The best food in town? Go to a bar...
One thing that celebrity chef and author Anthony Bourdain has championed is the non-demonizing of street food and pub fare. The guy has literally eaten at the best restaurants, with some of the best chefs, in the world!, but yet he still craves meat on a stick served by a humble cart vendor more than any truffle infused foie gras or some molecular gastronomy puzzle with aromatic foams that you have to figure out before stuffing it into your maw .
That other guy, Andrew Zimmern, just likes to eat penis and balls.
Thing is, honest people like honest food. Sure, I crave a coursed meal now and then. I like presentation and complex flavors with clever sauces and new fusion ideas. Who doesn't? If you like to eat, much like I do, you gotta break the wallet now and then and treat yourself to some 4 star luxury.
But that's on the rare occasion. Me?, I love hearty and fun food. Hands down. Heck my good pal Tavish the other day, while munching on a rotisserie turkey sandwich I made for She-Ra, blithely exclaimed “I could eat sandwiches everyday. No doubt about it. Best thing ever.” And, you know what? He's right.
If you take those basic elements that most of us here in the States hungrily crave on a regular basis, put it in your favorite local pub or dive bar and, viola!, an instant recipe for success...at least in my opinion.
So, I've gone on about the wonders of Tucson and the fact that it is relatively hidden from the rest of the culinary world. Oh sure, they may know about the Sonoran hot dog and, yeah, they watched Adam Richman on Man vs. Food conquer the OMFG burger at Lindy's on 4th, but what about Acacia at St. Phillips Plaza? Did you know that executive chef Albert Hall has won multiple awards for his savory cioppino and the fact that the salmon, which he bronzes in a sweet honey pecan glaze, is flown in from a lake in Scotland? Oh yeah. That guy and place rules. Or that Pastiche, outside of its world influenced menu, has, literally, the best mac and cheese plate ever? You put gouda and bacon in anything and I'll eat it. Thing is, eating in Tucson is so much fun and I have found three distinct bars that have some of the best food in town.
Let's check it out...
First up is the Boondocks Lounge. Now, if you live in Tucson and drive or bike or walk or stumble anywhere near midtown, you know the Boondocks. Its that place with the big wine bottle that says...Boondocks Lounge. It's around 1st and Ft. Lowell. You cant miss it. I know you've seen it.
Now, the Boondocks, outside of being a full service bar with live music most nights, is home to the Range Riders Grill. Nothing fancy, nothing we aren't fully familiar with, the Range Riders Grill offers up some of the tastiest vittles in and around Tucson. The burgers are huge, juicy, hot and can come served with a fried egg on it, a red wine reduction or even peanut butter. Their sandwiches are just as amazing. She-Ra's favorite is the 'Velocifero' which features thick smoked bacon, turkey, sauteed onions and Swiss cheese which is then grilled on rye bread. Me? Well, if I'm not chowing down a guacamole burger, I love their club sandwich which is piled high and paired so well with a cold frosty mug and a game of Battleship So freaking good.
And on Fridays? You have to go in for their fish fry. Huge portions of battered cod served with fries and down home coleslaw for like 6 or 7 bucks. Unreal. Plus they serve breakfast everyday (except Monday) till around noon serving up flapjacks, scrambles, omelets, huevos rancheros and french toast. Trust me here, the Boondocks rocks!
And their wings? Ugh. I usually judge a place by the quality of their hot wings. Once we bit into their, we knew we were hooked. Every time they come to the table or bar we must look like a couple of ravenous cannibals; mouths literally covered in bright orange Buffalo sauce and a basket full of sucked to the marrow bones.
Now, this find and curiosity lead us even further down the way from our safe haven of our neighborhood. And if you know us, we really don't like to travel very far for food or drinks. It's usually in a good half mile radius that we can usually be found dining and wining. But we ventured out to North Oracle after hearing that the hidden, yet conveniently located, dive Joe and Vicky's served up some great pub grub.
We thought we'd start with something simple. So we got nachos. If you know She-Ra, then know this – the woman loves nachos. It was late afternoon after doing a bunch of errands and a beer and a plate of cheesy chip goodness sounded nice. When the nachos arrived, I felt like Sylvester Stallone in “Cliffhanger”. It was the K2 of nacho land. “This?”, I think I cried out. “Is a snack?” It was supposed to be an early appetizer before dinner, which we planned on cooking and eating in an hour or so. That meal got pushed back till 10pm. Why? Because we're dumb and we ate the whole friggin thing.
Joe and Vicky's also has fish specials, bountiful burgers, yummy sandwiches and the usual suspects you'd expect in a bar food line up. They are all hearty, delicious and worth enduring during karaoke night. I didn't even care that this guy was murdering (and not in a good way) “Margaritaville”. I was face down in my meatloaf and garlic mashed potatoes. I couldn't hear him. My stomach was singing for me (in the good way).
You so have to go on Mondays and do their “All you can eat” tacos. What better way to end the most grumbled-about day then a non-stop taco orgy in a funky yet cozy place while watching the Wildcats lose? Sounds good to me. But, check this out:
One night we were craving Chinese food (or for those Dude Where's My Car? Fans “Chinese Fooooooood”) and there's a great place next door to Joe and Vicky's. While we waited for our order, we popped in for a drink while we waited. Once settled in, I looked up to see what their dinner special was (oh, I forgot to tell you, they have nightly specials) and I was regretful in my wanting of kung pao chicken when I saw written in dry erase marker: Wasabi crusted pork loin with seasonal vegetables and cheddar marbled twice baked potato. You have got to be kidding me? That is served here? So, your job is to not make the same mistake we did.
Just order food at Joe and Vicky's and leave the kung pao for later.
Last on the list (even though I know there is more out there, so stay tuned for our tummy rumble inspiring finds) is a place that we were just at recently and actually holds a pretty special place in both of us. Right next to the Loft Cinema, across from Rum Runner and Chuy's, at Country Club and Speedway, is a place that some refer to as “the Gutter”. It's actually called The Red Garter and used to be a much more rough and tumble establishment. In fact, it was one of the first bars I went to when I moved to Tucson. Let me tell you, this was a year before the AZ smoking ban in bars so the place was choking in a swirl of cigarette smoke clouds. I nearly died. Dude, I'm from California. I wasn't used to this. But luckily the laws changed as did the ownership.
Now it still looks the same, a little cleaned up, but one thing for sure, they got themselves one of the best cooks in town who is a grill and fry basket wizard. This guy must weigh around 400lbs and can only be seen once in a great long while. To catch a glimpse at the genius behind a fantastic homemade spicy wing sauce, that is slathered on thick and generous wings and drumettes, or the BBQ beef, is like waiting to see if the Do-Do bird will emerge from it's nest and stretch its wings in the bright morning fairy dust sun. I, honestly, have only seen his back. And, oh!, what a back it is. Not to be rude, but he obviously takes pride and samples of his culinary handiwork.
Once again, the burgers. Unreal. How many adjectives and anecdotal whimsies can I conjure up to describe meat between buns? I don't know. I honestly don't care. But recently, on a chilly night after running around the greater parts of Tucson in search of decorations and giveaways for an upcoming work related party, we stopped in, cold and starving, and ordered food. She-Ra got the wings (you just have to) and the steak fingers. If you know what Lucky Wishbone is then, look out Lucky Wishbone! This guy has you beat. I was nearly half dead from the recent goings-on at work, which has our kitchen turned upside down with new systems and organization while at the same time dealing with an upcoming and daunting new menu rollout, and I just wanted a burger. I got the BBQ sauce with bacon and cheddar and a side of spicy curly fries. I'm not gonna lie to you here, I was silent in my ravaging of the items that filled the large wicker basket, as tears of near thankfulness and appreciation welled up in my quivering half mast eyes. That and the sauce was rather tangy. As were the curly fries.
I have never had a poor meal or snack at the Garter, and I suspect that I never will. That is, as long as the stout prestidigitator behind those closed flap doors keeps churning out the bar bite mastery that he has been in all of his glorious secrecy.
Plus, and here's where it gets good, for our 4 year anniversary, She-Ra ordered to-go from the Garter: 2 pastrami sandwiches, which we ate while watching The Empire Strikes Back on the back wall at Dannys. Now, I am a pastrami purist, a whore even, and I will be wrought to tell you flat out “This sandwich is amazing” or “You ruined my lunch. Worst...pastrami...ever. Now I have to kill you!” And there are a few places in town, one that claims to be “just like New York” and “Kosher” but couldn't be farther from the truth, that claim good pastrami, and I've had a few, but there is one here in Tucson that I always return to. You want a good, honest, broiled, piled mile high and real pastrami sandwich? Go to the Red Garter. Tell 'em Metal Mark sent you. Sure, they'll look at you, shrug and mutter “Who?” but if word gets back to the chef de grande le sorcerer I know he'll perk up his meaty head and perhaps crack a brief smile. Only because I've spoken to him.
In my dreams.
Well, kids, there you have it. Three of my current top picks for amazing bar food and pub grub...or whatever you wanna call it. If you have any suggestions of your own, just contact me and I will be there sucka. Why?
Because. Dude...I'm so hungry right now.