Friday, July 29, 2016

Can You Eat 28 Hot Dogs In 10 Minutes? A Local Teacher That Weighs Far Less Than You Can!

Yeah, alright, fine.

Other websites, blogs and such got a chance to hang with Michelle "Cardboard Shell" Lesco first, and long, before we ever did but...hey, the Tucson Homeskillet is still up and coming and barely a year old so we a bit slow on the take sometimes. Plus we've been busy with a full time job and other life bits. And so has she. We've been busy I tell you! So let's just get to it and have some fun shall we?

We shall.

Michelle Lesco, among other things, is a competitive eater, meaning she eats a lot of food in a short amount of time for glory, fame and, occasionally, some prize money. It's not the most glamorous sport, competitive eating, but it's the only one we really follow and are a fan of so getting a chance to meet and chat with her was a big deal on our end.

Originally from California, Michelle has been calling Tucson her home for many years and is the city where she began her rise to notoriety and power in the competitive eating circuit. Just a little over 100 lbs and barely in her 30's, Michelle is now ranked 7th in the world of competitive eating and came in 4th in her division at the renown Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Competition. How awesome is that?

So you can see why we were stoked to hang out and get to know this lady.

Tucson's own Major League Eater, Michelle "Cardboard Shell" Lesco

Michelle, having just gotten back from Las Vegas to compete in the Hooter's Hot Wing Eating Competition, sat down with us at one of her (and our!) favorite spots, Boca Tacos Y Tequila, to enjoy chef Maria's amazing creations while we discuss how she devours all that food in so little time, why she does it in the first place and what the meaning is behind her silly nickname, "Cardboard Shell".

It was a very warm (no, it was a crazy hot and muggy) afternoon when we met up and we were so ready to dive into some cold beers, delicious food and make a new friend while doing it.

Here's the snag though: This interview was like way longer than you are about to read because the lame voice recorder app on our phone cut out here and there making it splinter in conversation. Plus we didn't take a ton of photos because we were having too much fun just chatting and eating Boca Balls, Macho Tacos and the Wednesday "Exotic" feature which was lambs tongue served on, well...most things. 

So that said, here's (most of) the topics we discussed while eating and drinking and you will soon see why Michelle is now one of the best things about being a food fan, and food blogger, here in Tucson.

Check it out...

Yes, there is a federation for competitive eating...why wouldn't there be?

Metal Mark: So when did you realize that you could eat like this and go pro?

Cardboard Shell: I'd say it was around 2009 or so. It was back when "Man VS. Food" was really popular and the host came to Tucson to eat the Lindy's OMFG burger and two of my guy friends that were in a band and living in Phoenix kept saying 'We have to eat this burger!' when they came to town. Well when they did and we finally got to Lindy's they totally chickened out. I was like, 'What? That's the whole reason we're here! To eat this burger!' Eventually one of them looked at me and was all 'Why don't you eat it then?' And I said 'Fine I will.' So we ordered the burger and the second it gets dropped on the table I immediately start eating it. I thought that the 30 minutes or so you have to eat it began when its placed in front of you. My friends kept saying 'You should let it cool down first!' It was too late at that point. What sucks is that when the burger is that hot it continues to steam when its in your stomach. So what was really difficult was not only all that meat and all the stuff on was the gas that was being created by the steam. But I finished it, of course I finished it, but it took me forever. After that my friends called me when there was any kind of food or eating challenge.

Eventually this lead to the Something Sweet food challenge, when that existed.

MM: Oh yeah, I miss that place. What was the challenge again?

CS: Four pieces of cheesecake, four big ol' brownies, four scoops of ice cream with chocolate and whipped cream and cherries on top. So I was driving home and my friend calls me saying they were at Something Sweet and they wanted me to do this challenge that, apparently, no one had finished. And I said 'So are you telling me you want me to go there and do it now?' I was going to go home and eat a salad, that was my plan that night.

MM: Man, the brain freeze must of sucked. From the dessert challenge I mean, not the salad.

CS: No. It wasn't that bad. You had, I think, 30 minutes to do it and I did it in like 15. After that I just started to do more and more eating challenges.

If you get interviewed by the Tucson Homeskillet, beers are usually involved

MM: So how do you train or prepare for a big eating competition?

CS: I don't really. When I was a kid I always tried to eat more and eat faster than my brothers. It was just a kind of competition between us. Like when we'd get fast food we always tried to see who could eat the burger in the fewest amount of bites...

MM: Kind of like John Belushi in Animal House?

CS: Exactly. I remember this slumber party we had which soon developed, or devolved, into a pizza eating competition. I was 8 and I remember eating this piece of pizza so fast that it got caught in my throat and I threw up all over the place. After that I just learned how to control my chewing and swallowing so that wouldn't happen again. It never really did. After that I just got really good at eating fast and eating a lot. Now I just do it on a bigger level.

Best part is I get to travel and eat free food. And the other competitive eaters are awesome. We're all good friends now.

Michelle dominating the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Competition (picture is from the internet, I did not take this)

MM: During high school I skateboarded a lot and when we would stop for a bite I had to kind of do the same thing, eat as much as possible and as fast as possible, so my friends wouldn't nab my vittles.

CS: You should think about going into competitive eating!

MM: Yeah, as if I'm not chubby enough.

CS: You should. It'd be fun.

MM: So what are your personal bests as far as eating records go?

CS: Let's see. I've eaten 135 marshmallow peeps in 5 minutes. 6 and a half pounds of pasta in 8 minutes. 170 gyoza in 10 minutes. 435 oysters in 8 minutes. Over a gallon of chili in 6 minutes. Almost 11 pounds of pie in 8 minutes. 59 tacos in 8 minutes. Over 150 wings in 10 minutes and, of course, 28.5 hot dogs in 10 minutes.

MM: Wow. And how do you feel after a competition?

CS: Fine. In fact after Nathan's I went on one of the big roller coasters with some of the other eaters.

MM: No full reversal?

CS: Nope. Never. Not since that slumber party.

Eating lambs tongue tacos and talking about, well...eating

MM: So how did the nickname 'Cardboard Shell' come about?

CS: According to Crazy Legs Conti, when I order takeout, all that is left is the cardboard shell. Funny thing is, it has been dubbed the worst nickname in competitive eating! Probably because it started unrelated to competitive eating. Sort of a spinoff of a Jack Handey quote.

MM: 'Deep Thoughts' Jack Handey?

CS: Yep. Something about he stepped on a snail and thought that he's like a snail because he builds a shell around himself, but it's made of foil and paper bags. Not cardboard.

MM: Ah. So you mentioned traveling earlier. Outside of Coney Island, where else are you traveling to this year?

CS: Well I just got back from Las Vegas for the Hooter's wing eating competition and I'll be traveling again, soon, to Northern Ireland to compete against the decade long world record holder of oysters, Colin "The Oyster King" Shirlow, for the Hillsborough International Festival World Oyster Eating Championship. Colin set the world record at 233 oysters in 3 minutes back in 2005. Last year I pushed him to a new record of 235, the first time in a decade, because he looked up and saw how fast I was going and he just had to 'speed up'. I ate 213. I stumbled and fumbled some oysters in the first 20 seconds before getting it together. In a 3 minute contest, where you are eating more that 1 per second...that makes a huge difference.

MM: Wow. much do you weigh?

CS: I'm like, almost, 115 right now.

MM: I am, almost, two of you.

Macking hard on some ribs (again, I did not take this photo)

MM: I know you make a little money being a competitive eater, but unless you're Joey Chestnut who has like mass endorsements, I'm assuming you have a day job.

CS: Oh yeah. I work at Pantano High School as a math, physics and service learning teacher. It's a credit recovery alternative school for students that have fallen behind on credit hours and can't graduate on time at traditional schools. We provide additional support to help them graduate.

Every year I tie my training goals into fundraising goals and we've raised over $13,000 for various causes, mostly focused on impacting the global water crisis through charity water campaigns. Right now I'm hoping to help a local Tucson based nonprofit by a man who grew up in Ghana called Global Children's Fund reach their goal of $1000 to repair four water wells in a Ghana community where they are helping to improve education through a variety of means.

MM: That's awesome. I work in a library to support my food blogging habit.

CS: Cool. Yeah the principal of my school is very supportive and understanding of what I do. A lot of my students are big fans of mine and love that I do competitive eating. Even though some of them find it pretty gross.

MM: Well, if you think about is kinda gross.

CS: Yeah. It is. But I love it.

MM: Me too. I listen to Metal so people gorging on meat products is just an album cover to me.

CS: And here we are eating balls and lambs tongue.

MM: So Metal.

Michelle doing what she does best...and locally too

MM: So do you have any advice for kids that may want to become a competitive eater?

CS: Um...don't! No, actually if you want to be in any kind of competitive sport, I suggest going into something that you can really fall back on. Think football or being a triathelete, because when you are training for these sports you will be taking in a ton of food calories. All that muscle build up and calorie burning will only make you a better eater down the line. Unless, of course, you're a force of nature like I am.

MM: It's true. Long gone are the days of tubby guys eating a pie or two. Ever since Kobayashi came around it's been little thin people taking the crown. It has to do with metabolism.

CS: It's sort of an art form isn't it?

MM: It is.

CS: And people always think that I am not a cheap date, like they have to order 12 steaks to fill me up. That's just not true. I love to eat just as much as the rest of us but I just happen to eat more because I am an athlete. A food athlete. Like we're sitting here eating these tacos, and they are delicious tacos, and I could easily eat more but at the same time I just want to enjoy the taste. When you are in competition, you don't taste the food. At all. In fact, you're just kind of drinking a lot of liquid to act as a sort of waterslide for the food you are taking in. Then your body just takes care of the rest.

MM: Before a competition do you eat any form of breakfast or anything?

CS: No. You don't need that. In fact that is just more food weight your stomach has to deal with. Like when I challenged this guy to eat the Navy SEAL burger at Trident he told me he ate a huge breakfast to stretch his stomach and he didn't even finish the thing. Really I just eat a lot of fruits and vegetables before a competition because it helps flush out all of the undigested stuff out of your system and you have more room to take in more food.

MM: I like fruits and vegetables.

CS: I seriously think you should try competitive eating.

MM: Well there is this 5 pound burrito challenge at this taqueria on 1st Avenue. I was always curious about doing that.

CS: You should! When?

MM: Probably when my wife is out of town and I have the next day free to just lay on the floor and wallow in regret.

CS: Well let me know when you want to do it and I'll be there.

MM: Do you want another taco?

CS: Absolutely.  

Tucson's champion eater! (nope, didn't take this pic either)

After about an hour or so of just talking about our weird food obsessions, why we love our bizarre hobbies and being proud to be living in Tucson, the first US city to be recognized as a gastronomy destination, it was time to pack it in and head back out.

This probably wont be the last time Michelle is going to be on the Tucson Homeskillet. If we do that burrito challenge, or anything else to keep Metal Mark from being "not slim", you know we'll dictate it all and throw it on the site.

But for now we were just glad to get to know this amazing woman, a true athlete in our eyes, and a kind heart for all she does in education and charity. That alone should be enough for all of the attention she has been getting lately.

That and the fact that she eventually took down the Lindy's OMFG burger in just over 2 minutes.

2 minutes.

It took Metal Mark almost 15 minutes to devour the OMFG's little brother, the Hooligan, and he did almost have a full reversal after. Almost.

Oh man. We have some training to do.

Thanks everyone for reading. And thank you Michelle for being a part of the Tucson Homeskillet. We'll let you know about that 5 lbs burrito thingy. But we may need a ride home after.

To the emergency ward.


Michelle is pumped up and ready for the next big food challenge

Camera, Typing and Some Uploads
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
Late July 2016

Metal Influence:

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Tucson Homeskillet (Sort Of) Year In Review

Why the "sort of" in parenthesis for a year in review? Well, officially The Tucson Homeskillet got its humble humble start in 2011.

At the time, I, Metal Mark, was working as a chef and kitchen supervisor while my dear partner in culinary crime, She-Ra, continued her rise to fame and power at her base of beer and food operations at Old Chicago. It was around this era that the both of us came to the conclusion, as we discussed future plans, that we would love to open a place of our own. You know, a fun bar concept that serves up really good food. Or...something like that, we're still working on it. So in the moment I thought it would be cool to start a sort of food blog to track our path to small business ownership.

Yeah, well...we still have a long long way to go before we are even close to being in business for ourselves.

At first the Homeskillet was just a once in a while "when we got around to it" blog that was very basic, very homey without any real care, ambition or focus. It was just sort of a...'whatever' thing with us.

The Tucson Homeskillet debuted in 2011 with this funky banner

We did things like recipes with leeks, how to save money during the lean times of the summer here in Tucson and, of course, eating crap fast food when we (I) got too drunk. It was just an amusing venture to do when we got around to it and that was honestly all there was to that.

But then, suddenly, the Tucson Homeskillet came to a skidding halt.

In 2014 She-Ra and I experienced a very tragic, very emotionally trying year, one that was wrought with the loss of five, count them five, family members in the course of a few short months. We don't want to go into it but, yeah....2014 sucked and the last thing on our minds was writing about our favorite happy hours, how to cook leeks or the secret to our amazing homemade burgers.

(It's infusing bacon and brisket into the beef...shhhhh!)

Man, I was really in love with that stupid font

The aftershock of such a terrible and draining collection of months stayed with us (me especially, since I lost both of my Dads within a few short weeks) was so devastating that all I could do was work my day job in a zombie-like haze and eat and drink just to get by. It was rough. Really rough. For quite a spell "Metal Mark" was definitely not himself and that alone was just sadness piled on sadness making a sadness cake of bummed out sad.

After wallowing in my own suck mire for long enough, I decided that it was time to move on. Not so much 'get over it', but at least try and get back into the groove of real life. So I made a short list of things that make me happy and try to find some amount of inspiration and solace in that.

Here is what it said:
My friends
Bad movies
A good honest drink
Our garden
Lil Poundcake 
(who adopted us on New years Eve of 2014, so she was like the best thing ever...still is)

So I broke it down and decided that if I could infuse all of those elements into a fun project I just might be able to pull through. But how, but what and but where?

Hey, why not revive the Homeskillet?

Another early promo when the Tucson Homeskillet was (kind of) just known as The Homeskillet

That seemed fine and dandy and all but, really, I didn't feel like giving life to some silly old blog, one fixated with the AR Christy font and cartoon bunnies as my header logo.

Huh. When I put it like that, the bunny thing seems kind of cool. was time to take the site to a new level.

To motivate me into the foray of food journalism I contacted the one big name in town, a food site that covers any and all culinary goings on around town and one that I had been following for about a year or so.

I met with the head honcho of the food site and I immediately started pitching ideas. He liked my one about the best banh mi sandwiches in Tucson so I was soon off and running around southern Arizona, looking for, finding and then eating the delicious Vietnamese delicacy. In about a week I had consumed about a good dozen or so banh mi sandwiches and, yes, to this day, I still have yet to touch another one. They're good and everything, it's just that, well...when you've done nothing but eat one item everyday in such a close amount of time the smell and flavor of it all becomes a trite prosaic, even unappetizing. But I got my first assignment in and was soon on to my next article for the site.

Love me some banh mi sandwiches but after that piece...ugh

Well, it didn't take long to see that I was a poor fit for that particular website. My style is just too loose and my focus is far from the downtown hipster scene or the newest and trendiest eateries in Tucson, which is what the site kind of prides itself on.

I turned in three articles then we parted ways. But it wasn't a total loss. To contribute to the site you had to have a badass camera, so I had purchased myself one and, eventually, was able to finally pay it off with tax returns. Plus it had lit a fire under by butt and in my belly that I had the chops to do this food blogging thing on my own.

So on a day off, while She-Ra was at work, I sat down and reconfigured the design of the Homeskillet, added a bunch of extras, got rid of that lame AR Christy font and blasted the header with a picture I took after a run from a farmers market alongside an old piece of pizza I found in the microwave.

The idea was simple: Put all of the elements I had written down and just turn the Tucson Homeskillet into a fun passion piece.

After I had gotten the design to a decent specification, I threw this post up just to see what would happen:

The blog reboot in 2015 with this proclamation

Not much happened. I think a good dozen or so people saw that post. I mean, it really wasn't much of anything so I then decided that my first real article was going to be a fairly big one.

I took a long day trip down 6th Avenue, sampling some of the food truck fare, visiting the massive Food City, eating pastries at La Cave's and just getting myself out there to see what I could see. It was a clunky piece, fairly unfocused, but it was a start into a new and bigger direction. Promoting it online and such got me more responses but just a scant above the usual low double digits or so. It was then that I made the decision to be a proper website and not just a blog page.

So I registered the name, paid the small fee and from then on Google allows me to be It was then that things started to take off.

Sort of.

Once we got the web address, the adverts started going out

Still small time compared to some of the heavy hitters in the food writing sites and publications here in Tucson, but with a goofy edge and a Metal song waiting for you at the end, my subscription page began to grow...ever so slightly.

But I needed more content. My goal was at least one post a week, and my posts aren't just lil' blurbs and a photo or two of food. Oh no. The idea was to have at least a dozen full color photos and the writing was to be fluid and conversational with an emphasis on the food and, above all, to tell stories. I needed to have a different angle than most food sites, blogs and periodicals that I have come across in all of my pre-blog relaunch research.

The Tucson Homeskillet was to be broken down into two nouns and a verb: Food, Fun and Metal.

Seems simple enough. With those words emblazoned on the splash page it was time to hit the streets and get the lowdown on what is happening in the underground and hidden in plain sight food scene of Tucson.

One of the first features on the new site to get a few hundred hits

If I wasn't driving around town in different neighborhoods trying to find a hidden gem, I was online doing searches such as "worse burrito", "weirdest sushi", "scary place, good food". When I would find something of my liking, I, and oftentimes She-Ra or a close pal, would go out there and check it out. The results were sometimes awesome. occasionally tasty and even totally gross here and there.

Yes, I did find the worst burrito in Tucson. Blecch. That was a rough assignment.

Luckily I have a day job that allows me to research some of this when I am manning the front desk and it's slow enough. I've been working for the Pima County Library since 2012, a strange and welcome transition from my time as a chef and kitchen manager, but one that lets me utilize my background in literature and theater. For that I am grateful.

But because of the Tucson Homeskillet and my occasional blog post on the library's website, I am now known as the resident "food guy". Which is cool, but trying to answer everyone's question on where they should go to lunch can sometimes be a little, well...daunting. Because I don't know. Most librarians don't want to eat in dark dive bars or hunt for street tacos from a vendor in an abandoned lot somewhere.

Metal Mark works in a library to support his food blog habit (yes, I was on bus benches promoting the library's job help program for quite some right?)

So the design of the site was pretty good, better than the first installment. I had a proper web address. I made a Facebook page for the blog. Got me some business cards. When I contacted various food trucks, restaurants or bars to feature them on the site, most said yes, which was and is very cool. Unfortunately a decent amount said no or just never got back to me. Which is not so cool.

Here's one example of a rejection I got because the Tucson Homeskillet isn't so widely known:

A big charity organization that does a huge Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless, was interested in me covering, at first, their preparation for the free feast, enough that I met with some of the higher ups and organizers in order to do so. Cool, I thought. Getting the word out about all of the hard work it takes to serve thousands of hungry and homeless people in Tucson seemed like an amazing article to me.

Then about a week before the event, I got an email from them. It basically said that after they reviewed the Tucson Homeskillet, I, and the site, were deemed "inappropriate" for what the charity stands for. Inappropriate? Really? It must be the Metal thing because nothing else on the Homeskillet is offensive or "inappropriate". I don't even curse on the site. Fxxk that. This is a family friendly food blog and for that I became even more disillusioned with the good Christian organization.

Not going to say who they are, but the bell ringers every Xmas outside of stores gives you an indication.

Still don't know? Um, they rhyme with Cralvation Blarmy.

Yeah. There you go.

The Tucson Homeskillet's first big break was covering the good folks at the Tucson Hop Shop which was the first time an article gathered over a thousand hits

It wasn't until I happened to find a tucked away beer shop that things began to change for me and the Tucson Homeskillet.

Up a few blocks from our favorite bar, a new place called The Tucson Hop Shop opened up. Run by a husband and wife team, the beer venue sits among the art encampments in the Metal Arts Village off Dodge Blvd. and was only open a few short weeks when I pulled up and checked it out. The Hop Shop was really cute, had a great beer selection and the fact that it was 100% local made me contact them the minute I got home. When asked for an interview and feature, both Jessie and David, who own and run the shop, agreed to be a part of the Tucson Homeskillet.

Within a few days after posting the article I had hit the 1,000 views mark.

Wow, I thought. People are actually reading my stuff. Thanks to the Tucson Hop Shop, my goofy food blog was starting to get recognized.

But the next one I posted, something about holiday gift giving, didn't even come close to 1,000 views. So that knocked me down a bit. Although right after that I did a feature on the food truck American Flying Buffalo and, boom!, I was back in the thousands again.

Then not much. Then not much again. Then something slightly better. So on and so forth.

It became very clear that it depends on who shares my posts and how I promote each piece that gets the biggest hits.

I'm still learning this whole online promotion thing.

I just want to eat, drink and write about it. The rest I am totally winging it.


This logo will soon be everywhere

One day in early 2016, as I was checking my email, I found a glorious message with an attachment on it. My good pal Josh Cicci, who is a cartoonist and comedian, drew up a rough sketch of what will soon become our new logo. Yes the one right above all of this. Look up!

"I love your blog," Josh said, "so I thought you'd like this."

Yeah, he just drew it up one afternoon, scanned it and sent it my way. It is beautiful and with a little finesse and clean up we can do great things with it.

Now here comes the funny part.

Lately I have been getting business "mail" with letters and such all addressed to not just me but to the Tucson Homeskillet.

Oh yeah. Ever since we went dot com I have received catalogs aimed at (get this) the shipping and distribution manager for the Tucson Homeskillet. Shipping and distribution? Manager? Guys I sit in my underwear uploading food photos then writing clever copy on a crappy laptop in my living room as the cat tries to jump in my way hoping that, maybe, a few folks might click on the link and read my stuff.

Shipping and distribution manager indeed. Love it.

The best is getting these random business "credit cards" with my name and the Tucson Homeskillet etched out in raised yellow letters and numbers. What the heck is National Funding anyway? Total scam I'm sure but, man, they really want me to start an account with them. For now, my one debit and one credit card is all I need to buy locally produced beer and the signature dish from a food truck parked in a dusty lot.

Here and there I get free product when I chat them up but for the most part I have to budget in food and drink costs. So the Tucson Homeskillet is more than just a's an anti-profit! Whee!

Whatever. I love what I do and I'm just glad that some of you out there appreciate what we do and read and share our wacky little website.

Thanks for that. If it wasn't for you all in Tucson (and beyond!) the Homeskillet wouldn't be what it is today. Heck, I'd probably shut it all down and try to write another book.

Naw. Screw that...this is too much fun!

Because book writing suuuuuucks.

Yeah, credit cards and business proposals for a blog that makes absolutely no money...sweet

So the first year of the new Tucson Homeskillet has been an amazing one. We are still learning, still evolving and are always up for a new challenge.

It's fun to go back in time to the first few posts, from like 2011-13 and see how the page has developed and improved. Heck, even the first few from the revamp in '15 were kind of wonky and archaic, but it was a step in the right direction.

The goal, for now, is a new post every Friday (which is a chore seeing as I am doing this, almost, by myself with a full time job and a life..sort of) and to deliver something worth reading, worth looking at and above all worth getting you out there to try some delicious food and drink. The Tucson Homeskillet may be home grown and relatively small, but we are having way too much fun to care. With our good friends and readers such as you all we can do is keep doing what we are doing, keep moving up and moving forward and hopefully we will ride along with the other bigger food sites, blogs and periodicals here in town (and beyond!) as a contributing member of what truly counts in life:

Food, Fun and, of course, Metal.

Thank you Homeskilleteers for making this the best year ever! Just keep reading and, more importantly, just keep eating.


She-Ra and Metal Mark doing what they do best...thanks everyone!

Some Camera, Mostly Typing and Often Remembering
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
Monsoon Season, 2016

Metal Influence:

Friday, July 15, 2016

Volcano Tuna Don At Samurai Sushi....You Our Only Friend!

So let us take you back to the time that brought us closer to this here culinary delight:

Gaze upon the glory of the Spicy Tuna Don (Volcano Style)!

It was about a year ago and the gastro-adventureness that has preceded us caught up when a close like-minded eater bud inquired:

"Have you been to Samurai? That place on Oracle? Man, so good."

We hadn't in fact. Not yet anyway. To be honest we were a bit nervous about going there (yeah, this coming from a crew that seeks out restaurants in gas stations, back alley eateries and the fish fry in dive bars) because the place is receded in a near abandoned strip mall and it just looked wonky.

Wonky we tell you!

Here's the landscape of where Samurai resides:

Not exactly the definition of 'wonky' get the idea

See what we mean?

Well anyway, one day, as fate would have it, we were hungry (duh!) and up for a new food adventure.

"Hey. You wanna try that Japanese place on Oracle? What's it called...?"


"Yeah. That one. C'mon, let's go. Should be fun."

We looked up some reviews online and, wouldn't you know, it was all 4-5 stars across the digital board. Alright, we're in. Let's do this.

Investigating closer, we kept finding a bread crumb trail to a dish that everyone was raving about, in fact, our pal from earlier even mentioned it in passing:

"They have this dish," they said after asking us if we had been to the restaurant, "called the Volcano Tuna Don. It's a pile of spicy tuna on rice with, like, spicy mayo and cucumbers and fish eggs and, dude, all sorts of crazy stuff. You gotta try it."

So we looked at each other and said: "Let's try it!"

And we did.

And we then kicked each other for not trying Samurai earlier.

The Spicy Tuna Don (Volcano Style) was, and is, amazing.

Look for it. Do you see it?

Samurai itself is very nondescript. A few tables scatter the cramped floor and you order at the counter because the place labels itself as "fast food". It's more fast casual because the food at Samurai is, oh, a few if not many rungs above what is normally deemed 'fast food'. Everything we have had at Samurai is fresh and delicious and, yes, served up very fast. This is the perfect spot for a quick lunch if you are short on time but want real delicious food.

The Spicy Tuna Don (Volcano Style) though is in a category all its own. For some bizarre reason all of the elements in the dish, well...bowl, harmonize in a near perfect character.

Let's break it down shall we?

There it is! Yay!

The Spicy Tuna Don (Volcano Style) is a bowl of perfectly cooked sushi rice which is then topped with a mound of spicy sushi grade tuna.

Oh, they could have stopped there

The tuna is then surrounded by cucumbers and topped with tempura flakes. As if that wasn't enough, the entire pile is finished with a spicy mayo, a fair drizzle of Unagi/eel sauce, diced scallions, seaweed strips and eventually completed with a good dose of Masago (fish know, eggs).

The end result looks something like this:

You need this...we all need this

Oh yeah. It's incredible.

The ballast of the spice and the sweet is about the first thing you will notice as you dig into it. The crunch from the Masago and tempura is equaled to the smoothness of the tuna and the firm texture of the rice. Brightness from the scallions and cucumber is married with the viscous of the mayo and eel sauce and when you put it all together...


Pure wonderousness served up in a bowl and all for about $10.

We often dream about the Spicy Tuna Don (Volcano Style) and sometimes, when we do get around to eating it again, we are so happy to be doing so that we want to celebrate its existence.

In fact one hot summer day when we got the chance to gorge on a bowl of the majesty that is the Spicy Tuna Don (Volcano Style) we were so thrilled to be in its presence again that we took it out on a fun romp around town.


Because we love you Spicy Tuna Don (Volcano Style) from Samurai!

And here are just some of the antics we got into with our lunchtime treat:

First we took Spicy Tuna Don (Volcano Style) to the park where we played Pokemon GO!

You got a Squirtle! Good job pile of fish and sauce served over rice!

Then we watched "Grease 2" because as we always say: They only made the first "Grease" so they could make the far superior sequel.

Spicy Tuna Don (Volcano Style)'s favorite song is "Cool Rider". You go bowl of tasty Asian inspired bits!

Afterwards we headed over to our local library just in time to participate in storytime.

Spicy Tuna Don (Volcano Style) loved the one about the friendly dragon. It is a sucker for a happy ending...

We then made our way to a community garden where Spicy Tuna Don (Volcano Style) harvested some heirloom tomatoes.

"But there aren't any tomatoes on me," said Spicy Tuna Don (Volcano Style). We know scrumptious food dish...we know.

Later we cranked up some classic rock and jammed on some heavy guitar riffage.

Spicy Tuna Don (Volcano Style) enjoyed Boston but didn't like Aerosmith so much...that made us love it even more!

Finally Spicy Tuna Don (Volcano Style) was introduced to Lil Poundcake, our resident cat and food critic.

You can have some Lil Poundcake, just a! She ate the whole thing! C'mon Lil Poundcake. Well, if she liked it, you know its good.

Thank you Samurai Sushi for creating such a delicious dish. And thank you Spicy Tuna Don (Volcano Style) for just being you. We will definitely be back for more and next time we'll take you on a waterslide!

We promise.


Just look at this thing...look at it! Now go and eat it. You'll want to take it on a play date too...

Camera, Typing and Eating
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
Second Week In July, 2016

Metal Influence: 

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Tucson Homeskillet Chills With The Good People Over At Isabella's Ice Cream. Well...All Both Of Them.

It was a little while ago when we first heard about Isabella's Ice Cream. We were at the Rincon Market, just there to pick up some fish or something, when we came across a curious installment. There was this old timey delivery truck parked inside which turned out to be a sort of ice cream service station. It was a warm day (as most days are here in Tucson anyway) so we figured...why not? Let's grab a cone as we decide on whether to get the snapper or the grouper.

Pretty sure we just ended up getting sandwiches at the deli.

Anyway, as we were walking around the shop the only solid thing we could make an agreement on was how amazing the ice cream were were eating tasted. The flavors were prefect, even if they were just a solid vanilla and chocolate. Smooth, creamy and very very fresh. Going back to the Model T to get some information we were thrilled to find that this Isabella's Ice Cream was locally made and sourced. Awesome. A Tucson owned and operated business employing locals and putting out an extremely tasty product. Good on them.

 Later when we were able to do some research on the good folks at Isabella's we were shocked, and dutifully impressed, to find that the only real employees there were the owners and operators: Just two.

A husband and wife team.

Kristel and Dominic doing what they do best in a pretty small work area

Yep, that's right. Just two core workers are behind the genius that is Isabella's and because of this the Tucson Homeskillet just had to get down and hang out with them to see how it is all done.

Kristel and Dominic Johnson are the force and flurry behind their business. Kristel originally hails from Elmhurst, Illinois but moved to Scottsdale when she was a little girl. Dominic comes from a spot in the Caribbean called St. Lucia and was an Olympic pole vaulter in three separate games. Both of them now call Tucson home, not only because of their business, but because of their family and how they met in the first place.

The machines of (cool) loving grace

"Dominic and I met at the U of A," Kristel says in their tiny work space just off of 17th Street. "We met through a common friend and started dating during my senior year. Dominic graduated two years earlier but still based his track training at the university with the same coaches he had when he was a student. As for me I just happened to stay in Tucson after graduating."

And we are glad they decided to stay here. Having Isabella's Ice Cream anywhere else would seem, well...just not cool.

Um, let's see...yes please

Checking out the few machines in their space, we wanted to know how the concept of Isabella's came about in the first place.

"Eight years ago, when our daughters were very little, we lived in this big master planned community," sites Kristel, "and one day this super creepy ice cream truck drove by the house. I'm sure you know the type (note: oh yes we do and we know you do to: windowless vans bleating out broke down hurdy gurdy music selling sad faces of super heroes in ice cream formation...yeah, those). Anyway, Dominic saw this and simply said 'Oh there has got to be a better way'. So, initially, our concept was to create a 'non-creepy' ice cream truck.

"So we started with the concept of the truck. We wanted to use the beauty and charm of the past and combine it with the technology of today. Isabella's is based on being both socially and environmentally responsible. Then I decided to create a product we feel confident serving to our daughters."

Proud ice cream maker and environmental advocate

Ok, so, the anti creep factor on the ice cream trucks, done. They got themselves a couple of beautiful Model T's, restored them and made them look like something you'd feel safe buying a food product from.

But then, the best part was implemented: Those old Model T's were redesigned to be 100% electric. That's right. No fuel emissions, no diesel pollution, none of that. Isabella's ice cream trucks are totally green adding to their tagline:

Delicious and good for the Earth!

We can get down with that.

Just a day in the life of Isabella's

"It's all about being environmentally friendly," notes Kristel as she shows us around the various trucks. "These are full electric powered trucks with solar panels on the roof that run the freezers. Our ice cream is literally 'frozen by the sun'...and we just had that term trademarked!

"When we bought our first truck there was no engine. Dominic rebuilt the truck and the woody body and replaced it with reclaimed basketball court flooring. Again, this is us being totally green focused. We didn't need to go fast so the trucks top off at 40mph...but go a lot faster if we're going downhill! That is a perfect speed for going around town.

"The only downside to being electric is having a driving range of about 30 to 40 miles, so we have to re-charge. If we have events that are more than 18 miles away, we can't drive them there. Another problem is if we forget to charge the trucks. A full charge takes about 8 hours and we just can't pull over and stop for gas."

Olympic pole vaulting has nothing on running your own business

Not only are their solar panels made locally by a company called Global Solar but their freezers are made here in Tucson too by the green energy company Sundanzer. So obviously Kristel and Dominic are really connected to their Tucson green energy and business foundation. Pretty sure they source local for their ingredients when they can right?

"Oh of course," nods Kristel in a matter of fact tone. "Living and raising our daughters in Tucson is our choice. Obviously we want to support local as much as possible. It's not always easy and I've had to do some research, but we are very passionate about it. Obviously there are some ingredients we can't source local, such as the cocoa and vanilla beans, but we make sure to source from purveyors who are focused on sustainability.

"Tucson has grown our business, embraced us and we are so grateful!"

On a hot day, this is all you need...on any day really

"Ice cream production is a two step, two day process," Kristel instructed when we asked for them to take us on a day-in-the-life-of Isabella's. "Typically we are making a batch or two, or three or even four, of ice cream in the pasteurizer, or churning, the ice cream. Our pasteurization process involves combining the fresh ingredients, the milk, cream, egg yolk and sugar, into the pasteurizer. Once the 36 gallon batch reaches a temperature of 160 degrees, we "pasteurize", or hold the temperature, for 30 minutes.

"We then empty the pasteurizer into 3 or 5 gallon buckets and add the ingredients such as vanilla beans, dried lavender, hand made caramel, for example. The ice cream ages overnight in the cooler and then it is ready to be churned.

"We churn our ice cream in either a 3 gallon batch freezer or a 10 gallon batch freezer and both take approximately 8 minutes to churn and freeze the ice cream. Once completed, the ice cream has the texture of soft serve. We then put the ice cream into single serve containers, 1.5 gallon pans or 3 gallon containers depending on the order we are fulfilling. If our team is working very hard, we can stuff 1,000 pints of ice cream in about 4 to 5 hours!

"We are always moving at the creamery, very little down time. Mondays through Thursdays are typical production days and Fridays through Sunday normally are catering events with the trucks. So there is never a set day off."

The lavender vanilla? Oh good

Whew. Just listening to that made us tired. We always knew that running a small business was challenging but a small business that is gaining in popularity with a limited staff is even more exhausting. Other than time and space constraints, we wanted to know what other obstacles Kristel and Dominic face on a regular basis.

"The heat!," Kristel immediately blurts out. "Summer in Tucson is brutal and our business goes up and down. July is usually dead as is January, that is until the gem show starts, so it's a rollercoaster for production planning, logistics, stuff like that.

"We are also focused on the distribution of our products throughout the southwest, so once the ice cream is loaded onto a delivery truck and is shipped across the desert to California, Nevada or even across the Pacific to Hawaii, yes!, Isabella's is now going to Hawaii!, we have no control over that. So that makes me nervous.

"But ice cream is fun!" she chirps up. "It's busy and stressful running all aspects of the business as it grows and we've had to figure out a lot along the way, but it's amazing to see a concept that we just 'thought up' literally come to fruition.

"It's also incredible to think about all of the people that are buying and eating the ice cream that I personally created. That is a huge compliment!"

Kristel breaking it down for us

During this whole time hanging out with Kristel and Dominic we were lucky enough to get to sample some of the goods. They had a whiskey chocolate that was unreal and a cinnamon swirl that was totally outrageous. But out of all of their creations we just had to wonder what they consider their signature flavor.

"Oh, it's the lavender vanilla, by far," Kristel pops with a confident smile. "Probably followed by the salted caramel pecan, which is super popular."

We had both and we couldn't decide either. We're sure you will do the same because all of Isabella's creations are delicious. It sort of took us back to being at the market: Do we want salmon or carp? Vanilla or chocolate?

Better get one of each because it's all so so tasty.

1,000 International Champion? Oh wait...never mind, we see it

As we made our way out of their work space and back into the hot summer sun, one more question arose as we said goodbye to Kristel and Dominic:

Just where do you see yourselves and Isabella's in the next couple of years?

Kristel tipped her head a bit and said with a nod, "Our focus now, over the next couple of years, is to franchise our trucks in the same market, here in the pacific southwest, as we have our ice cream in. We want people to buy our ice cream at the stores, hire the trucks for catering and parties, buy from the trucks at various food truck events, not only here in Tucson but other cities as well. In California and, well...who knows?

"We just want to be the non-creepy ice cream truck in your town."

By the way, the company is named after one of their daughters. Did we mention that? we did.

Just two spoons to heaven

Not only are the trucks not creepy but the ice cream itself is far from being grody as well. Far far from it. In fact, it is some of the best ice cream we have had here or anywhere else on our culinary adventures. And that is saying a lot.

You can find Isabella's at (obviously) the Rincon Market but also at Johnny Gibson's downtown, Time Market, and the Food Conspiracy Co-Op. Plus you can purchase their stuff in most Whole Foods across Arizona, Nevada, California and now Hawaii. How amazing is that?

You can also get some Isabella's when you're at the Loft Cinema, The Hilton El Conquistador, Renee's Organic Oven, 1702 Pizza, Leura's Mexican Food, Augustin Kitchen, Seis Kitchen and Boca Tacos y Tequila.

To see where Isabella's are going to be for food truck events, you need to follow them on Facebook HERE.

Thank you Kristel and Dominic. Your ice cream rules, your environmental vision and activism rules and, above all, you guys rule.


Just awesome people putting out an awesome product

Camera, Typing and Eating
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
A Couple of Days After the 4th of July, 2016

Metal Influence: