Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Uncle Bob's Popcorn: A Tucson Institution and Family Tradition

Apparently I have been eating Uncle Bob's Popcorn since I moved to Tucson in 2006 but had no clue. 

There was a bar we used to frequent down on 4th Avenue that had this jalapeno popcorn blend and was, literally, the only real reason we went there. The place was okay, prices a bit much and pours and bit low but, oh man, that popcorn. It was so delicious. 

A server there said that they made it on premises and the recipe was a secret. So we kept going back, even though parking sucked and it was favored by pushy students and scenesters that don't know how to tip.  

About a year or so later, just a perchance drive by on Columbus Avenue, headed for lunch on Speedway, we passed by a building with a captivating name and premise:

Uncle Bob's Popcorn, it said. 

This struck me as awesome because my middle name is Robert and I am named after my late zany uncle, Robert Barron, whom I called 'Uncle Bob' and who you might know as Abe Lincoln from "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure"

Yes, that's right...he is/was my uncle. 

That's right, that's my uncle. That's right, it's awesome.

Curious, we parked the car and walked in. To our immediate wonder, this place sold all kinds of amazing popcorn and party related food items. Bags and bags of multi-colored kernels, shakers of various flavorings and old timey popcorn poppers for sale or rent. It was a small space but it was packed with delicious bits of popped wonder

Just a sample of what Uncle Bob's sells

Luckily we got a chance to chat with the lady behind the counter and we asked if they knew about the jalapeno popcorn at that bar. 

"Oh yes," she exclaimed. "We supply them with that popcorn. Have been for years."

Ah HA! They've been caught, the lil sneaks. We immediately stopped going to that bar and immediately started buying from Uncle Bob's. We've been much happier ever since. 

Yes please

Years passed and we've been loyal customers, even using their popcorn for events at She-Ra's bar and restaurant. Now that the Tucson Homeskillet is off and running, I had the opportunity to hang out with the fine folks at Uncle Bob's Popcorn to see what makes them, well...pop. 

 "Uncle Bob's has been around since 1963," informs Valarie, one of the owners that has taken over the business since it's inception in the 60s. "He had a little kiosk on Wetmore that grew in popularity. The original owner sold the business in 1986, when it was on Grant and Country Club. The current location, this one, was built in 1988 and we've been here ever since."

Old school funkiness abounds

This elusive Uncle Bob actually hosted children's TV shows here in Tucson from 1961-67. Calling himself "Marshall KGUN" (named after the TV station) he taught kids to respect their parents, how to avoid the dangers on the streets and that vegetables were good to eat. In 1967 he moved to a different station and hosted "The Uncle Bob Show" till 1975. 

"Oh lots of famous people were on the Marshall KGUN show," Valarie muses. "There were cast members of the Addams Family that stopped by, some of the Three Stooges too. Back then, Tucson had a thriving studio and many of the celebrities that came here to make movies would stop by his show."

I then informed her of my own Uncle Bob and his foray into show business. Not too sure what it is about "Uncle Bobs" that want to entertain or make kids happy. But...there they are. 

Cheddarheads? Naw...Cornheads

The best thing about Uncle Bob's Popcorn is the fact that they pop fresh every day. Pounds upon pounds of hot popping popcorn make their way from industrial sized machines, onto conveyor belts and straight into the bags are a regular circulation. The air in the large hangar sized work area behind the retail shop is thick with buttery oil and freshly popped corn, something that I could get used to very quickly. 

"As you can guess the equipment has changed a bit since the 1960s," Valarie informs with a head nod. "Okay, it's changed a lot!"

Supply and demand, big machines for big orders

The tiny popping machines of yore have given way to factory sized poppers, large rotating turbine silos that separate the un-popped seeds from the perfectly fluffy kernels and something called the Rocket. 

"This is for all the sweet corn, the caramel and kettle and such," she says. "Can't get the sweet mixed in with the savory!"

The Rocket in flight

I was lucky enough to get my hand right in a tumbling field of piping hot aromatic goodness and let me tell you, that stuff you get at the movies or microwave at home? Uh uh. Not even close. This stuff is heavenly and the raw flavor is enough to make your tastebuds quiver. This is before they add their signature seasonings to it and then, then!, it blasts you off into another popping dimension. 

Come to Metal Mark

"But that's a secret I can't reveal," Valarie notes with a wink. "Can't give all of our secrets away."

Sure they list their ingredients but there is still something to this stuff

Outside of their retail store on Columbus you can find their goods all across town. Yes, even various pubs that like to claim it as their own. But that popcorn you just had at a recent Wildcats game? Oh yeah, that's these guys. You were just crunching down on some Uncle Bob's realness.

"Our school rocks!", enthuses Valarie. "We love the Wildcats and we are proud to have our popcorn there. At the games, in the stands...we love it."

I concur!

The best part is, Uncle Bob's really hasn't changed much, nor will it ever, if the current owners have their way, and that's what keeps people coming back. Little did I know when we walked through the tinkling doors almost a decade ago that we were walking into some Tucson history. Folks of all kinds, generations, have stepped through the same door and will for years to come. 

But in 1978, that tradition almost didn't continue. 

A fire broke out causing thousands of dollars in damage and things didn't look good for the local business. It took years to rebuild but the community came together and because of that we now have years more to look forward to enjoying some of the best popcorn around. Or anywhere really. 

No...thank you

Now it's your turn to make a tradition by eating real popcorn made by real good people. You'll thank me for it later. 

Trust me here. 

Party on dudes!

Valarie and the amazing popping machine

Camera and Typing
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
Almost Thanksgiving 2015

Metal Influence

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

New Kids on the Beer Block: The Tucson Hop Shop!

I actually discovered the Tucson Hop Shop by accident. 

It was a wrong turn. Wanting to turn left on Country Club from Ft. Lowell, I ended up going too far and turning on Dodge. Trying to get to a school where Barrio Bread was selling their amazing wares, I found myself scooching through the parking lot of the Metal Arts Village thinking maybe I could get a stout rye loaf here perhaps. Nope. I mean, there was a food truck set up but I was pretty focused on a pain epi for a dinner I had planned that night. 

Instead I made a delightful discovery. Nestled in the courtyard, wide hangar like sliding door open in the late afternoon air, was a corner shop calling themselves the Tucson Hop Shop. Making a mental note of it as I was trying to get un-lost, I eventually found my way back to the correct destination, but very curious as to what that place might be. 

Wide open spaces, wide smiling faces

As dinner simmered and the bread was warming that night, I asked the internet what the Tucson Hop Shop actually was. At first I thought it was a beer brewing location, you know, a place to create and brew your own beer if you don't have the means and the space to do so. It was kinda that but...not really. 

Because it was oh so much more. 

They do have artisanal beer making kits, but they are also a beer garden with an ever rotating and extremely alluring list of beers on tap along with being a craft beer bottle shop and growler filling station. This peaked my hoppy interest immediately. Sure there are other craft beer establishments in town, but not one as close as the Hop us anyway, and not one as "homey" as this one anyway. So I lit out to the Tucson Hop Shop one day to see what all the brew ha ha was all about. 

(You, uh...see what I did there? Brew? Oh nevermind...)

The moment I walked through the open space of the Hop Shop, I immediately felt at ease. This was the kind of hangout I could see myself drinking and chilling on any given night. Or day. Or...anytime actually. There was a long wooden bar occupied by a few afternoon friendly faces, to the right was a "beer cellar" that sold acres of craft beer bottles and brew kits and there was even an upstairs where you can relax on a cozy couch or set up your laptop on a vintage oak desk. The best part was the large back area set up with tables and chairs with games to play and room for your dog to meander. I was a big fan of this place within seconds. 

Good people deserve good beer

After ordering a snifter of IPA, I was lucky enough to meet one of the owners, Jessie Zugerman, and chat about how all of this Hop Shop business came about. 

"Dave (Zugerman, her husband for ten years and business partner) and I met in college around 1997 back in Oregon," she says trying to organize new beer orders coming in, "and we've been big beer lovers and brewers since then. I'm actually a pharmacist and have been for six years and Dave, after getting his MBA, started working in the financial sector here but soon became really disenchanted with the day to day grind. We have always wanted to stake a claim in Tucson's growing craft beer industry so in the summer of 2014 we decided it was now or never and just jumped headlong off of that cliff."

Jessie doing work as customers make their decision on what to quaff next

"I am actually a Tucson native, so after we graduated the University of Oregon in 2001 we had a decision: spend the winter in his hometown of Chicago, the winter!, or come back home to Tucson. Yeah, pretty easy decision seeing what the impending forecast had waiting for us in Illinois."

Now that Dave and Jessie were back in Tucson, working respected jobs but knowing they wanted to do their own thing, I just had to ask why beer and why Tucson for their business venture.

On a brisk Tucson afternoon, this is all you need

"Why not!?", Jessie beams in the tall wooden treehouse that is the Hop Shop. "Tucson rocks. Beer rocks. I mean craft beer, real beer, not the swill variety, is a builder of communities. Craft beer has always put an emphasis on quality products, quality ingredients even quality people! Always local sourcing when possible; quality over quantity. 

"This is an industry we can take absolute pride in being a part of, because the 'industry', in general, doesn't treat their products or employees like widgets. Tucson in particular continues to see a huge boom in this segment and people are seeking out craft beer in droves."

With epic beer selection board in repose

One of the best things about the Tucson Hop Shop is its location. With downtown and the surrounding areas being crammed with similar concepts, it is very exhilarating to have such a noble house of community and refreshments resting itself in a rather unlikely neighborhood nook. Nestled between art lofts, the Hop Shop beams with a certain welcoming panache that only comes from people that really give a crap about what they are doing and where they put their focus into. 

How can you not have a good time here?

"Our concept was to create a social outpost on the North side of Tucson, bringing some of the new found, beer soaked life of downtown closer to home," Zugerman informs as I delight in my next flagon of ale. "We also wanted to be accessible from "The Loop" along the Rillito River path and have an outdoor space for a lounge. 

"After about a year of searching we heard about this space from a mutual friend and after just one walk through and meeting with the landlord, boom, we were sold. We couldn't ask for a better spot or better neighbors. And the urban beer garden we created out back is everything we have dreamed about and more. This is the spot we waited so long to find."

With records playing, the Tucson Hop Shop is always hoppin'

Once the location was set, the concept came together and the hard work began. After a while, Jessie and Dave were in business, the craft beer business, but beer is just the foundation for what they do.

"We offer nineteen taps of craft beer from around the world," notes Jessie as she pours herself a taster of a new lager arrival, "plus barrel aged, cold brewed Presta Coffee on our twentieth nitro tap. We also serve red and white wine and even a sparkling variety in a pink can! There's about three hundred different bottles and cans of craft beer as well as a wide selection of non-alcoholic drinks such as lemonades, cream sodas and such. You know...for the kids."

Where to begin, where to start?

That's right, the Tucson Hop Shop is kid friendly with plenty of games to play and sodas to drink seeing as the Zugerman's themselves are proud parents. 

Now that the coolers are stocked, the doors open and business is growing, I had to know the highs and lows of owning a craft beer shop in Tucson. 

It was an easy answer for Jessie. 

Jessie having fun with Hop Shop patrons

"The people, the community," she states on the obvious highs, "and, of course, the beer! We meet so many wonderful people with stories to tell and connections to this community everyday. It's a blast getting to know our customers. We already have a few regulars and its fun to have the numbers increase as we move forward. One of the greatest things is the broad demographics we are getting from our surrounding communities: Students, athletes, business professionals, families with kids, artists...its amazing to see people just enjoying the company of each other each day in our beer garden. 

"Plus we get to try new beers everyday. So I'd be lying if I said that wasn't awesome."

Good advice

So far the one big preoblem they run into daily really isn't a monumental one, but rather a, shall we say, "labor of love".

"Trying to keep the coolers stocked to represent our various styles spread out among twenty taps can be challenging," she confides with a smile and shrug. "I mean, you wouldn't want nineteen IPAs and just one stout would you?"

David checking the lines, keeping the beer a flowin'

But the Tucson Hop Shop is more than just a beer lovers paradise, it's also host to a variety of events and community sponsored affairs. With a big back yard like these guys have, you think they just wanna keep it to just sipping beer in the brisk night air? 

Actually, that sounds amazing

Family (beer) fun is had by all

"Oh wow," Jessie reflects as she looks over their event calendar. "Well every full moon, all of the surrounding artists have an open studio and we always make sure to have a food truck here for that, plus there's live music out back and all sorts of fun. Upcoming we are hosting a Girls Pint Out gathering, there is going to be a holiday beer and food pairing tutorial out back in the garden, Founder's Rainbow of IPA is coming up soon...oh, we have Wooden Tooth Records spinning vinyl out back one night, that should be fun. 

"Really just keep checking the events page on our website and be sure to follow us on Facebook. There's just a lot going on."

Beer brewing demonstration out back on the patio

After a couple of mighty beers and seeing that Jessie and David were starting to get busy, I just had one last question before I split for the night:

What is the future of the Tucson Hop Shop?

Jessie grins. "We don't have any crazy plans to open up like a hundred Hop Shops, but if an opportunity arose to create the same kind of community outpost and outdoor environment here in town we would definitely consider it. 

"But for now, all we want to do is work hard, do what we love and create a space for our family and yours to enjoy. So far so good!"

Grain filled taps are at your service

The Tucson Hop Shop is now a regular stop for us and if you are in the neighborhood, it will most likely become one for you. How can it not be? They have everything you need in life: 

Beer. Food trucks. Beer. Comfy couches. Beer. Outdoor patio. Beer. Games. Beer. Music. And...what was that other thing? 

Never mind. See you there...


Jessie and David giving some Metal Mark love

Camera and Typing
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
Early November, 2015

Metal influence

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

American Flying Buffalo: Your New Food Truck Obsession Starts Here!

If we know one thing about food trucks here in Tucson is that if they have a specific dish or style they usually just stick with that. Taco carts sell tacos, hot dogs do hot dogs, crepes are all about get the idea. That's normally the norm. But what if I were to tell you about a new truck on the block that is chopping it up and serving up dishes that are as diverse as the heritage of it's chef and owner. I hope you would say, "Bring it on Metal Mark!", because I know you're cool like that.

Enter American Flying Buffalo.

On a chilly evening, all you need is American Flying Buffalo

A brief history. 

The man behind the flavor madness is Eddie Bickel, who has been bartending now and then at the Saddlehorn Saloon for quite some time. Thing is, Eddie is a natural cook, always has been, so one day he decided to bring in some homemade wings and serve it up to his bar regulars. Turns out, they were some of the best wings anyone had ever had. His business started to grow at the bar but not just for his drink slinging abilities. People were actually lining up for his food, not just the booze. Since it was always a dream of Eddie's to open up his own restaurant, he gathered up what resources and backing he could and before you know it, he is the proud owner of a bright orange truck to deliver amazing food to the (essentially) good people of Tucson.

"I had just won the Best Wings in Tucson from the Easter Seals foundation and was looking to bottle my own sauces", Eddie notes while turning chicken and burgers on his long grill from the back of the truck. "Originally the name started out as Arizona Flying Buffalo with the slogan 'Bring Your Taste To New Heights'! I actually got some product into a few local shops and they did really well. To reach a larger demographic, I changed the name to American Flying Buffalo so I pulled them from the shelves and just decided to open up my own restaurant, which has always been my dream. 

"I still want my sauces to be in stores but, really, I wanted my own place to get going so people know where it actually comes from."

Burgers and lemongrass chicken on the grill 

Sure Eddie has amazing wings and incredibly addicting sauces to go with them, but with a full service food truck, it was time to start looking into expanding his culinary horizons. 

Born in Vietnam to a Vietnamese mother and Dutch/German father, he was exposed to a grand plethora of diverse flavors and dishes from all across the globe seeing as his family was also influenced by French cooking (if you know your history, you know the French had a huge impact on the Vietnamese during their occupancy...oh just read about it HERE) and even American and Mexican cooking as well. 

Eddie and his "secret burger seasoning"

"Growing up, my mom used to bar-be-que all the time on weekends and everyone would come over to eat," muses Bickel over rising flames from his grill on a drizzly evening in front of Danny's Baboquivari. "Once the marinaded meat hit the grill we could smell it and see the smoke and we'd all come running. Everyone thinks their mom is the best cook but my mom is the best chef ever! 

"Our dinner table during the holidays was full of everything: turkey, eggrolls, ham, tamales, roast beef, name it. I always tease her about teaching her how to cook when in reality she was the one that taught me how to cook."

Well all that time with mom really paid off. Eddie and American Flying Buffalo dole out some of the best mobile food fare around. With a sundry of styles and flavors, on any given night you really don't know what the menu might entail. But one thing is for sure, you will always be treated to a huge and delicious burger and a steaming bowl of his signature pho.

"It's like what Anthony Bourdain said", Eddie says with a grin, "'I would burn down cities for a great bowl of pho'. Ha! What I love so much about pho is that you can add anything you want in it. My pho comes from an old family recipe and it's just slow slow cooking and you gotta always remember to skim the top." 

Another happy customer

"I have been cooking, seriously, since I was thirteen," informs Eddie after handing out a heaping platter to a happy patron. "I started out as a dishwasher when I was sixteen for a fish fry place in Sierra Vista. But I soon got a line cook job when they saw I had some skills. 

"Then one day I just had to quit and immediately got a job cooking at a mom and pop burger and beer place which was soon bought out by a enterprising couple. They would come into the restaurant almost everyday and get burgers. They told me it was my secret rub for the meat that kept them coming back. Eventually they cleaned house of all the lackluster employees...everyone but me! That was back in 1987 and for three years straight we won best steakhouse in town. We even won a chili cookoff in Tombstone, one that had almost sixty contestants. From there I went to Phoenix to enroll in culinary school but instead I ended up apprenticing with Chef King at the Phoenix Hilton."

Cooked to perfection

Eddie continues as he "beast mode"s his way around the truck, trying to get orders out to chilly and hungry customers. 

 "Around that time my mom opened up a Chinese food restaurant in Bisbee so I moved out there to help her out. For five years straight she won best Asian restaurant. Five years! After she retired I really didn't want to live in Bisbee anymore, so I moved to Tucson where I got a job as a chef at another Hilton, but cooking in hotels was starting to bore me.

"So pretty soon I started bartending at the Saddlehorn Saloon for extra cash and for a new challenge, then I  started bringing in my wings to the bar and then, well...the rest is history!"

Grill master Eddie doing work
And what a history.

All of the combined energies, food factions, locations and methods, really paid off for Eddie seeing as his cuisine has a very distinct rapture to it. 

The lemongrass chicken is so succulent yet so, lets say, "Tucson-ish". Is that a term? Well, it is now. Enter any Asian eating establishment and you can get, I'm sure, delicious lemongrass chicken, but it might have the same quality and distinction of so many herds of similar eateries. American Flying Buffalo bring a twist and turn to the dish, completely making it their own which is something to be savored and enjoyed to fully understand what you are reading about here. 

Same goes for the pho. There is a bite and credence to the flavor profiles Eddie creates in a bubble hue of spices and secrets he keeps in a continuum steam brew on the line. The fat noodles, the cilantro, the citrus, the perfectly rare meats, it all comes together in yet another uncommon provision of simple yet wonderful sparks of inspiration and just wanting to get the magic of a real bowl of pho to the headscratchers that might not be convinced of its glorious healing power. 

No really, on this sputtering rain evening, Eddie's pho somehow made us all feel just a little bit better. Not that we were sick...just better. 

PS: and it's pronounced FUH, not FO. Just saying. 

Delicious pho broth roiling away

Always the freshest ingredients 

Fantastic flavor, slurping is encouraged

"But what about the burgers?", you might be asking me. "You said in your header that American Flying Buffalo has some of the best burgers in town. Is this true?"


Each one weighs in at a decent half pound; a good n' hearty half pound. I got something called the Mac Daddy, which was loaded with crisp lettuce, tomatoes, onions, thick slab of cheddar cheese and a "secret sauce". Combined with his already special rub, this thing nearly killed me. And, I was alright with that. 

If I was to enter the kingdom of the otherside, face slathered in burger juice and secret sauce, with tater tot (yes, Eddie serves up tater tots, and fries too but, whatever...tots!) speckles dusting my mouth and beard, I'd do so with a dumb grin and lazy meat soaked gait, totally content. 

Then the Almighty would look down and ask, "Why are you here so early?"

I'd be all, "Fxxk it. American Flying Buffalo dude."

Then we'd have a good laugh before going off to see whatever band Cliff Burton had established in the after life.

Mackin' down on the Mac Daddy. Not a great shot because I was on  meat high and sweat (note perspiration on finger)

To make matters worse (not really but...well we were already packed in with food), Eddie had a special eggroll going that night, one that he usually changes depending on his mood and what ingredients he can get fresh that day. 

This time around it was a pastrami Reuben roll. Oh yeah, you heard it right and you heard it right here: eggroll stuffed with my favorite cut of deli meat, topped with provolone cheese, fried to perfection and served with a spicy Russian dressing. If you ever get a chance to eat these things, please do yourself a favor and do so. Check his social media, make sure he's got this going and hunt Eddie down. 

We had three servings that night. Three. After everything else we ate. Three. 

Trust me here.

Reuben rolls ready to, well, roll
Classic techniques makes Eddie's rolls so sensational
Three rolls were just the beginning for us that night

"I just love the people's reactions. I love being in the restaurant business!", beams Eddie as he tosses his famous wings. "No really. Everything from the back of the house to the front. But mostly I love it when people say I just made their tastebuds explode or that they can't get fried rice anywhere else because of me.

"People always ask me 'what's my favorite thing to cook?' All I can tell them is that I simply love to cook! Whatever. That's why I don't want to just, say, open up an Italian place because I'd just be cooking Italian food all day. Or a Mexican place, or strictly Asian. Not that there's anything wrong with that but...I just wanna cook what I want to cook.

"But running a food truck isn't easy," Eddie confesses. "We have to keep this thing extremely clean and we detail it once a week. Plus having to refuel and all...everything else is awesome. I'm used to working in small spaces so the tightness in here doesn't bother me. I really love the mobility and always serving to a new audience."

Wings are on point as well

And Eddie's thoughts on the future of American Flying Buffalo?

"I can see us opening up restaurants here in Tucson and elsewhere. That's our dream and goal. I would love to go back to that restaurant in Sierra Vista and just buy it. That's where I met my business partner Bill (Tankesly) where we worked together. It's definitely on our wish list. 

"Plus I want to get our sauces out there back on the shelves along with our seasonings and dressings. Who knows, maybe I'll write a cookbook someday!"

Then, in the midst of his flurry of activity, Eddie paused, looked at me and said:

"You know, I would like to say I wish I had more time to bake more."

Huh. Okay. 

So simple, so perfect, definitely not your basic burger

With a belly full of goodness, cooked with love, we headed out into the cold dribble of the night,  and all we could do was exhale a delighted breath which caused a rare quick steam cloud in the Tucson air. 

Later, in a beef and pho soaked slumber, I had a dream about a heaven that was lined with bright orange food trucks, manned by heavy metal bassists and serving up vegan sprout patties while blasting Jimmy Buffet records over a sea of cold soup made with the tears of a Nickleback reunion. 

Wait. Is this heaven...or?

Nevermind. Eddie's food was worth it.  


Be sure to follow American Flying Buffalo on Facebook and Twitter

Camera and Typing
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
Early Autumn, 2015

Metal Influence: