Friday, October 23, 2015

Pionic Pizza: Either this fast casual concept will fail miserably or it'll make a bajillion dollars

When Pionic Pizza first opened up on 2643 N. Campbell Ave., for some reason a lot of my friends asked me if I was going to go. I guess it's the food writer thing, the 'new kid in the neighborhood' thing and, most importantly, the pizza thing. Of course I am always up to try something new, especially when it comes to pizza, but upon further investigation, Pionic really didn't seem like a place I would be into. 

The first thing that got me was the fact that, at first, I thought it was a chain. It just had that look and feel of a plastic mold of yet another plastic mold, probably starting in Phoenix, making its way to Los Angeles, then perhaps settling on some college stretch in New Mexico before finally making a settlement here in Tucson. It had a logo, it had a concept, it had a mission statement...all the trappings of a corporate bore that thinks if you put sauce on dough, add some cheese and a cured meat on top, toss it into the oven for a few minutes and what you have as a product is technically considered "pizza". 

The other factor in my hesitation, was the location it chose to wriggle its way into. The stretch of Campbell Ave in midtown Tucson, between Grant and Ft. Lowell,  is more affectionately referred to as "Pizza Row", and I felt it did not need another mediocre pizza joint because the options were already too wide. You have your great pizzas from Upper Crust and Old Chicago, the artisan from Sauce, the standard stand-bys for late night munchies from Hungry Howie's and Blackjack and there's even a Pizza Hut right in the middle to round things off. Another pizza stand just seemed like white noise. 

But after a while my curiosity just got the best of me and I relented. How bad can it be, I thought. The reviews on Yelp and Zomato were pretty good and, well, it is my job as the Tucson Homeskillet to try all food related things within sniffing distance. So one evening, we walked in, ordered a bunch of stuff and here are the official results...    

At least they got the name right

Here's the thing: Pionic Pizza knows that Subway and Chipotle are simple ideas turned into billion dollar businesses. You have a few options, a bunch of fresh ingredients, you let the customer pick out what they want, cook and prep time is minimal and, zing!, you are on your way with food that's not a Mc Creffin burger with plenty of time to pursue a life of religious fulfillment. Easy. And that's what Pionic is. 

You have a pizza option, a pasta option and a salad, you pick out what you want on it, it takes less than two minutes to prepare the cooked items, you pay the nice kid at the register, you take the food, you eat the food and you still have time to make your kid's dance recital and grandma's funeral. It's a good concept and if the minds and wallets behind Pionic make the right decisions, this too can be a successful vocation. 

But how is the food? That's the important thing here. If the grub is less than satisfactory then they're going to be treading on water until they can paddle their way out of mediocrity. If it's bad then you just have to write them off and call it a "nice try". But...but! if the food is great then, yes, they can clearly be on their way and I'd be proud to say that, yes, I knew them way back when, back when they were just a small store front on Campbell Avenue in lil old midtown Tucson. 

So we ordered up a good variety of stuff: a veggie pizza, a basic peperoni pizza, a pesto pasta and a loaded salad. You know, one of each. It's...our job.  

Looks promising

The veggie pizza consisted of red sauce, light cheese, mushrooms, red onion, tomatoes, artichoke hearts and finished with arugula. 

You know what, it was actually alright. Cooked in a blisteringly hot oven for 90 seconds, the crust was crispy with a decent chew, the sauce was...fine; not too sweet with a good balance of flavors and the toppings were surprisingly fresh. So far so good. We were pleasantly pleased. 

You'll find it in the frozen food section

If you call yourself a pizza place, you better have a decent pepperoni option, otherwise to quote Pantera, better walk on home boy! 

Pionic's pepperoni pizza was...fine (just like the sauce I rated earlier). It did its job. One step up from some Red Baron frozen crap, maybe a tad better than Papa Johns, but definitely not in the top 10 around town. Not even close. There just wasn't much to it. I'm sure the kids will like it and for those that don't know what actual "pizza" tastes like, this'll do I suppose. 

It was thin crust, which I prefer, but the sauce this time around was bland, the cheese seemed a bit greasier and the actual pepperoni were just lil rounds of "whatever". Mind you it was like six bucks and was made in less than two minutes so, it has that going for it. 

Otherwise (with a shrug), "eh". 

The salad was strangely on point

Pionic also does salads. Basically you just point and say "that one!" and a kid behind the sneeze guard will put a grip of the greens into a bowl and before you know it, you've got yourself a pile of veggies ready to jam into your craw. 

The salad I actually got into. With the poppyseed dressing lightly drizzled over the loaded plastic vessel this dish actually had some crisp and fresh flavor. We combined the field greens with some spinach and just, literally, got one each of the topping options and we were not disappointed. 

I mean, what more can you say? It was a salad. It was a good salad. It was around five bucks. Done. 

Its a trap!

Now here is where some damage sets in. 

We opted for the penne pasta tossed with pesto and topped with artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, garlic, tomatoes and basil. Seemed like a winning combo, yeah. It would have been if the pasta was cooked correctly and the pesto had any depth of flavor to it. 

 Now, doing al dente pasta is the way to go, any fan of the popular carb knows this. Thing is, the penne wasn't toothsome, it was just chewy. Not too sure how they got away with that but it wasn't soft and it wasn't crunchy; it was more like biting into little rubber tubes. This required lots of water (aka beer) to wash it down. And the pesto. Um, yeah..."pesto". I'm sure it was made with a kind of olive oil, possibly some salt and garlic, some "basil" maybe, Parmesan perhaps, but it was just feckled oily green stuff and did nothing to enhance the pasta or any of its components. In fact, gnawing down on the multitude of gummy penne greased with this mossy impostor just made us sad. That and the roll that came with it looked like Admiral Ackbar, which actually made us laugh.  

So, in the end, we had run the gamut of emotions all based off of sub par pasta and some pizza. Thanks Pionic. 

I'll take the cannoli!

A pleasant surprise came in the form of dessert cannoli that we did not order. Did they know it was the Tucson Homeskillet ordering up a bunch of crud and to butter our bread they just threw in some chocolate chip fused dainty wafer pastry filled with creamy deliciousness, or did the zitty kid filling our order just thought with all the food we did order why not some dessert as well? 

Didn't matter.

Don't know if they make this stuff on site or if it's imported from another source but (and this is coming from someone that usually skips dessert and just goes for thirds) I have to admit the cannoli was good. It was light and airy with a good vanilla punch that was accompanied by some real chocolate chips. I liked the cannoli. I did. After mediocre pizza, a good salad and that whatever that was penne pesto was, it was nice to round things off with a fun treat. So, cheers again Pionic. 

Maybe you should be a fast casual dessert place. Just sayin'...

Could be worse could be better

The final judgement? 

You have options Pionic. You can either stay the way you are, sitting on Campbell Avenue surrounded by a plethora of pizza and pasta distilleries, selling your uninspired wares to folks that are taken with the fact that their hot food was made in less than a few minutes and that they get to choose their own toppings and be fine with that. Or you can step it up a notch or two, start your brand now, make your franchise reasonable for the first few that dare and become the next go to fast casual restaurant because there's not a lot of pizza and pasta places like that around town. Or anywhere really. 

We can see Pionic Pizza either being a nice idea that goes bust because after a few takes you get bored with the same tolerable choices on acceptable food items day after day or we can see it take off into the stratosphere with a few tweaks and enhancements here and there. We liked Pionic enough not to hate it but it's gonna take some time and effort to really see this concept through. 

With that we say good luck Pionic Pizza. The choice is yours. 

But we'll let Phil here get the last say in the matter... 

Camera and Typing
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
Almost Halloween, 2015

Metal Influence

The Accused

Saturday, October 17, 2015

No real Southern inspired BBQ in Tucson you say? Forget that...Mr. Cookmans is here to the rescue!

When I first moved to Tucson over ten years ago, for some reason I thought I was relocating to a bar-be-que mecca. It's the Southwest thing I suppose; me being a Northern California kid I just had this image of steaks and ribs being turned and burned over wild fire spits, their juices running, hissing as they touch down on the coals with slathered wet rubbed skins crisping as the pit master perfectly angling them on the grill sending a quick flame up from the oak and mesquite wood smoldering below. 

Yeah, what I got was...not really that. 

Okay, I was lucky enough to find some outposts most would deem "dive bars" that know how to cook a good slab of meat, the occasional BBQ joint that served up some authentic fare but then they would go out of business and then the chain places everyone seems to like/accept that, in my humble 'que opinion, were not even close to the previously mentioned idealistic vision I had splayed in my wet and/or dry rubbed deprived mind. The seemingly one game in town, that for some reason always wins best BBQ in Tucson (which I wont mention here by name), is a constant disappointment, along with being really over priced. So what's a big BBQ fan living in the Old Pueblo supposed to do?

Because of my constant disappointment, one morning I went out and bought us a way-too-big-for-our-patio grill/smoker and we just did it ourselves. wasn't the same. Our grilling was good but not like the miracles I have had in Texas or the deep south or a small place in some ramshackle strip mall just off Cienega Blvd. in Los Angeles, owned and operated by some southern transplants that brought ma and pa's secret chicken rub to the big city, a recipe that's been handed down from generation to generation. 

THAT is the kind of BBQ realness we have been craving. 

Are you ready Tucson? Because here it comes...

So when I heard about a food truck going by the name of Mr. Cookman's, claiming to offer up "real New Orleans style BBQ" I just had to find out for myself if this outfit was the actual deal. 

It didn't take long, just a bite or two mind you, for me to render this fact as law:

Yes. Yes, this is the BBQ I have been looking for. 

The ribs were coated in a sweet and zesty sauce and the meat peeled its way from the bone without even asking it to. The chicken had this smoky appeal and was seasoned with a definite southern influenced spice rub. And the sausage. Oh, the sausage had this hearty snap when you bit into it and was by far the best I have had in quite some time, probably since my travels through the south. And don't even get me started on the pulled pork sliders. Holy nards...

All I could say at that point, after much 'que carnage, was "Thank you Mr. Cookman's. You my only friend..."

Small menu, big decisions

Mr. Cookman's is owned and operated by a New Orleans, LA native Jonathan Hebert who runs the bright orange truck only on weekends since he has so much going on outside of cooking and keeping the lights on. 

"I'm actually in school right now working on a Ph.D in Business Administration," he informs as the works the line in his truck and the hungry line forming outside. "In fact, I'm actually an Electrical Engineer, which brought me to Tucson in the first place back in 2007 working for a defense company. I'm more on the management side now but I still have a passion for the technical aspects as well."

Mr Cookman's devotees lining up

With that knowledge thrown at me I had to know how it came about for him owning a food truck. 

"It's crazy", he mentions with a grin. "I was attending a conference for a fraternity in Baton Rouge and some friends and I were discussing business moves and such. I told them I saw this guy selling food out of a truck in Tucson and thought that would be a good idea. The next day we see this old grill in a field of grass, all rusty and huge, and thought it was funny because we were just talking about starting a food business. Around this time my fraternity was hosting a large block party in downtown Baton Rouge serving all kinds of food for the people. On our way to the party my friend just slams on the brakes of his car because the car in front of him, that we were following to the party, did the same. Turns out there was this old van parked in a field next to a barber shop and my friend says 'Y'all have to try this man's food'.

"There was this guy next to the van selling food plates. I bought a plate and I said to myself as I'm eating this man's food it was no coincidence that I would start selling food myself. Two weeks later I sold my first two lunch plates to some friends outside of the Tucson mall. At first I sold food out of my old Cadillac but business started to grow so I had to buy a truck. The rest is history!"

Jonathan first takes the orders then makes the orders

Now that Jonathan had the truck, he now had to come up with a name for his new and expanding business. 

"I was doing a Vlog for one of my social media sites at the time to let them know I was selling food," Hebert explains on the origin of Mr. Cookman's. "I was just saying stuff off the cuff and out came Mr. Cookman's. The name has been with me ever since and I'm always surprised at how many people address me as such when I'm out in public."

Slow cooked to perfection

Busy with school, busy with life and now busy with the truck, I asked what a typical day for him looks like.

"I'm usually up at  6am," says Jonathan lifting ribs out of the warmer. "I check emails, my calendar, social media and then I'm off. After work I usually write a few pages of dissertation for school and I'm hopefully asleep by midnight or even 1am. Food selling days, I am only focused on the business. Once I'm dressed I hit my commissary to start cooking. I load the truck and head out to the site and start setting up. 

"This is when I am in 'my space'; every problem in the world disappears when I am selling food. Time dissolves, nothing distracts me - just me, my food and my customers. I am so blessed that I always sell out."

Winner, winner

"Mr. Cookman's was not my first business," he mentions with a bit of a sly smile. "I guess you could say I've always had that "hustler" spirit since I was young. Believe it or not I have about two decades worth of selling things and I'm only 34 now. 

"In grade school and high school I always sold snacks to my fellow classmates. If I needed something I worked hard and saved to get it. In college I used my experience of selling snack foods into selling computers. Now I'm back to selling food. 

"I guess I've come full circle."  

Jonathan coming full circle with flavor

Here's the thing: outside of all the 'business' aspects, the 'hustling' and selling, Jonathan knows how to cook food. Like I said earlier, his BBQ was some of the best I have had anywhere. So he had to have gotten those skills somehow.

But how?

Smoker doing work

"I think it grew out of being in the Boy Scouts,"  Jonathan muses with a grin about what got him into cooking. "We were on a camping trip and we all cooked this simple dish, 'chicken in foil', which was seasoned chicken, with onions, wrapped in foil and cooked over hot coals. For some reason that flavor always stuck with me. I tried to do it in the oven years later but it just wasn't the same. I realized that it was the coals that gave it all the flavor. Since then I have been a fan of anything BBQ related. And I watch a lot of cooking shows."

Servin' it up to another lucky customer

It seems that Jonathan and I have a lot in common: we obsess over real BBQ and watch way too much Food Network. We chatted about some of the BBQ cook-off shows that we both love and I had to ask what makes New Orleans style BBQ its own trait and technique?

The snap and texture on these things was insane!

"To me," he says gesticulating wildly over a grill sizzling with sausages, "New Orleans style can be described the same way you describe New Orleans food in general - savory, spicy with a hint of Creole and Cajun flavor. The key to New Orleans style cooking is the use of cayenne pepper, Louisiana sugar cane, and a special blend of hardwoods which I use to for infusing smoke flavor into the meats."

Amen to that my man!

Sausage, beer and mac 'n cheese: in repose

Now flushed with knowledge of Louisiana style BBQ, I had to ask what he considers his signature dish. 

"Oh man, it's hard to pick out a signature dish," Jonathan admits as he rubs his gloved hands together. "I must say it's got to be my best seller which is the pulled pork sliders. However the ribs and fried chicken do have a cult following. Honestly I treat every dish like a signature dish. If it does not pass my taste buds," he proudly proclaims, "the public will not see it!"

Having tried all of the above, yes, it would be difficult to pin down a signature dish from this man. All of them distinct, all of them tasty and succulent in their own way. I would have a hard time picking one out. But I don't have to. 

I'm just the eater and writer here...

Handsome boy modeling school ordering it up

"Actually, I'd have to say the fried chicken, but I say this with a grain of salt!", chimes Hebert lifting a stern finger in the air when I asked what his favorite item to cook was. 

"I like the fried chicken because it's not easy to cook. You have to watch it and make sure the temperature is constantly under control. It requires the most attention and love...and I believe you call that 'soul food'." 

I just used that roll to sop up my tears of joy

With the growing population of food trucks happening here in Tucson, the competition is getting fierce. Not that Jonathan has much to worry about because his food is simply incredible and he is basically one of the only real mobile BBQ options in the area. But running a food truck is hard work and he had this to say on what drives him to do it. 

"It's the challenge," he concedes. "It's the pride of ownership but most importantly it's the ability to give more. The challenge of being a small business owner is to figure out how to be one of the small businesses that can help drive the economy and help provide opportunities to others."

Good words from a very good man. 

You can taste the joy Jonathan puts into his food

Now that he's been in Tucson for a while, and this being the Tucson Homeskillet, I had to know what Jonathan thought about the food culture here in the Old Pueblo. 

"Believe it or not," he says dishing up a pile of beans, ribs and his seven cheese mac 'n cheese for a patron, "the amount of restaurants here in Tucson is comparable to the amount of restaurants in New Orleans. I seem to find new spots every month or so. You could go somewhere new everyday and get a taste of foods from different cultures. However, I do see some voids in the marketplace and, well, some of which I plan to capitalize on in the future."

That hustler spirit will never diminish. 

Bow before rib mecca

Speaking of the future, here's what Jonathan had to say about his upcoming plans, projections and prospects in times to come. 

"I would like to get my products in high schools, universities and grocery stores," he claims. "My plans outside of cooking is to open another business that is focused on personal finance and savings. I get asked all the time: 'How do you do it? How do you open a business that makes money?' 

"My philosophy on business is a more "down to Earth" approach than anything you can read in a textbook. So it seems only right that I provide my service into those interested in learning business. Overcoming the low points is the only way to grow a business. But I have many repeat customers that swing by the truck then go home to spend time with their families. People are actually creating moments with my food!

"And a definite high to me."

With that, and me on a meat and food high, all I could do at that point was thank him, thank the Boy Scouts, thank his friends for pulling over and eating mystery grub from some dude in a van and thank his ever present hustler mentality. Jonathan and Mr. Cookman's may have different plans for the future, but as far as the present is concerned, we can all appreciate his gift of BBQ right now. 


Metal Mark in his natural habitat: a food mess

Camera and Typing
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
Late Second Week of October 2015

Metal Influence


Monday, October 12, 2015

The Tucson Homeskillet's Photo Ode To The 2015 Tucson Meet Yourself!

Well another Tucson Meet Yourself has come and gone. The annual gathering of arts, crafts, music, dance and, most importantly, food, in the downtown courtyard was its expected vibrant celebration of what and who we are in the Sonoran desert and has been honoring that fact since 1974.

This was my second year working the event for the Pima County Public Library but my first as the Tucson Homeskillet. So after my shift in the large tent in front of the main branch library, I set out with my trusty camera to take in all of the delicious food offerings Tucson Meet Yourself harbors (which is quite a lot which earned the yearly affair the nickname Tucson Eat Yourself) and I think I got most of them covered. I think. I hope anyway. There was a lot.

If you were lucky enough to make it this time around you know that it was unseasonally hot and jammed with folks from not just Southern Arizona, but the globe; even more so from years past. And the food! Oh...the vast amounts of vittles from all around the world was just insane this time around. Well, most years are pretty crammed with edible awesome but 2015 just hummed with a certain bodacious-ness. 

Here now is a visual guide to all the food options we had this October and, let me tell you, it just gets more and more gastro-stimulating each year. 


Lines of food trucks bordering Stone Ave.

An arepa is a sort of flatbread sandwich and is crazy delicious...

Grillin' it up in the hot Arizona sun...

Yup, just like mom used to make...I mean get take out from.

$2 for chicken satay....unreal!

Werk it...

Fiamme Pizza making Neopolitan realness...

The smells from this outfit made me lightheaded it was so fragrant...

Barrio frybread galore...

Never put ketchup on a hot dog...but sriracha? I say okay...

Caribbean or Mediterranean? Tough choice...

Let me tell you, it was really hot this year, gotta stay cool...

Lining up for authentic Mexican fare...

My favorite Jamaican joint was here as well! 

Soul food and Russian cuisine sandwiched by South American goodness...

Kofte, Kepabs and Dolmas all day son...

Rolling out the dough to make gozleme...

Three for me? Yes please!

Let's see, do I want meatballs on a plate or...on a stick? Hmmm...

Its pronounced "Wa-Ha-Ka"...if you don't know, now you know.

I like how they have the Yen value as well...

"I'll have a whole pie and the cream of some young guy..."


That chicken aint gonna flip itself...

Best tamales? Yeah...they were pretty close.

Behind the scene of your favorite cuisine...

The ladies love the quiche and crepe, what can I say?

This place was billed as "World Cuisine". Umm...okay. Like, all of it?


The food demonstrations were really fun...

My man doing chicken work...

Frizzles sizzling in the heat...

See you next year!

Camera and Typing
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
On a Hot mid-October Afternoon 2015

Metal Influence

Agoraphobic Nosebleed