Monday, September 5, 2011

A (Very Hot) Weekend in Tucson Part I

As I have mentioned in previous posts, Todd is halfway through a month-long gig at the University of Arizona, where he went to graduate school. This past weekend I flew down to visit him, so for you enjoyment I present to you 48 hours (actually less) in Tucson, Arizona.

One thing to know before visiting Tucson in early September: it is hot. Not even the hottest time of the year, and every day was over 100 degrees. I landed Friday evening at almost 10 at night, so I couldn't really appreciate the heat til the next morning, when I woke up and realized it was almost 90 degrees before 9 in the morning. Luckily, Kei and Martha, Todd's friends who were letting him stay in their guesthouse, have a pool.

They also have a cactus garden in their front yard.

And grapefruit trees (unripe, unfortunately).

Our day was pretty low key; Todd had rented a car for the weekend, and we spent the morning driving out into the surrounding Saguaro National Park, which was beautiful and rugged (and hot), and around town, which was not so beautiful, mostly dusty and very, very empty (because - did I mention? - it was hot). Tucson does have its share of funky, interesting eateries, however, several of which we sampled that day, starting with lunch at the original El Charro Cafe (there are several branches):

The place is interesting for several reasons: for one thing, it serves Mexican food, obviously, but it was actually started back in the late 1800s by a transplanted Frenchwoman, the great-aunt of the current owner. Also, this woman is supposedly responsible for the invention of one of Todd's favorite Tex-Mex dishes, the chimichanga, when according to Wikipedia, she accidentally dropped a burrito into the deep-fryer and almost uttered a Spanish curse word beginning with "chi," (if you've taken any level of Spanish in school you will most likely be able to figure out the word) but changed it at the last minute.

Now, this smacks to me of BS, because not only is this little tidbit not present anywhere on the restaurant's website, but, as the site does make clear, the original owner spoke French. Still, that didn't stop Todd from ordering the deep-fried death burrito, enchilada-style, meaning smothered in cheese and some kind of red sauce which was probably meant to be spicy but wasn't, with rice and refried beans on the side (warning, terrible pictures ahead! The lighting in the restaurant was terrible for photography):

I went a bit lighter with shrimp cocktail (though not really, because I ate most of Todd's  beans as they weren't vegetarian and a good portion of the chimi too).

Now, if you think back to my final post from Riverside, and our last meal there at El Sarape, you may recall that we had pretty much the exact same lunch - shrimp cocktail for me, chimichanga for Todd. It was really interesting, because even though the dishes were the same, the flavors were entirely different. My cocktail at El Sarape (and all the other Mexican restaurants in Riverside and probably SoCal generally) was shrimp and some other seafood in an almost tomato-juice like sauce with lots of cilantro and little bits of avocado and cucumber, etc. Here there were shrimp, also peppers and cucumber, but then there was corn as well, and shreds of cabbage buried at the bottom. The sauce itself was much closer to what Americans would think of as cocktail sauce - thick, heavy on the ketchup, with the distinctive, sinus-clearing bite of horseradish. Different, but delicious none the less (and no mysterious saltines). Todd's chimichanga, besides being much heavier for all that sauce and cheese, also had a different filling - rather than just beans and cheese, had bits of various vegetables like carrots and zucchini embedded in a masa dough, so it was almost like a tamale burrito. Really really good, but what a gutbuster! With the requisite complementary chips*, I was almost too full for dinner, which would have been a shame, since it was fantastic! I will leave you in suspense, however, and tell you about it in the next post.

*A word on the salsa: good consistency, flavor was off - too tomatoey, almost spaghetti-sauce-like, even, with not enough spice. What I need is a blend of Riverside (good flavor, too thin) and Tucson salsa styles - lots of spice, lots of chunks! Not that we didn't finish the chips and half the bottle of salsa anyway (the bottle, by the way, was like the kind syrup comes in with pancakes at a diner - not suitable at all for chunky salsa! Maybe I should write to them...).

This post is getting long, so I will leave you with a shot of the dessert case at Todd's favorite coffee shop in Tucson Epic, which live up to the shop's name, at least in size (I didn't try any time!):

You can't really tell in the (very bad) picture, but that singe slice of strawberry cake could easily feed three people. The cafe itself is really cool; Todd and I spent several hours there in the afternoon after a refreshing swim at the guesthouse pool, and I could see why it's a regular hangout for him (so much so that when he's in town the kitchen puts his favorite soup on permanent rotation).

It's got a funky interior (complete with boardgames), an equally interesting staff and clientele (and I mean that in the best way possible!) and an enormous menu of food and drinks (for this type of establishment at least). We actually had a late dinner at Epic the night I arrived, since it was one of the few places open at 10pm (the kitchen serves until 11), and my Cobb salad was tasty, with real bacon (I could smell it frying in the back when I ordered) and crostini made out of day-old bagels toasted and rubbed with spices. Todd recommends the Hungarian mushroom soup (tell them he sent you!).

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