TWO SIDES OF TUCSON
by Jim Leff
I hate to give up on a cuisine. A few years ago, I spent some time vainly seeking edibility in southwestern New Mexico. I was served the worst gloppy gook imaginable: tasteless enchiladas stuffed with fiberboard chicken and smothered in a mucousy sauce with Superfund quantities of bright orange cheese nuked in. I'd sniff out little shacks where Mexican (woops...that's a fighting word around there...make it Hispanic) workers do lunch, and I'd still be served dishes drenched in sauce based on mushroom (or, worse, celery) soup mix and way too much chili powder. There's nothing worse than hot bland food.
The best I managed to find around Silver City was Lottaburger, a merely D-minus fast-food drive-in. Chowhound depression had me sleeping 13 hours a day.
This time, Chowhound.com uberwebgenius Bob Okumura (who took these awesome photos) and I headed three hours west to the Big City, Tucson, Arizona (whose vital downtown is about three blocks wide and includes exactly one newstand and a number of wig stores).
A major intersection in Downtown Tucson
More Tucson skyline
I'd heard that if I didn't like Sonoran Tex-Mex here, I could give up on the Cuisine. I put in hours of research before embarking on an ambitious three day gluttinerary of Real Deal local eats.
The following are my notes, only slightly tweaked into readability (sorry folks, I'm too crushed by other deadlines right now to make 'em slick):
Pico de Gallo is a chunky hot sauce of chopped tomatoes and chiles with chiles, onions, and lime juice, and it's also the name of a wonderful taqueria in a neighborhood that gave my hotel desk clerk (I stayed at Hotel Congress, a hip retro 30's spot missing its third floor since the Feds burned it down to smoke out John Dillinger, a guest at the time) shivers at its mere mention, though the nabe turned out not to be even marginally dangerous.
The hiply retro lobby of Hotel Congress
Another angle of Hotel Congress' lobby
John Dillinger and Quisp both stayed at this celeb magnet
Taqueria Pico de Gallo (2618 S. Sixth Ave, 623-8775) specializes in carne asada, and while I didn't find fajitas on a single menu in either Tucson or NM, this might be the inspiration: strips of grilled beef, tender, good/chewy, and packed with beefy flavor spiked with some garlic and cumin. This is supposed to be among the best in town, and I can't imagine much better, but the tortillas stole the show. They're incredibly rich and concentrated in fresh milky corn taste, not the dried corn stale-ish Frito-y taste you get in other tortillas. You feel like you've stuck your head in a grain silo full of fresh-picked corn on the cob and done a manic gnashing mouth-mow through it all. The corn (yes, I'm going to use the word 'corn' LOTS of times in this paragraph) flavor was so intense that four hours later my fingers still positively reeked of it. Also worthy if not exactly finger-sniffin' good: tasty fish tacos, and an especially quenching horchata (the cinnamony rice drink). Oh, and their namesake sauce seemed to contain some mustard. Weird.
This late night roadside joint was positively spotless. Over the course of three days eating in such deskclerk repulsing eateries, I found not a single one less than sparklingly clean. They're family run, and pride runs extremely high.
St. Mary's Tortilla Factory (1030 W. St. Mary's Road), which sets its tone by proudly hanging a calender from Tucson Tallow Company near the register, makes burros (the local term for smallish burritos--no rice or guac; this ain't Benny's) wrapped in the most gossamer thin, glutenous tortillas (Silver City tamale expert Juanita says that the trick is water temperature: this masa's made in the hot, hot water). These magical tortillas don't yield instantly to purposeful chewing, but, with patience, they melt effortlessly in the mouth. They're huge and translucent, with a full gritty, wheaty flavor, reminiscent of Indian nan bread.
At St. Mary's I also had my first taste of carne machaca, which seems to be the local analog of mofungo: a real soul food dish that's too intense for some (especially Anglos). It's basically carne seca (beef jerky) chopped fine and slow cooked with chiles . Here, it's fibrous/chewy though paradoxically moist. Even more than with the tortillas, machaca yields itself only slowly; you can not be goal-oriented. I enjoyed it, but ate only half the burro...too intense for this gringo. But my oh my, those tortillas...
Nearby, at Anita Street Market (849 N. Anita Ave), I ordered takeout from a sulky bruja who worked under a big sign reading, in Spanish, "If you believe in credit, loan me five dollars".
Does this look like a commercial enterprise to you?
The long queue of Hispanic cowboys, neighborhood housewives and Anglo yupsters had moved with glacial slowness, but it was worth the wait for heavenly tacos of birria (slow-stewed chunky beef) on fresh-made corn tortillas, good simple quesadillas (flour tortilla folded over homemade white cheese and grilled), and a burro de machaca that thoroughly paisanified me after my earlier gringoizing experience. It's just as intense as the machaca at St. Mary's, but eons more flavorful and yielding (strange, since the meat was actually drier). I swooned with pleasure, dabbing on sensational hot sauce only reluctantly; perfection can't be improved. God. They also sell gorditas, fat little tortillas made with cottage cheese. Cabeza tacos were on the menu but head's no longer available here, since prudish customers so seldom order it.
Billboard: "Saturday night at Holiday Inn: Gila Monster Hockey"
Confident in my source (Tucson Weekly's "Best of" awardees from 1996 and 1997, which had included Pico de Gallo and Anita Street Market), I decided to try a full-service dinner at Mi Nidito, the paper's pick for Best Sonoran-Style Restaurant ("A venerable Tucson landmark"). It was a depressing, cynical place, decorated like an El Torrito chain franchise--though, of course, Mi Nidito is what El Torrito imitates (DIGRESSION: I kept having these metaphor problems, starting in Silver City when a lanky guy with a cowboy hat, blue jeans, and pink neck walked into Lottaburger, and I smirked to myself...look at "Mr. Cowboy". But then I realized...he WAS Mr. Cowboy).
Food-wise, the word was lard. The nachos were fried in 'em (with a good salsa that wasn't too hot--nothing's all that hot around here--tangy enough to neutralize the fat). We had things like blah green lardy enchiladas and lardy blah chiles rellenos, nothing tasting particularly real or delicious (though the horchata--rice drink--was notable for its complete lack of cinammon; this has got to be the riciest horchata ever). We'd waited 45 minutes to be seated (in what turned out to be a half-empty dining room), and were sorry we had, but at least the bill--under $25 for more than two could finish--didn't beat us up too badly.
Our swanky chowmobile,covered with vulture droppings (or so we fancied)
We went to a country/folky show at the recently restored art deco Rialto, where rows were separated by 8 feet of space, perhaps to accomodate staggering patrons (the yellow pages here list zillions of DWI specialist lawfirms, one of whom proudly proclaims "We defend drinking and driving!"). Beer bottle holsters hung conveniently next to each seat.
Sunday the entire town closes down (not that it's EVER all that "open"), and bites are few and far between. We had a stunningly unexceptional breakfast at Jenks Cafe (Best of Tucson 1996: Best Truck-Stop Diner) for like three bucks, and headed off to the way-interesting Sonoran Desert museum, where a prairie dog dissed me for getting too close to his territory. We tried a bite in the cafeteria. Don't eat in the cafeteria.
We rode our borrowed chowmobile back into town, through beautiful Gates Pass, at dusk, and headed for dinner at La Indita (9622 N. Fourth Avenue, 792-0523), too anagrammatically close to Nidito's for my comfort, but the only place open Sunday nights (I'd spent an emotional few minutes phoning restaurant after restaurant to no avail).
A disconsolate Jim finding out that restaurants are closed on Sundays
Owner/chef Maria Garcia is a Tarascan Indian, and we'd hoped for Indian dishes, but the menu read like most others in town: carne asada, tacos, carne seca, enchiladas, chiles rellenos, etc. The waitress tried to oblige, bringing us chalupas (tostadas, basically), and an Indian taco, the standard southwestern Indian dish of fried bread ("fry bread") topped with refried beans and stuff. We also ordered the house specialty, green enchiladas. As the menu's long introduction states, there's nothing unique on the menu, per se; the Tarascan touch is in how things are prepared (Garcia "intuitively" uses "a little bit of this and a little bit of that").
There were, indeed, some wrinkles. The green enchiladas were distinguished by tons of well-sauteed onion, and the sauce had an intriguingly earthy taste that was hard to pin down; ground nopales, perhaps? The Indian taco had good, relatively greaseless fry bread but it was way too mild--perhaps because we were in a gringo part of town. Chalupas were fresh and wholesome if uninspiring. But when, as an afterthought, we ordered a tamale, we hit the jackpot. The green tamal (sweet from fresh corn rather than cornmeal) was fantastic, a peak experience. The corn mixture was super loose and tender, brimming with delicately flavored milky fresh grated corn. Chicken tamales were merely excellent.
The final day, we hurried with great expectations to the nationally known Café Poca Cosa (88 E. Broadway). Chef/owner Susana Davila has been featured in all the splashy food mags; this is supposed to be the most elevated (yet still authentic) Sonoran cooking of all.
If you want acceptance by the Food Establishment, you've got to play it their way, and Poca Cosa has Bought In. The service is NY/LA upscale: maitre d' recites spiel, leads you to table, carefully coiffed waitress delivers script in the measured tones of an executive secretary, brings blackboard to table and describes noveau-sounding preparations. Bus boy hovers with hands clasped behind, wishing good afternoon before he pours water. This was all somewhat jarring after the kind of eating we'd been doing, and we eagerly awaiting something a cut above: careful cooking full of challenges and wit.
We both ordered platos Poca Cosa, containing the chef's choice of three of the rotating ten (or so) specials. Unfortunately while the chef has a nice touch, this is not food worth all the fuss. Even the three (of six) successful dishes were good, not great. On the other hand, nothing was worse than fair, and the tab was more in line with the cooking than with the flourishes ($23.55 for two, including drinks).
I didn't bother to jot down all the very very inventive ingredients, but, then, I couldn't taste many of them, either. Best dish was carne asada with nopales, sweetish like beef teriyaki or Vietnamese bbq beef. Also good: green tamale drowned in good cheese with very nicely grilled chunks of baby squash (this tamale couldn't hold a candle, though, to the one at La Indita). The same carne asada also came in a green tomatillo sauce that cannily married flavors of citrus and of those tangy green tomatoes.
But Poca Cosas' chicken pipian had a sauce with demasiados cosas...about ninety ingredients (surprisingly, not including pumpkin seeds...sesame seeds instead) that all canceled each other out. Heaps of peanut flavor in the thick sweetish peppery sauce (fainter flavors, barely detectable, were clobbered) made us feel like we were eating sate, but that sauce did absolutely nothing for the slightly dry chicken. No counterpoint at all, a total dud. Bob noted that the anchos (which had contributed to this ungepotchkied mess) weren't properly peeled. It was tolerable as one third of my sampler, but I'd have been pretty disappointed if I'd chosen this as my lunch.
Chicken adobo was marginally better, but still far from focused, and the ultramoist green corn tamale pie (a famous house specialty) narrowly treaded the line between pastiness and tenderness. It was fine, really, but too restrained (most of these dishes tasted like the chef was holding back, perhaps a function of the kitchen's general "lightening up" agenda) to be truly soulful, and a nonsoulful tamale pie is basically tasty junk food, not worthy cuisine.
Rice, beans, and salsa all rated a flatline on the culinary EEG, and I had to keep chewing the tortillas to get to the taste. My fingers did not smell like corn.
But the blue-haired tourists seemed to be enjoying this "nice" place, where the slickly recorded mariachi music has reverb and the chairs are comfy and everybody speaks English and acts deferential and you're processed through that familiar generic restaurant machine, instead of having to descend into some scary real Mexican restaurant where you might not know how to act and the kitchen MUST be really really dirty.
I bet this place was pretty damned good back when Davila was cooking slightly creatively for real people, before everything turned mwah. Come to think of it, though, if you disregard the pretension and pedigree, it's still not too bad a joint for the price.
Physically full but spirtually void, I decided to make one last stop on my way back to Silver City: Yoeme Tortillas and Catering Service (1545 N. Stone Ave). The Yaqui Indians run a casino, and use the profits to invest in their community. Realizing that culinary know-how is a resource in good supply, the tribal council opened this restaurant and staffed the kitchen with the best Yaqui cooks.
The cafe was totally empty--it looked as if no one had EVER been there--and a newspaper article on the wall reported that Yoeme loses upward of $400/week (they remain subsidized by casino income, but, since the phone's now disconnected, it appears that cutbacks are being made), and all I can say is that this is beyond shameful...it's downright disgraceful. Let me describe the food so you'll see why.
Yoeme's fry bread is cosmic. It's angelically light, crisp to a T on the outside, pillowy and lush inside, spread (in the version I'd ordered) with refried beans so smooth and gentle that they could be described only as sultry. Their caldo de queso, a mild cheese soup, is atomically balanced; swirling flavors of ingredients marry into a unity almost too beautiful to bear, with cubes of potatoes that would be imperfect with a millisecond more--or less--cooking. The tortillas are the large thin translucent kind, but with more smokey flavor than those at St. Mary's. The red chili is dusky, with rough flavored beef chunks, and the green chili's more clean-flavored and soupy, beefy flavor rising far above the less complex sauce.
I ordered $35 worth of take out, partly to ensure a food supply for my subsequent week in Silver City but mostly to help support this barren, dejected place. It's gotta be a racial thing...Tucson Weekly, amid all the raves for gringo joints like Nidito and Poca Cosa, awarded Yoeme "Best Lunch Under $5'. How condescending. They should rightly have been awarded "Best Lunch Under Heaven'. And this restaurant (extremely tidy and inviting) is not off the beaten track, so there's no excuse for Tucson's neglect.
Please go there and order a lot and leave huge tips. Writers, please write about them. Call people you know there. Let's not let this treasure wither from neglect.
So I arrived back in Silver City, and had a bite at what I'd heard was the best Chihuahua joint in town, El Paisano. As usual, I tried one bite of each element of my combination plate and asked for the check. But at least I finally knew what I was missing...
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