Friday, October 23, 2009

Four Days in Tucson

It's approximately 450 degrees in Arizona when I retrieve my rental car and head out on a two-hour drive to Tucson.  The weather is a welcome change from New York, where it was 45 degrees and raining when I left, but it is rather odd to see Halloween decorations dotting the desert landscape.  I pull in to a gas station to buy something to drink, finding myself next door to a farm stand with pumpkins that are practically melting in the sun.  I browse, passing some apples that are rapidly growing brown and mushy; not exactly a festive look.

More encouragingly, the food mart at the gas station is stocked with all sorts of treats that aren't available in New York.  I immediately grab a package of Red Vines and then notice that I'm far enough west to buy Chocodiles.  I'm tempted, but at 240 calories for a single 'dile, I'm going to skip the nostalgic experience of sinking my teeth into a chocolate-coated sugar log.  (Allowing me to also skip the nostalgic experience of growing into a big fat pig.)  I can't however, bypass the next thing I see: Mexican Coke.

Now, while there are plenty of people who enjoy a little Coke from Latin America, I am here to tell you that there is nothing better than Mexican Coca-Cola.  American bottling companies stopped using real sugar in Coke years ago, replacing it with the omnipresent high fructose corn syrup.  Since corn syrup is so commonly used as a sweetener, generally successfully, you wouldn't think there's a dramatic difference.  However, the Mexican coke, made with real cane sugar, tastes sharper and crisper and altogether more "real."  I'd buy a second one, but in terms of calories I've already poured almost an entire Chocodile down my throat.

The drive passes relatively quickly (am I the only one who can't drive through the Arizona desert without singing the theme song from Alice?) and I get to Tucson around mid-day.  Tucson is a rather interesting city - the old city and downtown area are more than a century old and include a presidio, a Spanish mission that dates to a time when this land was part of Mexico. However, the farther east you go, the newer the city becomes; it's laid out on a grid, mostly strip malls and chain restaurants with subdivisions beyond.  Tucson sits at the foothills of the Catalina mountains, and nearly every vista includes a view of the mountains.   The overall effect is kind of like being in L.A., driving down La Cienega towards West Hollywood.

With less charm.

After pulling off the freeway and passing downtown, I look for a place to grab some lunch.  I forgo a Sonic Burger which was offering a Captain Lou Albano special (what would that be?  200 pounds of meat, topped with ham?)  I also notice a place called "Mostly Bears" and assume it means something different than it would if it were on Christopher Street in the Village.  I'm thinking a trip inside wouldn't result in a hairy muscle boy and a beer, but rather some awful stuffed animal with long blonde hair and fake fingernails called "Bearbra Streisand."

I almost stop at a pizza place that looked good, but it was next door to a store that advertised "Guns: Bought and Sold."  Across the street from a school.


I settle on Sunflower Market, sort of a Whole Foods copycat,  where I spent less than $5 on a turkey sandwich, two apples, and some cashews (retrieved from a barrel!)  I did manage to control myself and avoid the plastic pails of Salt Water Taffy (an interesting option in a completely landlocked state) which included such Autumn flavors as Candy Corn, Caramel Apple, and Pumpkin.  Now, we've already established that I'm such a sucker for seasonal treats that I'll even embrace the questionable Christmas Tree-Peep, but pumpkin flavored candy is a bridge too far for me.  Peppermint chocolates at Christmas, heart-shaped cookies in February, I'm there, but when they start putting gingerbread inside M&Ms or making everything taste like pumpkin, you've lost me.

And, I'm sorry, but Candy Corn taffy is just trying too hard.  Apart from the three-colored appearance, it's just going to taste like sugar.  (Or, more accurately, high fructose corn syrup.)

For dinner, I'm craving Mexican.  I love Mexican food and this place is so close to Mexico that I've already seen three INS Border Patrol cars.

The local magazine in my room offers little guidance (one of the restaurants it lists under "Mexican" is Chili's) so I check out a couple of websites and decide on El Charro Cafe, a family owned restaurant with four locations in the Tucson area.

My waiter couldn't answer tell me if the Tortilla soup was the kind that looks like yellow chicken broth with vegetables, a creamy chowder-like soup, or a red broth with tortilla strips and chicken (which is the kind I like), so I opt for a pork pozole, followed by enchiladas mole clasico.  Well, I thought that'd be the order, but they all came out together.  No matter, I think, until I taste the soup and find it barely room temperature (which is disappointing since it's 90 degrees outside but 50 degrees inside.)  I sent it back and rapidly realize I'm going to be eating it for dessert.  My enchiladas, however, are delicious.  The mole is a little more watery than I prefer, but it's otherwise delicious, the poblano and chocolate and cinnamon and sesame and spices very well balanced.  With a little heat, the pozole isn't bad, either, though it has too many peppers in it, and they're a little slimy.

After a long Monday working with my client (who is really awesome by the way - and I love this project) I head out to a restaurant called Montana Avenue, which had been recommended by several people.  It's a beautiful restaurant - modern decor in reclaimed wood and steel beams, with an outdoor patio whose centerpiece is an indoor/outdoor fireplace.  The overall effect is similar to that of modern hotels like the W or the Morgans Group (The Clift, in San Francisco.)

My server guided me to a Pinot/Merlot blend that was interesting, but a little too acidic.  The best way to describe it is to say it went in smooth but went down hard.  (The jokes here are way too obvious, so just make your own.)  I ordered a barbecue pork tenderloin, which was expertly cooked, tender and tangy, the acid balanced by a macaroni and cheese and roasted broccoli (the broccoli was in the mac'n'cheese, which wasn't clear from the menu and was kind of surprising, but it worked.)  The macaroni wasn't nearly as good as Neil's (and, no, you're still not getting that recipe) but it wasn't bad.  I enjoyed my meal about 30 feet away from a table where an older man with an exceedingly phlegmatic hacking cough kept trying to expel a lung, which was not exactly the dinner music I had planned.  It's hard to enjoy eating a pig when you're concerned about swine flu.

Dessert, however, replaced my concerns with delight: a warm cinnamon sugared doughnut served with a side of vanilla custard topped with a red fruit marmalade.  Other than pointing out that blackberries and blueberries aren't red fruits, there is nothing else I can criticize about this dessert.  Crusty on the outside, doughy and airy on the inside, sweet and chewy and delicious dipped in the custard, I had to exercise a ridiculous amount of self control to avoid eating the entire doughnut (which was easily 7 inches in diameter.)  I then did something I have never, in 37 years, done.  I took the rest of the dessert home.

It was my reward after running 5 miles on Tuesday morning to eat another piece of that donut, and I'm glad I did, as Tuesday was something of a disappointment food-wise.  I took another stab at Mexican and headed downtown for dinner, to the legendary Cafe Poca Cosa.  Well, it used to be legendary, before it moved from a quaint little house to a space below a parking structure.  I'm not kidding - I drove past it four times before I realized that the entrance was the door 100 feet from the self-pay station.

At the bar, I was guided to an excellent tempranillo-granache blend by Red Guitar, easily one of the best wines I've ever had.  At Cafe Poca Cosa, the menu changes throughout the day, and is presented on a blackboard by your server.  Or it's supposed to be, if he ever shows up.  After 10 or 15 minutes at my table in the far corner of the restaurant (a wall on one side and a curtain on the other, it was like being seated in the shower), one finally deposited a blackboard on an easel in front of me, then dashed away.  Since the preparation of most of the dishes requires, apparently, an explanation, I was left in the lurch.  Another 10 minutes or so later and I'm finally given a performance of What We're Cooking and decide on the Chicken Mole (I know - again - but I really like Mole and I'd heard theirs was really authentic.)

It is - it was, perhaps, one of the best Oaxacan Moles I've ever eaten that wasn't prepared by Rick Bayless.  The problem was everything else.  There wasn't much chicken, the dish was served on an enormous plate overflowing with salad and fruit (fruit?) and delivered with a plate of tortillas, a plate of rice, a plate of charro beans.  I felt like I was in that scene in European Vacation where Dana Hill is dreaming about all the rich european food she keeps getting served to a point well past gluttony.

It was just too much.

Wednesday was a rerun of my Tuesday lunch spot (Baggins, because your lunch comes - wait for it - in a bag) and El Charro with my client (Fajitas - not bad, and a couple of Corona, which I needed at that point.)

And yesterday I headed home.  I contemplated bringing back a Chocodile for Neil, but it just would have gotten all squished and eaten. (Hee.)

There's nothing fun to report about air travel these days.  Phoenix Sky Harbor has relatively little in the way of food options after you pass through security, so I knew my lunch was going to be the apple in my coat pocket, the nuts and wasabi peas I dug out of a barrel at Sunflower, and those animal crackers they give you on JetBlue.  It's really the perfect diet to accompany two episodes of Law and Order SVU and half of The Devil Wears Prada (don't we all get just a little tingly in our happy place when Meryl Streep glares at Anne Hathway and tells her that the belt is cerulean?; don't we all just root for little Anne when she doffs her bulky poly-blend sweaters for Chanel?).  Whatever, it was better than four hours of The Real Housewives of Atlanta (I bet they could pick up another half a million viewers or so if they called it Crazy Chicks in Wigs.)

Ooh - I also watched Paula Deen make some chocolate covered coconut candies I'm DYING to try today.

Neil greeted me with a hot meal - cuban style chicken with olives and capers, black beans, and acorn squash - which was somehow perfect despite a week's worth of latin and southwestern food already in my stomach.  Here's the recipe, it's adapted from Fine Cooking:

1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon paprika
2 1/2 pounds chicken thighs
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion — finely chopped
1 red or green bell pepper — finely chopped
4 cloves garlic — minced
1 teaspoon minced fresh oregano
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro (to 1/3 cup)
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup canned tomato sauce
1/3 cup chopped olives
2 tablespoons drained capers
1/4 cup dark raisins
1/2 cup red wine

Mix the flour, salt, pepper, and paprika on a plate. Dredge the chicken thighs in the flour mixture and shake off any excess. In a heavy pot, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium-high heat and cook the chicken in batches (so it’s not crowded) until lightly browned on all sides.
Transfer the chicken to a platter and drain off any fat left in the pan.  Add the rest of the olive oil, the onion, and the bell pepper to the pan. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring, about 1 minute. Add the garlic, oregano, and cilantro, season well with salt and pepper, and continue to cook for about 15 minutes. Stir in the tomato sauce, olives, capers, raisins, and wine. (If you prefer a bit more sauce, add a little chicken broth or water, but not wine, which would make it too acidic.)  Return the chicken to the casserole with any accumulated juices. Stir to coat the chicken with the sauce; cover and simmer until the thighs are completely tender when pierced with a knife, about 45 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. 


DO THIS, New York:
If you're ever in Tucson, eat at El Charro.  It's a little like a chain, but it's pretty good.  Also, eat at Montana Avenue and get that doughnut.

Makes that Cuban Chicken Stew - it's really delicious.  I'm about to eat it for lunch.  Because, if  I don't, Neil will be very angry with me.

DON'T DO THIS, New York:
You can skip Cafe Poca Cosa.  And any restaurant under a parking structure.

1 comment:

  1. Okay...go check out my profile...I'm done being one fan...I think there should be before I am lost to the masses in your fan's looking at you kid...and all the scrumpdillumpcious things you say and make for us to eat!