Saturday, March 31, 2018

Abuela's is no mas

As you all well know, I am currently the Chow writer for the Tucson Weekly and have been for about two years. I really hope I am for a long time to come. It's so much fun and it allows me to explore even the further culinary territories of Tucson and beyond a whole lot more than this here silly blog does.

Thing is, sometimes articles I write get the ax for one reason or the other. Its rare, does happen.

A recent one that never saw the light of big time print was one on Abuela's. Now, if you recall, Abuela's moved into the Old Pueblo Grille space a while ago and was wrought with problems from the get go. Then, after they finally open, the restaurant starts hemorrhaging money, so much in fact that they had to close their doors not even three months of being in business.

This is a shame. I liked Abuela's. The food was good and they even had their own house tequila. It was a good friend's family restaurant and, ironically, it closed two days after we took my mom there for her 71st birthday. When I turned in my article, my editor was hesitant to run it due to all of the complications so it got shelved. Then it closed. So, yeah...

With the approval of the Abuela's family I decided to post my never published article on the blog here so you can read/see what could have been in the Weekly a few weeks ago. Lucky for me, and the Weekly, that it was never published because there are two big mistakes I made fact wise so I cleared those up. You'll see.

Another odd factor in the moribund of the feature was that every picture I took with my awesome digital camera did not come out or make it to the memory card. It was the weirdest thing ever. Not. One. Picture. After the photoshoot I went home to upload and edit and, camera was empty. How does that happen? So the pictures I submitted and uploaded here are from my phone. So bizarre.

Anyway, with that said check it out.


Una Conviccion de Madres
Abuela’s Cocina Mexicana shines amongst getting a late start and dealing with early online criticisms

Thanks to food channels and reality TV, we kind of have an idea of how difficult it is to open a restaurant. But not really. The hard truth about it all is that the process of moving into a location that has been around since the ‘50s and hosted a very popular restaurant for several decades means that expectations are going to be high. The Old Pueblo Grille was a Tucson staple with one of the best patios in southern Arizona, and decent southwest inspired fare, but when it fell to bankruptcy and closed in May of 2015, people wondered what would become of the 8,000+ square foot property on Alvernon and Broadway that was originally built as a house.

Not too long after the closure, the owners of Brother John’s BBQ, John and David Aldecoa, bought the property with a longtime friend, Jorge Alvarez, and decided to turn the well-loved and well-worn eatery into a homey Mexican spot with traditional dishes from old family recipes. (Correction! They actually never bought the property, it was still owned by HSL Properties, so good thing this didn't get published) Going with the name Abuela’s, seeing as Jorge’s mother, Georgina, has gotten involved providing not only traditional family recipes but techniques handed down from generations, they were on their way to filling in some big culinary and time-honored shoes. So, the name has been established, the dishes were being developed, staff is being hired and trained, then, boom. Abuela’s hit some major snags.

The building had to be rezoned, the kitchen had to be updated to get to code, the patio had to be redone, the liquor license was in dispute; all of this time consuming and very, very expensive. When Abuela’s finally opened, about two years after their announcement and occupation of the space, the wait and hype had gone on to such a degree that, as mentioned before, expectations were through the roof. People immediately began to pile into the open and refurbished Abuela’s, now decorated with whimsical day of the dead skulls from a local artist, hungry for a dining experience they had been waiting months and months for. And that’s when things kind of fell apart.

Opening an ambitious restaurant with a pared down menu helmed by staff that wasn’t quite prepared for the initial rush, online comments ranged from the mildly understanding to the downright harsh. This is why smart owners, such as the Aldecoa’s, do ‘soft openings’ to buff out the kinks and see what works and what isn’t before nakedly diving into a grand opening with the dreaded ‘no going back now’ promise of restaurant ownership. Now that they are getting their rhythm, Abuela’s is beginning to find their groove and patrons are becoming less knee jerk critical, relaxing a bit to discover the finesse in the food and admire what they have done with the 50+ year old casa.

On a personal level, I have enjoyed Abuela’s since it opened. The interior is both modern and historic with an artistic flair that is just enough pop on the eye to not be glaring or obvious giving it a warm, lively atmosphere. Colorful frescos and murals dot the updated bar area along with a back lit liquor cabinet stocked with top shelf booze and an impressive tequila list. What impressed further, and even astounded a little, is the fact that Herradura Tequila makes a silver blend (Correction! It was a reposado tequila and, again, good thing this never saw big time print) just for Abuela’s. It is a smooth if not slightly smoky addition to their delicious margaritas, but I prefer to just have a shot of it with an ice-cold beer. 

Maybe its because I have never been there on a Friday or Saturday night, but the service has always been attentive. For that I may be guilty of being a bit too forgiving but, for me anyway, the food is what makes me a fan of Abuela’s.

There is really nothing more pleasant than handmade tortillas to go with a rich and flavorful mole that smothers a perfectly smoked cut of brisket provided by Brother John’s. The run of tacos, especially the smoked pork belly or the beer battered cod, are on one hand downtown crafty mingled with an old-world flourish in taste and texture. The rice is wonderfully prepared, and I always appreciate a rustic and lightly seasoned calabacitas because that’s how a true abuela would prepare it for her family having faith in the quality ingredients.

Most large scale Mexican restaurants typically have menus that are daunting in size, not just physically but option wise. Abuela’s menu is delightfully frugal focusing on the few things they do right rather than too much to impress and perplex. When they survive the summer (Oops!), this place will become a dining destination now that the worst part is over, and I predict the best is yet to come.



Saturday, March 24, 2018

(Almost) Everything My Mom Ate

Yes yes yes! I know it has been a long time, like over a month, since I last updated the Homeskillet.

Look, we / I have been very busy and totally distracted. My wife, She-Ra, just got promoted to manager at her job and is preparing to leave for a month to get trained. Our property managers want to move us to a new location so they can rip out our roof and replace all of the longtime monsoon and severe summer damage as leaking has begun. I have a full time day job. I am the food writer for the Tucson Weekly. Sometimes now and then I do like to get some sleep and take in a movie.

Things happen. happens.

Well, recently my mom visited us from the sovereign state of Delaware to escape the cold and celebrate her 71st birthday in Tucson. With that, I decided to do a fun project and photograph everything my mom ate while visiting us for almost a week.

Thing is, I missed a few, such as breakfast at the Old Times Kafe, because we were about to take her to her first Marvel movie, Black Panther, and lots of nerdy catching up and informing was going on.

Plus there was the myriad of snacks in her hotel room, such as fruit, crackers, nibbles and so forth that, you know...c'mon. Not that interesting right?

So in order of appearance, here is everything my mom ate in Tucson from March 14 - 20!


Old Chicago

Since my wife works at Old Chicago its kind of a tradition to bring my mom by there when she is on shift for a quick bite. Mom loves the chopped salad, which features bacon, applewood smoked chicken, blue cheese, avocado, tomatoes over greens and finished with a creamy herb dressing. I was so caught up with catching up that I didn't get the full salad in all of its Old Chicago glory. So here is the end result.

She ate the whole thing! And mom prides herself on not eating a whole lot these days. She's even dropped a few pounds. Way to go mom!


Lets be honest here: Guadalajara is...fine. Its okay. Its there when you need it and fills you up when you are in a pinch. We were in a bit of a pinch. Plus its the kind of Mexican restaurant that parents from eastern territory without real Mexican cuisine always seem to enjoy.

Mom got the chicken quesadillas, which were....fine.

The table side salsa, I will say, was really good. Fresh ingredients, a nice heat, served up chunky and lots of it. I think I got some kind of combo plate but ended up eating most of the chips and salsa. I think She-Ra got soup.

It was fine.

The Cup Cafe

Ah, pre-downtown and 4th Avenue exploration meant a visit to the Cup Cafe in Hotel Congress. Now, we haven't been to the Cup in quite sometime so I was pretty excited to eat there. Mom got the eggs, house potatoes, white toast and housemade sausage plate. The potatoes were a bit mushy but her sausage was good and the egg was cooked perfectly. Plus the coffee was nice and strong. She liked that.

I got the huevos rancheros and they were pretty darn tasty.

I think She-Ra got soup.

Panera Bread

As much as we wanted to eat local as much as possible the convenience of a place like Panera was there when we needed it.  It was easy, its familiar and, honestly, I just wanted a salad. Which is what my mom got. I think she ordered the green goddess cobb, which was lovely she said. I got a turkey sandwich with a side salad and the side salad was huge. So half of that sandwich came home with me.

She-Ra got soup.

She-Ra likes soup.

Beers at Danny's

Ah Danny's. Our ubiquitous hangout. Home away from home as it is.

Before sending my mom back to her hotel room we popped in for a drink.

Mom got a Coors Light in a chilled glass.

We got our usual vodka and sodas.

All was right with the world.

Mama Louisa's

My buddy Michael Elefante, chef and co-owner of Mama Louisa's Italian, has been asking me to bring the wife in for dinner sometime for a while now. Well when my mom arrived I asked him if you can make it a table for 3 and he set us up!

Mike is now serving up pizzas so he sent out a mushroom and pancetta topped beast. It was delicious. The dough is thick but fluffy with a perfect ratio of fresh mozzarella. We each had one piece knowing our entrees were going to gut bomb us.

Mom got the chicken parmesan and generous doesn't even describe it. Mom could only finish the chicken part so the pasta portion came home with her to the hotel. She loved it.

She-Ra ordered the linguine and clams in white sauce. Mikey insisted I try his Italian Ramen, so I did. Unreal. So much food that it all came home in to-go boxes.

Even though we were packed in, Mike treated us to a dessert trio of cannoli, tiramisu and creme brulee. Outstanding. For me the standout was the tiramisu which was served in a heavy tumbler and created with lady fingers, espresso, coffee liqueur and marscapone. For my mom, she loved them all. She-Ra dabbled as her pasta dish wrecked her for eating in quite a while. But in a good way.

Thanks chef Mike!

Frog & Firkin

It was an absolute beautiful day and the only thing we could think of was dining on a patio. Seeing as mom hadn't been on University Ave. in a few years, we decided on Frog & Firkin. Before hitting some museums on campus, mom chomped down on a Winston Churchill burger that comes equipped with havarti cheese and sliced avocado. I got the Hen House sandwich, that includes chicken, bacon, house aioli, cheddar cheese and sliced apples. Always a pleasure that one is.

Did She-Ra get soup? Probably.

But of course we started out with the Frog Bites which is nothing but a sliced baguette topped with a garlicky pesto and mozzarella cheese. Its the pesto that makes this snack so endearing. So good.

Mom got a Coors Light too. She likes Coors Light. What are you gonna do?


For my mom's birthday on March 19 we took her to our friend's family's restaurant Abuela's, which used to be the Old Pueblo Grille on Alvernon. Ironically, Abuela's just shut down after being open for less than 3 months so...I'll blog about that later.

The food though has always been great so mom got 2 fish tacos and a big margarita. She seemed really pleased.

If the food and tequila wasn't awesome enough, the staff brought my mom a chocolate mousse treat complete with birthday candles! How cool is that? We had a great time. Such a shame that the place shut down.

But...I'll touch on that in my next post.

BBQ Rush

Now this was cool.

Jason Scott, owner and pitmaster of BBQ Rush, that calls home inside of a KOA campground, liked my article about him so much that he put us all up in fancy cabins for the night. So the night before mom left we hung out in full 4 star log cabin style. For real these things are equipped with two separate bedrooms (mom got her own cabin thank you!), full fridge, stove, gas grill on the patio and a fire pit. We weren't prepared for all this so we came bare boned. Next time we will arrive stocked up and ready to rock!

The next day, before putting mom on her plane headed to Philadelphia (PS: Can you tell she's an Eagles fan? Yeah.) Jason treated us to lunch at his restaurant. First he brought out a 'secret menu' item courtesy of Hellfire Pizza, that use his kitchen as their commissary, which was a BBQ pulled pork pizza. Oh man....incredible. We each had a piece because immediately after Jason brought out two slats of pure slow cooked awesome.

Oh...muhgawd! This place freakin' rules.

One tray was just sides such as house made potato salad, coleslaw, smoky BBQ beans and his incredible pickles. The other was a pile of meat: all night smoked brisket, pulled pork, ribs and hot links. Amazing. All of it, so good.

To say the least my mom went into the sky in a  near food coma. Apparently she had a great time and, apparently, the food here in Tucson beats out Wilmington Delaware on a scale of 1 to 10 tacos: We get an 11.

So thank you Tucson for being so delicious, as always, and cheers for keeping my mom full and happy.

You rule!

Camera (Phone), Typing and Eating with Mom
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
March Madness / St. Patrick's Day / My Mom's Birthday, 2018

 Metal Influence: