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Tucson – Leading Arizona’s Good Food Movement

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By The Gremotraveler

Tucson is a surreal place. It is a little bit Berkeley with a dash of Seattle, mixed with some Mexican seasoning, and prepared using Provencal techniques. Hippies, yuppies, and Locavores co-exist here in what is easily the fire under the boiling pot that is local Southwest cuisine. The city may not be on the jet-set map and lacks the pristine green grass, palm trees, and chic clubs associated with Scottsdale – but this is not a result of a failed image strategy. Rather, Tucson represents a side of Arizona where staying true to the history, the people, and the land has created an often overlooked but certainly mesmerizing food and drink scene. When you enjoy Asian-inspired Southwest cuisine in Scottsdale, you can thank Tucson. When you see prickly pear syrup used in a sauce in Los Angeles, you can say thank you to Tucson. Essentially, wherever good food has been enhanced by responsible eating in the southwest, Tucson most likely had an influence.

But how? Why Tucson? What is so special about a city of 1.5 million in the middle of a dry desert region of Southern Arizona? Well, dedication would be the first word to come to mind for us here at Gremolata. We have traveled the world and seen a multitude of regions try to create a culinary scene. Tucson never even tried. Instead, they opted to stay true to their history by showing dedication to the values of the native peoples and their unique wild west history in everything they do. From preserving the architecture of every generation having passed through town, keeping the beauty of the natural landscape a priority in development, celebrating the methods of food preparation of the native people, and enjoying what they have as local food – Tucson has delivered.

The first thing you will notice when you arrive in Tucson is the sheer beauty of the region - a valley, surrounded by mountains, with beige soil and an abundance of Cacti. You will find few palm trees in Tucson. They are not native to the region and as the locals will say, better left for the golf courses in Scottsdale or Palm Springs. As you drive through the city, every turn provides a spectacular mountain view. As with all destinations, the Gremolata team heads for the best foodie hotel offering the best views. In Tucson, that place is Loews Ventana Canyon Resort.

As you drive up the rolling hills north of Tucson, it is hard to distinguish the line between the man-made and the natural earth. Mountains lined with green flecks become beige soil dotted with millions of cacti. Eventually, little objects start reflecting sunlight like sparkling diamonds. These objects become windows, attached to homes, with garages, pools, and driveways. When you look over the entire city, you realize the degree of planning that has taken place here. No buildings along the mountains overpower the natural beauty of the landscape. They blend into the scenery like a chameleon. Only when you get closer do you see the truly opulent surroundings of your hotel, your home, or your secret hideaway.

Loews Ventana Canyon Resort is a classic example of this urban design philosophy. It blends into the landscape like it has been there for thousands of years, offering spectacular views of the city without sacrificing the vista offered to those being observed below. Inside, a stunning property where again, every attempt has been made to blend into the natural beauty of the environment. The mountain creek which rolls through the lobby, the interpretation trail leading up the cacti dotted mountains behind the property, and the almost invisible golf course blending seamlessly into the natural beauty of the area. These are but a small list of the many details undertaken to create a truly spectacular property and the ideal gateway for your visit to Tucson.

Checked into your suite, it is time to start exploring. Tucson is an outdoor paradise and be prepared to spend much of your time strolling unique neighborhoods, walking desert trails, and feeling the warmth of the sun kissing your skin. That being said, you will need some fuel to keep up with the very active locals. Breakfast, southwest style, is a must. Downtown, at Hotel Congress, is a place the locals rave about for good reason. The Cup Café is probably Tucson’s best place for breakfast even though it does have a pretty rockin’ night scene as well. When the Hotel Congress is not entertaining crowds with great live musical acts, the Cup Café is serving up some great southwest food. The service is friendly and the food is fresh with a distinctive Southwest kick. Try a Bennie's Burrito, a fresh flour tortilla filled with scrambled eggs, spicy black beans, sprouts and jack cheese, served with diced green chilies, black olives, a dollop of sour cream and fresh salsa. Oh, and be sure to take a look at the floor made from thousands of well-affixed pennies.

Burrito’s need to be burned off and a great place to do that is North Fourth Avenue, just north of Downtown. This strip is Toronto’s West Queen West and Capitol Hill in Seattle wrapped into one and blessed with awesome weather. Hemp shops sit alongside vintage clothing stores, local galleries, unique and used book stores, and coffee houses. Stop into Epic Café and get your local artistic juices flowing or at least some caffeine for the rest of the day. Bright and cheerful, this place has been a Tucson favorite for several years now and a Ginger Steamer is the perfect caffeine boost while exploring the neighborhood. Filled with coffee, a must-stop is probably North Fourth Avenue’s, if not all of Tucson’s, biggest foodie institution.

Native Seed SEARCH was founded 25 years ago when a group of foodies and agro-activists started an organization dedicated to preserving the seeds of the native peoples of Arizona. This not-for-profit group was formed with a mission to collect, grow, and preserve the seeds of the native people for future use. Today, they have become a major regional seed bank and a leader in the heirloom seed movement. Their seed bank includes over 1,800 varieties of arid-land adapted agricultural crops, many being rare or endangered. Their headquarters on North Fourth Avenue allows visitors to order and purchase seeds, as well as discover books, accessories, and specialty products celebrating local organic and sustainable food and drink. Sauces, powders, mixes, teas, and seasonings abound and you could spend hours discovering their wide variety of foodie goodies. Every purchase helps to support the great work the organization is doing to preserve native seeds for future generations and ensuring that once lost varietals are being re-born into the food system. Here, you can pick up some seeds to start your own native Arizona garden back home. Of course, if you cannot wait, there is another place in Tucson where you can see these plants up close and in full glory.

A short 10-minute drive north of downtown and a little west of the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, is a place where the beauty and bounty of local vegetation is celebrated. The story of Tohono Chul Park begins when its benefactors, Richard and Jean Wilson, started piecing together patches of the desert to eventually encompass 37 acres. In 1968, the Wilsons purchased a parcel of land with a hacienda-style "West House", known today as the Tohono Chul Park Tea Room, where they lived for eight years. In the 1970s, several developers approached the Wilsons to purchase the land for commercial development. They refused, with Jean Wilson claiming that "I don't want to sell the land. I don't want it cemented over. I want to preserve it." Over time, they began creating a private park where the local vegetation of the region would be celebrated. Pathways began to form and the Wilsons began identifying local plants with markers and planned interpretation walks. Tohono Chul Park was formally dedicated as a 37-acre desert preserve on April 19, 1985 and led to the creation of a not-for-profit foundation to ensure the long-term preservation of what is the largest collection of native plants in the southwest.

Today, Tohono Chul Park offers visitors the chance to explore over 150 exclusive varieties of desert flowers and plants native to the southwest. Each section is divided into regions and areas of function or specialty, from the Sonoran Desert to the Hummingbird Gardens as examples. Visitors can take a guided or self-paced tour exploring the various flowers and plants, view art installations within the gardens or inside the gallery, as well as learn about the plants used medicinally and in spiritual ceremonies by the Tohono O'odham people, from whom the park derives its name. Be prepared to spend several hours here as you soak up the beauty of the grounds. It may be a dusty and dirty hike through desert beauty, but just enough exercise to get you ready for a lovely lunch.

The Tea Room at Tohono Chul Park is a great way to relax after visiting the gardens or charge-up before an afternoon of exploration. Serving breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea, the Tea Room offers a lovely tree shaded patio to experience local cuisine using many of the ingredients found inside the park. Honey mesquite beans, cholla fruit, and prickly pear from the gardens are used to flavor some spectacular dishes in an environment where the pace is relaxing and therapeutic. A specialty is the Prickly Pear Lemonade, made using Cheri’s Prickly Pear Syrup, a lovely and sweet concoction adding a dash of southwest flavor to a cool classic. Be sure to grab a bottle in the gift shop to wow your friends back home. With swollen feet and dusty shoes from a day of intense walking, it is time to head back to the resort for a little rest and relaxation. A quick shower, a change of clothes, and it is time to enjoy some well-deserved time by the pool with a cocktail. But don’t exhaust yourself; the grand finale is yet to come.

The Ventana Room at the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort is the only AAA 5-Diamond, Mobile 4-star restaurant in Tucson. And you thought we picked this place because it looked pretty? Here, Executive Chef Marc Ehrler blends his experience cooking with his French-Italian grandmother in Antibes, France with a fundamental Mediterranean cooking philosophy that cuisine should embody the best the Earth has to offer. A must while in Tucson is Chef Ehrler’s Desert Degustation Menu, an exploration of all that is fresh and local in Arizona. Here, the food draws on the many ingredients and cultural techniques available from the Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA), a community-based organization dedicated to creating a healthy, sustainable and culturally vital community on the Tohono O'odham Nation of native people.

Featuring up to eight courses, the Desert Degustation experience takes you on a gastronomic tour of the world with a distinctively Tucson flare. For a reasonable $125.00/person, guests can experience a full-wine pairing with this menu. Highly recommended, the Sparkling Wine and Caviar starter is a great treat before you start your tasting. Celebrating the resort’s 25th anniversary, Tsar Nicoulai California Estate Osetera, Egg Brouillade, and Brioche Mouillettes are served with a lovely Grey Goose Citron Vodka cleanser. Paired with a special Iron Horse sparkling wine from California produced for the resort and you have a great start to a delicious and special evening.

Back to the tasting, guests start off with a slow-roasted Tomato soup, chaumes and brioche panini and Ventana’s garden pesto paired with a lovely Riesling, of course. This dish is full of flavor and silky goodness. Moving on to the next course, New England Diver Scallops are dusted with mesquite flour and served with trumpet mushrooms rubbed with Five Spice and green onion foam. A delicious combination of flavors and aromas, and perfectly paired with a 2005 Hopler Gruner Veltliner from Austria. Time for a break and guests are treated with a lovely prickly pear sorbet in a saguaro cactus seed cone. Pick it up and devour it like a small child before the next course paired with a decadentand much more adult 2004 Domaine de la Charbonniere Chateauneuf-du-Pape. What course deserves such a great vintage you ask? How about a lightly smoked Arizona Jojoba beef tenderloin with Tohono O’odham white tepary bean coulis and Saguaro syrup gastrique? This course is the perfect example of Chef Ehrler’s use of local ingredients with the finest in iconic French influences. After all, tepary beans were the staple of the local Arizona natives and grown here since pre-Columbian times. Paired with a fabulous beef tenderloin and an iconic French wine and voila, pure genius is delivered to your plate.

The remainder of the tasting includes a second palate cleanser consisting of Hibiscus Sangria followed by a selection of local artisan cheeses. The grand ending to this meal includes spiced chocolate milk with vanilla bean cream and mesquite flour beignet. This spicy and sweet desert is paired perfectly with a lovely 2004 Bodegas Olivares Dulce Monastrell. As you savor the final drops of the wine, you find yourself in a bit of a state of shock. After a day of earthy, rugged, and sometimes dirty exploration of the natural beauty that is the Arizona desert, it is a bit confusing for your brain to finish with such a refined and triumphant gourmet experience.

This, in our opinion is why Tucson is such a phenomenal culinary destination. The region’s dedication to staying true to their history and local flavors is apparent in every area of this city. The earthy and friendly cafes and businesses along North Fourth Avenue, where the spirit of local and sustainable living is part of the daily vibe, open your eyes to the spirit of being that is Tucson. The beautiful native vegetation and flowers of Tohono Chul Park give you a firsthand look at the raw ingredients one can incorporate into inspiring southwest cuisine. And the grand finale of experiencing a sophisticated and refined dining experience at the Ventana Room brings it all together into one spectacular show for the palate. On the global stage, Tucson has kept themselves low-key and removed from the glitz of overdone television celebrity cuisine. The result is a destination true to their own philosophy and way of life with surprises around every corner. Look out Paris, New York, and London, there is a new sheriff in town.


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