Thursday, June 21, 2018

8 (+15) Mile

I almost didn't make it to this event.

The night of the SAACA Tucson 23 at the JP Marriott Starr Pass resort just happened to be in the center of the monsoon storm deluge. When I began the long-ish drive out there around 4:30, in order to make the 5pm press check in, there was but a spatter of rain.

But around 4:45, when I was about halfway there, swerving on Anklam Road and bobbing up and down on Greasewood, that's when the skies opened and nearly sent me floating away.

My current ride is a Hyundai Accent, a little white bubble car that almost became a tub toy with the heavy downpour. At one point, the chubby drops mixed with hail (hail!) and shoving winds temporarily blinded me and had me looking for a pullover spot.

But, just as fast as it came on, it sputtered out. The manic swiping of the windshield wipers went from a sloshing noise to an annoying squeek due to the 100 degree weather immediately drying off the car and road.

So there it was; a sign. The food gods weren't done with me yet. Although for like two minutes I thought I was a goner. That car becomes a four wheel flotation device on rain slicked streets and in the shallow pools of road dips.

But its good on gas and so far the car thieves seem to enjoy passing it up.

There's that.

When I got to the resort I was informed to park my car and board a shuttle, one that would be taking me to the event.

Oh man, I thought. What if I want to duck out early? What if there is an emergency and I need to get back to my part of town in a jiffy? Am I to understand that I am at the whim of some shuttle service, like one that runs every hour on the hour? I'm trapped! I feel suffocated already! I...

"Sir, there will be a shuttle available at all times during the event," informed the nice lady taking head count inside the long bus.

Oh. Okay. Nevermind then.

On we go!

Shuttle me to food victory!

It was a lovely drive from the parking area to the Tucson 23 as the shuttle traversed a slim curvy trail up, giving us a view of the post rain held desert landscape. Once we all arrived, we were informed to wait until about 5:30 to present your ticket and then wait another 30 minutes before the doors opened.

When I told someone I was with the press I was instructed to go down to the main lobby, get a press badge seeing as we the lucky freeloaders of the Tucson food press get in early. Ha ha! Take that 'normal folk'!

Of course those that can afford to attend soirees such as this most likely make a lot more money a year than I do. So...yeah.

But still! A half hour to roam the various tables and sample the various vittles and quaffables before the hungry horde come stampeding?

Let's go!

Dancers warming up before the event

The sprawling and semi-Overlook Hotel looking ballroom was dotted with chefs, bartenders, assistants, event planners and general culinary workers gearing up for the few hours ahead of them. Final prep work was taking place, health inspectors were giving out temporary permits, bottles were getting last minute polishes and food samples were being plated and lined up.

In a strange way I felt sort of bad for coming up to a table and asking for a bite.

Sort of.

When I took my first plate from chef Maria of Boca Tacos, my guilt easily melted away. Her roasted beet taco with pickled vegetables was outstanding, a perfect and warm way to start off a fun evening.

Gracias Maria!

Chef Maria and pal are all smiles

After having an initial bite I really wanted to sample some drinkables. Luckily there were a good amount of local breweries and distilleries to offer up some refreshing refreshments.

First up was some seasonal deliciousness from Barrio Brewing. After a long day of driving and surviving the monsoon a cool brew or two was well in order.

Sierra Nevada had a good heap of sudsy wonder which helped tone down my anxiousness a bit.

20 minutes till the general public are set loose inside.

I have some work to do.


Swag, swag and more swag

Usurping tacos, tamales and ceviches, I ran to Oasis Fruit Cones to try one of their raspados. This was a great idea on my end.

Fresh summer fruit was paired with crushed ice and vanilla ice cream. Wow. It was hot outside but I was seriously cool on the inside.

Then I headed to the La Estrella Bakery table to sample a bit of, well...everything.

They had mini versions of their orejas, coyotas, envueltos, pan fino and their signature banderas. Now that I had some sugar in me, which was starting to rev me up, it was time to slow down by sampling some home distilled amazingness from Three Wells Distillery.

A few sips of their Sonora Silver and Sonora Copper spirits, derived from the prickly pear fruits, warmed me back up.

Which was good because I was just getting warmed up.

10 minutes till the flood gates open.


Refreshing and delicious

Now to get serious here!

Seis Kitchen had their chicken tinga tacos on hand. Thats right they did!

Reforma brought their al pastor tacos with pineapple, onion and pastor adobo on handmade corn tortillas. Word!

Cocteleria La Palma served fish and shrimp tacos finished with a tangy house "special" sauce. Fantastico!

Tacos, tacos, tacos!


Was I getting taco'd out?

No way man.

We still have 7 minutes left!

Spicy micheladas going down


I was delighted by the snappy flavors brought by Tequila Factory in the Casino del Sol. They made a Yaqui Easter shrimp ceviche with tomatoes, cilantro and hot sauce. Really good.

Then I slurped some vegetarian aguachile from Gringos fixed with jicama, corn, cucumber and cabbage. Wow. A perfect dish for the summer heat.

The Pima Community College Hospitality program brought a variety of empanadas, such as savory pulled pork, drunken peach and pineapple, chocolate cajeta and a cinnamon sugar chipotle, black bean, sweet potato with an avocado cilantro crema.

Holy schnikes! Three minutes!

So much left to eat...and drink!

Some of the best conchas and empanadas in town

To wrap things up I hit up Rollie's for a chile citrus pork tamale before heading over to Percheron Mexican Grill for a hearty bacon wrapped burrito bite.

El Cisne offered cotija and queso fresco stuffed chile while Crossroads had chicken, beef, and nopales in red sauce fajitas.

What else? What else?

Oh, there's chef Gary Hickey from Charro Steak!

What are you serving? Nutella tamales with pecans, chocolate drizzle and whipped cream?

Oh okay.

Whoa. This is delicious. It's really....

And that's when the house lights dimmed.

You just can't go wrong with Rollie's 

I was standing next to one of the heavy doors and I watched them slowly open. The now slightly darker arena was basked in late afternoon sunlight which was quickly shadowed by those that have been waiting to get inside for over an hour.

"Here they come!", somebody yelled. A more prophetic observation had yet to be uttered.

A mariachi band blared from the stage, floor staff began moving at an excited pace and the eyes of those about to deal with constant lines grew wide once they got sight of the oncoming barrage.

Personally, I have a weird problem with big crowds. Perhaps its the only child still in me but when I witnessed the ballroom quickly tsunami with eager villagers, I kinda forgot I was to meet some friends here due to an immediate feeling to flee.

One more though!

In the back was a set up for local musician Roger Clyne and his line of tequila. Each shot came with a small taste pairing. The Silver met with salted mango. Okay. Yes. The Raspado with sharp aged cheddar cheese. Hmm. I like what you're doing here. And the Anejo, which had a great heat and kick, was coupled with dark chocolate and orange peel. Huh. Very nice indeed.

That's when I got sandwiched between people that have been drinking since noon. So I thanked everybody in the general sense and found my way out.

Is this...Windex? Whatever I'll take two

As promised earlier there was a shuttle waiting and seeing as the event (officially) started, I was the only one needing a ride back to the parking lot.

Thankfully the drive home was dry and easy because I was near blind from food and libations. Don't worry! I wasn't drunk. Not even close. Trust me, I'm a professional. Plus I was too packed in with delicious Mexican inspired food from the greatest stretch of restaurants in southern Arizona to acquire any real effects.

Just loose. Which was good.

Once home I just sat there feeling amazing, appreciated and above all lucky to have been not only invited to such an event, but a part of it.

So thank you SAACA, especially Gretchen Harper, for giving me the VIP treatment for the night.

But apologies for those that I promised I'd meet there.

What can I say? In a half hour I had touched, traversed and tasted all that I could.

Like I said....I'm a professional.

Cool, crisp and delicious aguachile as far as the eye can see

A big Homeskillet thank you to all the chefs and participants for this years Tucson 23.

Your hard work is appreciated. Hope to see you next year.


Chef Gary putting the nut in Nutella tamale

Camera, Typing and Much Eating and Drinking
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
Braving the Monsoons, 2018

Metal Influence:

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Thoughts, Prayers and Pizza

This was the 2nd time I was in attendance of the annual Pizza Throwdown held at the esteemed hallowed halls of Fresco Pizza and just by first view I knew that it had doubled in size. By the count of attendees at least. Perhaps one or two more contestants, but both the interior and outside areas were jammed with people. This is a good thing.

I think.

It means that more good folk are willing to come out on a hot evening and chow down on some seriously delicious pizza created by some seriously talented people.  Our lil' town that could is starting to be a city that does and events such as this makes a food dork like me smile just a wee bit wider.

A good lookin' and happy crowd

In fact, inside Fresco was so shoulder to shoulder that all those bodies, combined with the 100+ degree weather outside, it made for a makeshift sweat box of late spring food party attendees. Not that anyone minded. We were all too content to sample local beers and slices of doughy divinity to take any real notice or complain.

I mean, who complains at a pizza throwdown event?

Idiots. That's who.

The rest of you are cool.

Yes please

Beer was mercifully provided by Crooked Tooth, Barrio and Thunder Canyon, who also brought with them chef Matt Kraiss as a throwdown winner hopeful.

Outside of a well balanced pizza, Matt also made a peach and house spiced rum slushy of sorts which went really well with the early summer swelter. So gosh dern tasty. What a way to start the event.

And cold beer is good too. Like really good.

Too good.

Is there such thing as 'too good'?

I sure hope not...

Thunder Canyon about to go down

Fresco Pizza has been a long time favorite of mine so their pie was easily in my top 3.

Oh wait, I just got started. Nevermind.

But, check it: Fresco brought the old school realness by making a semifreddo "ice cream" cookie sandwich. Yes! Can you dig it? I sure did. Even with the ice cream running down my hand and arm, it took me back to an innocent time of youthful summers come and gone. Very, very good.

Although I never drank beer as a kid.

That came later...

Fresco fantastico

Thing is, all of this fine revelry came the day after Anthony Bourdain passed. So most of us food heads were a bit down in the dumps.

Pizza makes things better though. As does beer.

And good friends.

And making people happy.

So....we had that going for us.

Roccos: Cheesy and spicy, just like the owner

Outside of pizza there was also a dessert throwdown, so a lot of contestants brought their sweet game with them

Chef Michael of Mama Louisa's made a Nutella based pizza while the ladies at Gourmet Girls made a panna cotta creation. All of it made the grade. Not one fail.

It was tough to decide on a winner. So on my end I just gave everyone a big thumbs up and let the general public be the judge.

Plus, doesn't a food blogger need to be a bit impartial in situations such as these? I think so.

So...I was.

Mama Louisa's never lets us down

About a half hour in I was about 4 slices down along with 2 or 3 desserts. Pack in some local beer on top of that and the belly was beginning to get, well...packed in.

It's a tough job but (sigh) somebody has to do it.

We are professionals. We press on!

Getting a bit pizza blind at this point

Rocco's did an ode to Tacos Apson, one of the best taquerias in Tucson, or anywhere really. The pizza featured carne asada, grilled onions, mushrooms and green chiles. It was amazing.

This year Mama Louisa's didn't do a Joe's Special (a Tucson tradition since 1956) pizza, one that is topped with spicy house sauce and linguine, but they did bring some classic inspirations.

In fact, most of the entries were pretty toned down and just let the fresh ingredients speak for themselves.

After eating pizzas with reduced truffle espuma and a confit of sea urchin anus it is nice to just have a decent slice with pepperoni.

And we got plenty of that.

And then some...

Panna cotta pizza? Girl you crazy...

An hour in and the stomach was stretched out. The beer goggles were strapped on tight. The interior of Fresco was a wall of drippy pizza party goers.

I got a little woozy there for a second. So I stepped outside where it was oddly slightly cooler, maybe a chilly 99 degrees, and chatted with some friends over, yes, a beer.

C'mon now! I'm Metal Mark.

It''s what I do.

No stopping now, we're in too deep

In the end, just like last year, Fiamme Pizza Napoletana took the big prize. Shocker.

No. Not really.

Fiamme always delivers the goods with their Neapolitan pies so when they nabbed the crown we all nodded and went, "Yeah, sure...that makes sense."

Thankfully enough, Fresco won best dessert with that ice cream sandwich bliss and Barrio Brewing  took it for best beer.

But was there really a "best"? Not too sure.

I do know this, everybody did their best and I know that Tucson is on its way to becoming one of the best food cities. And I am lucky to be a part of it.

And so are you!

And the winner is!

So a big Homeskillet cheers to Casino del Sol, Thunder Canyon, Gourmet Girls, Upper Crust Pizza, Arizona Pizza Company, Mama Louisa's, Rocco's, Fiamme and host Fresco for bringing the saucy cheesy badassery.

I'll see you all again next year.

Thanks everybody!

Chef Matt and the TC crew in full effect

And on my way out.


Oh, hey, looky there...

Camera, Typing and Not Pooping for a Week
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
So Hot in Mid June, 2018

Metal Influence:

Friday, June 8, 2018

Anthony Bourdain

The first time I heard about Anthony Bourdain was around the year 2000. I was working for a prominent independent bookstore in San Francisco, The Booksmith, when we got a few copies of his book Kitchen Confidential in. At the time I was so heavily immersed in the local music scene as a freelance journalist and sometimes DJ that a funky book about some cook spilling the beans about what really goes on in kitchens across New York didn't even cross my mind as a possible read. Even though I was (and still am) an adventurous and curious eater and worked in bars and restaurants here and there for most of my money earning career. It just didn't interest me at the time. So I shrugged it off, sold it to a few customers and that was that.

Years later, after moving to Tucson, I landed a job with a non-profit children's dinosaur museum as manager but that came to an end two years in due to horrible mismanagement of funds by the owners. Having no job lined up I found myself suddenly unemployed. My wife had been working at Old Chicago on Campbell Ave for years and assured me that she could get me a job there. Before I knew it I was commanding the busy pizza line, working the front line and even acting as kitchen supervisor. This introduced me to a whole new world, the culinary underbelly, one of which I wanted to dig deeper.

That's when I remembered Kitchen Confidential. So I purchased a used copy for a few bucks and dove right in.

It didn't take long for me to slap my head and proclaim "Why didn't I read this earlier?" It was captivating. If this Bourdain guy can cook like he writes then he must be some kind of creative mastermind. Immediately after I picked up and read A Cooks Tour, The Nasty Bits and Medium Raw, all of which were highly influential to me because they were amazingly written. I even took a crack at A Bone in the Throat, which was some kind of murder mystery...thing, but it didn't hold up to his non-fiction so I donated that to my local library. It was around this time that I formed the early inception of the Tucson Homeskillet which got me a few articles with Tucson Foodie which inspired me to revamp the blog and go super balls out as a food writer which lead me to being the Chow writer for the Tucson Weekly.

Cheers Anthony Bourdain. You helped me out in so many ways. Don't know how I'll do it, but I owe you. Big.

Not to mention I watched pretty much every episode of his shows such as Parts Unknown, The Layover and of course No Reservations, sometimes marathoning them when I had bouts with my own depression. Sitting there sinking into the chair, unable to eat or think correct, it was great to see this snarky New York punk, who drank and (in the first few seasons) smoke, curse and generally take absolutely no crap from anyone, while eating the most amazing cuisine across the globe, always seemed to make me feel a bit more human, when I actually felt like I was drowning. The guy had the best frikkin' job in the world.

And now he's gone.

It sucks that his best friend Eric Ripert had to find him dead in a room in Paris. I can't imagine your pal for so many years just laying there motionless at the fairly youngish age of 61 with you unable to do anything but call the proper authorities and have him picked up. Ugh.

Depression is a mean ass dirty bitch. Now, for me, I have a chemical imbalance due to extremely high levels of estrogen, so meds and solitude help when the cogs aren't meeting the spokes of the brain, if you will. I don't know real depression, the kind of unending sinkhole you think you'll never claw out of so the only solution is to just stop. But, in a weird way, I understand it. It makes we wonder though if it was just the heavy cocktail of pills that we are prescribed there days for our ailments that did him in. I don't know. He didn't say. I mean, I never met the man.

Now I never will.

One of the best memories of Bourdain was listening to the audiobook version of Kitchen Confidential while on a roadtrip with my wife She-Ra. He narrated it, of course, but with his voice it made that past life of his, knee deep in the blood, fire and gristle of kitchens, while wrestling with a huge heroin addiction, seem and feel more real and relevant. Oddly enough we lost that audiobook because we wanted to listen to it again on another roadtrip.

And Anthony Bourdain knew about trips; boat, plane, tuk-tuk, elephant, limos, cabs, subways, snowmobile, train, horse, camel and I think he even was even taken up a mountain by a Sherpa when his knee gave out. Wow.

To say the least, what a great trip it was with him.

Thank you Anthony Bourdain. You'll be hanging out with Iggy Pop again sometime, but...let's not hope anytime soon. We need some raw punk energy down here for a little while longer.

But I hope the food is good. Wherever you are...


Friday, June 1, 2018

How Heavy The Iron (Chef) Crown!

So about a week ago I posted a fun lil blurb about the Whiskey & Smoke event at Trident III. Well immediately after leaving that gathering, I hit the long, hot and slightly dull road to Casino Del Sol to take court with the next round of Tucson Iron Chef hopefuls.

Now, I didn't mind the drive, I just plugged in the phone, set Pandora to "Doom Metal" and let the heavy riff drone melt the outland urban sprawl into quasi bearable, but the minute I stepped foot in that hotel/gambling hall I immediately remembered how much I despise casinos. And I forgot that people can smoke in those things. Yuck. Even with million dollar ventilation, the high stakes drifters passing by sucking down a Kool Mild still reeks intense for a guy like me who has never smoked and never plans to. Not to mention the kling-klang-boing of betting machines just makes past Vegas excursions when my internal system was set on "totally fxxked up" come back like a bad bad penny slot sweat of a nightmare. So I grabbed an overpriced beer, calmed down and went out to the pool area where the event was taking place.

The dusty wind of that territory was blowing and the sun beat down on chefs, sous and patrons in a late spring calamity. Who thought a food event outside in the Tucson blaze was a good idea should rethink just stations equipped with umbrellas and go for a full tarp shade area with misters at the go and enough free water to cool the internal jets of those imbibing in loads of meat soaked nibbles.

Before entering, I did see a young lady with very fake, very round boobs and I thought to myself, "Goddam casinos!" Even in Tucson, size queens looking for a sucker that just struck it rich convene. Whatever. I had some eating to do.

Now, I am not going to say who was my favorite. As an impartial blogger and writer for a large weekly publication, I kept it to myself. I will say this: There were some obvious winners and a couple of sad sad losers. But I will not say which!

But congrats to those that made it this far and good good luck.

For now let's just take a photo journey through my day at Casino Del Sol and the Tucson Iron Chef showdown.

Ugh. Casinos.


Current Iron Chef, Travis Peters, and alligator pal

Mike Elefante chatting up another satisfied customer

The Gourmet Girls serving up the gourmet realness

Chef David representing the Starr Pass with star quality food

Chef Alan doing what he do

Maynard's is in the house...and by the pool

Oh look...vegetables!

Rollies just plain rules

Chef Marcus in gleeful repose

Trust the Devon (Sanner) fisherman

Chef Jeremy is on point from the Four Points 

Chef Wendy is so chef chic

CJ hamming it up to be the next Iron Chef Tucson contender

Camera, Typing and Impartially Keeping My Fingers Crossed
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
At A Goddam Casino, Spring 2018

Metal Influence: