waiting to be pillaged for our pleasure: cactus pads and prickly pears, pruney dried chilies, wild sage and oregano and hauntingly mushroomy corn fungus. Tucson has a gunslinger and mafia past, but a bean-slinger future of good food, locally grown ingredients, and a cuisine based on honest home cooking… that is if your mother was Mexican and knew her way around a bag of massa meal.

I was there to get to know Tucson, and to eat my way through the city. The Whole Enchilada.  I flew down to take part in the Tucson Food and Wine Festival (held each year in October) as well as meet up with my food fanatic friend, Jennifer English (of The Food and Wine Radio Network.) Jen has been telling me about “What Tucson Tastes Like” ever since I met her and I finally would have a chance to have a private tour. In between The Copper Chef Competition and the World’s Greatest Margarita Contest, both of which I was judging, I would sneak away from the lovely Lowes Resort for some “real food.” Ms. English has been creating her “Best of” list over the last 10 years and I wasn’t going to let my “stressful obligations” keep me from high-jacking her as my desert scout. So we jumped in her white bucking Ford Bronco (or was it a Jeep Cherokee?) buckled-up and hit Tucson’s Taco Trail.  

You could start your day with a Western Omelet or heuvos Rancheros back at the resort, but Jen suggests you “build your base” for a day of sight-tasting at Gus Balon’s, a Tucson institution since 1961. Old grampa Gus spends most of his time “up with the Indians” at the nearby casinos these days. He and his daughter deserve to “rec-create” after all those years in the kitchen and have left the restaurant for his granddaughter and new grandson-in-law to run these days. The kids have kept the historical heaps of hefty-man vittles arriving to satisfy loyal neighbors who count on Gus’s to not just fill their bellies, but quench thirst for community. It’s the type of place where the waitresses know your name and your tall ice tea arrives before you even have to ask for it. Although the kids are doing the cooking, they haven’t changed a thing. The recipes are all Gus’ and the place looks about the way it always did. The original terrazzo floors, the gleaming stainless steel, the streamlined glass cases full of pies, cozy dining booths and the old fashioned soda fountain (which needed repair during my visit) are still there. Gus Balon’s is, always has been, and always will be, one of those breakfast and lunch places. They do what they do and they do it well and feel no need to drag their day into dinner. That’s the way they like it, and me too. Like house slippers on a cold terracotta tile floor next to your bed on a chilly Southwestern morning, you know that Balon’s is comforting, and there waiting. While you are looking over the menu, order a sticky bun to share. Make sure you ask for it to be cut in half and grilled. It arrives crunchy, warm and freshly drizzled with icing accompanied by two big containers of butter to slather on. It is about the most decadent thing you will ever put in your mouth. Everything is classic-diner decadence and delicious, but since a choice must be made, you can’t go wrong with the chicken fried steak with hash brown potatoes and white gravy served with buttered sunny-side-up eggs and homemade toasted rye. The pancakes, French toast or steak and eggs are all excellent as well. We were there just to “open our appetites” so we didn’t want to over-do it, but over-doing it means a different thing to you and me than it does to Jennifer. If you arrive later in the day,  I’m told you’ll be happy if you are there on Taco Salad Day, Spaghetti Day or if they are serving the navy bean soup, but like everything else at Gus’s, you really have to TRY to have a bad experience. “Anything wrong with this place?” you ask. Well, I’ve been told to skip the overly sweet industrial mayo in the tuna and chicken salad and, a “better coffee experience” could make those sticky buns even better than “an afternoon delight.”

First stop on the taco trail was a fairly nondescript Mexican joint called Taco Bron. The indoor and outdoor spaces could be 100 other taco joints. The sun was not at its midday peak and there was an Arizona October chill in the air, so we ordered shots of Hornitos tequila to help dislodge that chicken-fried-steak, then sat outdoors in the angled rays of sunlight to warm our bones. The waitress was a fantastically sassy “Divine-Like” Mexican girl who pushed us towards some mediocre margaritas but made up for it by returning with some of the best Tacos de Chicarrones en salsa verde I’ve ever tasted. Taco Bron’s version is like a BLT on steroids but is a southwestern version wrapped in soft, crepe-like corn tortillas. Each only about 3 bites, they are stuffed with salty crisp pork skin, tomatillo salsa, roughly chopped vine-ripe tomatoes and chilies. Next she sashayed in with the Tacos Gobernador:  Soft corn tortilla folded around briny shrimp with Jack cheese, cilantro and pico de gallo then sautéed in butter until they are crunchy; the escaping cheese melts out and crisps into crunchy spider webs. They are served with cilantro scented salsa, a chiffonade of  finely shredded cabbage and crispy/crunchy pickled pink onion slices.. All we could do is smile like happy idiots, words couldn’t be found and couldn’t have been more descriptive than those grins. These tacos were a thing of poetry and finesse and unlike any tortilla, soft or hard, that I had tangoed with in the past. I knew then that we were going on a gorgeous and gluttonous journey. We got up and left our diluted drinks in the sun and jumped back in “The Bronco.” 

My cousin Chris called on the cell and said she was schlepping down from Scottsdale to join forces as we continued to conquer the cornmeal causeway. She met us at Lerua’s on East Broadway. We ordered a Jamaica (a sort of Mexican hibiscus KoolAid) and the nutmeg and cinnamon scented rice drink called Horchata while Jen parked the car. She instructed us to get the #9, a combination of green corn tamale, beef taco and beans. The Jamaica was ruby red and not too sweet. Served over crushed ice, its clove and spice accents refreshed and revived. The smooth ricey rich Horchata tastes like Christmas. Make sure you take a trip to the loo so you have an excuse to see the walk-through kitchen. The mostly female culinary team is scraping fresh corn for the various mixtures, twisting tamales, steaming the husk wrapped packages to the minute and bubbling sauces and stews down to their proper consistency. There’s an ancient chopping block that is so well used it looks like a well-worn stone step in a medieval village, and carne seca (dried beef) spiced and salted, hanging in the corner. Meanwhile in the dining room the freshly scraped sweet corn in the tamales is further enhanced by the use of green husks and roasted fresh green pablano peppers. They are unforgettable. The tacos, this time in a crisp, fried corn shell are filled exquisitely and simply with a greaseless mixture of ground beef and Mexican oregano and topped just with shredded lettuce and diced tomatoes --- no red oil dripping down your arm or overpowering “taco spice.”  The heady, steaming mixture first hits you between the eyes with its aroma and then in the mouth with its textural contrast of moistness and crunch. It’s a perfect KO punch of a simple ground beef taco.

We took the Bronco “off-road” leaving the Taco Trail to do some sightseeing. As food fanatics, we pulled over at Food City, a Mexican Walmart-like mega-store which mesmerizes all the senses. Outside, Latin music blares even before you reach the doors and booths are set up with men grilling and peeling chilies and others making fresh tortillas and slow roasting spice-encrusted hunks of pork. Inside there are mounds of “today and tomorrow” fruit, ripe and ready for eating. Piles of prickly pears and cactus pads, my first ever fresh chickpeas, still in their papery wrappers, #10 boxes of piñata candy, cylinders of Mexican brown sugar looking like wooden couch legs, herbs and avocados, not to mention Maria de Guadeloupe candles and Last Supper shopping bags. We couldn’t pass up the warm stick-like doughnuts called churros that are dusted with cinnamon sugar or the sweetly spiced pumpkin empanadas.

We then headed out of town to the Mission San Xavier del Bac to light candles and pray for hopeless hosts and the culinarily challenged. Get there on the proper days and there are Native Americans cooking outside under makeshift wooden shades, selling fry bread and boiled beans among other things. Sit inside the ancient cathedral, close your eyes, and listen to the chanting while imaging the willpower and madness it took to create such a place deep in the desert.

It had been at least an hour since we last ate so we needed to get back on track and back on the trail. In France they have a saying “le bec fin” that literally means a long thin bird’s beak but in Gourmand-speak it signifies someone with a fine palate. Can’t you picture a French “bec fin” sipping wine and sampling assorted delicacies? Not to be outdone with culinary creative lingo, the Mexicans came up with Pico de Gallo, or beak of the rooster. Luckily a Mexican’s bird’s bark isn’t as good as its bite; for pico de gallo is something that hits your tongue like a fiery chili-driven cockfight. When Mexican food fanatics think of Pico de Gallo they usually think of the spicy namesake fresh salsa served with so many dishes. The term has another meaning which signifies the spicy powder of chilies, lime, sugar and salt which is sprinkled over icy fresh mango, melon and cracked fresh coconut.  Jennifer told us we had to try this treat as she whipped into the parking lot between the restaurant Taqueria Pico de Gallo and Paletria Diana (a stand selling raspados, those tasty homemade Mexican frozen fruit popsicles) on South 6th Ave. Before we got to the fruit, she had other things in mind.  It is the Taco Trail, after all, and Pico de Gallo has their own signature version. In this case it involves crispy battered fish (I think it was tilapia) in small homemade soft corn tortillas that are something between a corn pancake and French crepe. I think even a French “bec fin” would approve of these. Slightly sweet, slightly tangy with a toothsome texture that is firm yet spongy. These are topped with shredded cabbage and a drizzle of crema fresca and enhanced by those pink pickled onions as well as some cumin scented carrots. These tacos were very different from anything we had experienced so far. The namesake fruit version of “Pico de Gallo” served in big red cups with wooden forks was also amazing. As we waddled out we looked over at the popsicle stand next door and decided that we did save room for a few of those frozen treats. 

I was beginning to get stomach envy. The Big Chef was wearing down, but Jen seemed to just be getting started. She thought a restorative soup might be in order to get me going again. El Indio Restaurante is her favorite place for the Mexican penicillin known as Albondigas de Pollo or chicken meatball soup. The building is beautifully graffitied with colorful proud Native American Chiefs murals both inside and out. Waitresses wheel around carts achingly full of dishes and platters of food, narrowly averting disaster everywhere you look. Luckily our soups arrived without a drop spilling over onto the underliners!
The Albondigas was an “udder” success as were the Casuela (a deep bowl of dried beef, vegetables and roots) and the Caldo de Queso, a caldron of chunky chicken soup made milky and rich with the addition of a salty and creamy mozzarella-like cheese that eats “stringy” with the big chunks of potato and bits of cilantro filling the bowl. Have a Micheloda to drink, a strangely addictively refreshing blend of clamato juice, cold beer and hot sauce, rimmed with some of the aforementioned pico de gallo powder. It is kind of like a beer bloody Mary. 

Our last savory stop was El Torero (the bullfighter) on East 26th Street in South Tucson. An old-school stop that time has forgotten but diners have not, as witnessed by a sign scratched on to a plaque in the back parking lot where an X marks the spot of his favorite Mexican restaurant. The place opened in 1956 and has that old-time feel with paintings of bullfighters and other bullring paraphernalia. We came here for the cheese crisp with green chilies and the chili relleno. The crisp large tortilla covered with cheese arrived bubbling on a large aluminum platter topped with fresh strips of roasted green chilies…addictive, but overwhelming this late in the game. I was keen on trying the relleno, that famous stuffed green chili filled with squeaky cheese and dipped in an eggy batter, fried and served covered with roasted tomato sauce and more cheese. I felt full but enlightened.

We dropped Cousin Chris off at the Hotel Congress (where Dillinger spent his last free day) and headed off to our final stop of the day. We cruised the neon-light district and looked up at the star-filled night for constellations we could name… a nice way to close the day… but once again, Jen had a different idea. She had two buddies who opened a new gelato and sorbet shop called Frost on North Oracle. It may not be Mexican but it was magnificent, with somewhere around 40 varieties of freshly churned velvety, fluffy, frozen confections… light on the tongue but deep in mouth. Some of the richest examples, in or out of Italy, all beautifully displayed, mountained rustically high with chunks of fruit garnishes. I tried peach, blackberry, caramel crunch and deep dark chocolate while Jen had a coffee gelato with a shot of espresso pour over it. It was a “bon bouche” or “good mouth”… the way the French like to finish a meal with a nice flavor to linger on after a full day of dining. Old Mother Nature has given Tucson a full array of wonderful savory surprises and bon bouches. Most are found in little unassuming “joints” not fancy restaurants. All you need to do is find a good scout to help you track them down.

 

 

 

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