Are you already sick of people saying, "Can you believe it's 2019? Psshhh...I sure can't."
Like every year just sneaks up on people. "Wait...what the? New Years? But it was just Halloween...then Thanksgiving...then Hanukkah...then Christmas! It can't be New Years...I'm not ready!"
Well get ready because 2018 is gone. 2019 sits in front of us like a plate of mystery meat with a side of 'what the heck are those'? It was like that late January of 2017 right? And 2016. And 1756. And 2 A.D. So on and so forth. Just get into it man. Because it can't be stopped.
Oh, and check a calendar now and then.
For Metal Mark and the Tucson Homeskillet it was another 12 months of solid food feats, furor and foibles. As always, we had fun, even though there were a few missteps here and there. And thanks to our continuing contribution to the Tucson Weekly, our reach into the Southern Arizona culinary eatscape continues to grow and grow.
With that said, lets look back on the Homeskillet year that was.
Here we go...
2018 started off kinda funky with this strange anomaly: Not only did new restaurant Abuela's close down a month or so after I visited it, but for some reason every picture I took, EVERY PICTURE, did not make it onto my camera. It was very, very odd.
After hanging out there, trying the food, which was quite tasty, chatting with the owners and, yes, taking a bunch of pics of the food, I went home to upload what I had snapped only to find Matilda, my trusty digital camera, empty. Like...how?
Luckily I took a few shots on my phone and when I turned in my article I included some shots that I snapped for social media intent only, fixing them as best I could with my photo program. I was strangely relieved when my editor sent me an email a day or two after submitting it saying Abuela's is closing soon so they are running a different piece. Whew.
Still, I was sorry to see it shut down as it was a business our friend Jaime's family had put a lot of time and cash into. Now it just sits still unused at the corner of Alvernon and Broadway, in the former Old Pueblo Grill location.
What do you think it will become in 2019? Huh. We shall see...
One thing I love giving serious, well, love to is food trucks, and a stand out, for me anyway, in 2018, was Molecular Munchies.These two dudes serve one of the best burgers I have ever had and operate an anti-griddle on board to serve up rolled ice cream realness. The BBQ bacon jam and sliced Sriracha "cheese" are some of the points leading toward the 'molecular' aspect of their title. That and their carbonated fruits which are a necessity during the Tucson summer beat down.
When we first met, our interview was conducted in some chain chicken bullcrap joint with kids running amok, mainly because it was the middle meet spot between us all. Plus the staff didn't care that we were just sitting there and not ordering or eating their greasy shlub grub. But when I finally came aboard the truck and sampled the goods I knew that getting the word out about these guys was important. To me anyway.
To see where they are setting up next, you can follow them HERE.
Everything My Mom Ate
My mom came to visit us in March for her 71st birthday and for a full week I took pics of everything she ate (at least while I was present). It was right after the Superbowl and her beloved Eagles (she lives in Delaware and has been a fan for decades) had just won so all she wore was Eagles gear.
We're talking breakfast at the Cup Cafe, salsa at Guadalajara, her favorite harvest salad at Old Chicago and BBQ everything, including that pizza, at BBQ Rush, where we stayed the night seeing as it is in a KOA campground site.
This was one of my favorite Homeskillet projects of '18, mainly because we got to show my mom around town a bit more because last time she visited Tucson was in the middle of summer and we usually took meals in her hotel room or our place. It gets hot in Delaware but not Tucson hot.
Restaurants, both old and new, to get featured in the Weekly is one thing I absolutely love to do but now and then you need to let the good people of the Old Pueblo know where their food comes from.
On a chance drive on a dusty stretch of Country Club, like way south side, I spotted a greenhouse parked in the old playground of a once special needs school. Doing a bit of sleuthing, I found out that a biz called Merchants Garden was now the resident.
Chaz Shelton, who informed me that he had no previous agriculture experience, and his team provide some of the top Tucson restaurants with some of the freshest and richest produce I have ever eaten. They grow a mustard green that has the effervescent quality of wasabi. I am crapping you negative. The secret? Tilapia.
They have tanks of tilapia and use the poop (biofiltered and heavily processed) to aquaponic the product. The result is something unique and absolutely delicious. You can't just roll up off the street and buy a head of lettuce, for now, but they are working on being a center for locally sourced food and culture. Chaz says he wants to utilize all of the space they own to make Merchants Garden a space for chef's to showcase, install a beer and wine garden, host artisanal merchandise and so forth.
Hopefully in 2019 we can see this actually happen with Merchants Garden. So let's all keep an eye on this amazing space in the middle of the dusty nothing.
Cleaning Up, Clearing Out
So a few years ago we noticed a slight leak in our hallway, especially during monsoon season. Our house was built in the '60s by the way and about 10 years ago our old property management team installed a central air unit on the roof that was, shall we say, a bit much for our cozy lil' pad. This thing is huge and through the years our roof began to buckle from its sheer weight. As time passed, that small trickle during a rainstorm grew to a multitude of steady streams and when the summer storms hit we had to call in a clean up unit to dry up the hall and dry out our carpeting.
This is when our current property management team invited us to move into another refurbished unit so we immediately began tossing out, donating and even selling stuff that we really didn't need anymore. This included our couch (which we hated anyway), clothes, electronics and even DVDs, including my copy of 'Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo'. Sad.
I own it on Amazon Prime anyway.
But my big task was to clear out our overstuffed pantry and fridge. So over the course of a weekend I plodded through our supply of oils, marinades, sauces, spices and whatnot and whittled it down to the bare essentials. What I found buried in the freezer was the biggest shock: old sausages, an entire trout, ice cream dating back to '09 and other bits I really don't want to mention here.
Turns out that the unit they wanted to move us into sucked so we just endured over an excruciating couple of weeks having dudes on our roof rip out the old and install the new. It was painful. But now we are locked tight and our once packed cabin is now a little more open seeing as there isn't much left. I'm kind of fine with it. She-Ra really wants a couch though. I'm sure our cat Lil' Poundcake wouldn't mind one either.
There is a jar of molasses that still remains on the top shelf in the pantry. Its about 15 years old and is cemented in. So when we move this house will be pretty empty. Except for that jar of molasses. It just wouldn't budge.
It is so strong.
Austin and the 4th Avenue Deli
Sandwiches. Is there anything that they can't do?
Our very own Austin Counts knows him a thing or two about sandwiches as he is the owner and head meat n' bread man at the 4th Avenue Deli.
When we hung out it was but an hour or so after he had to let a constant problem employee go so he was running the show all by his lonesome. It was kind of busy here and there but Austin chatted up his story for all of Tucson, and hopefully...beyond!, know his story and he does have quite the past. It all lead up to him offering up some of the biggest and tastiest creations between sliced rolls and for that I, we and the Weekly / Homeskillet thank him.
Miracle Berry Flavor Tablets
So we were hipped to these things by a mutual hippie-ish friend that claimed that these little nibs, once they dissolved on your tongue, would alter the flavor of food. Wait...what?
Miracle Berries, also known as synsepalum dulcificum, can change the taste of sour foods into sweet. MBerry is a product that harnesses the 'magic' of the miracle berries into handy tablets that you can purchase online. I'm sure there are places you can grab these but here in Tucson, that didn't happen.
After letting it dissolve on the tongue for 30 minutes we ate some fresh lemons and, huh, they did taste a bit sweet. Not overpowering just...sweeter. Then we got into hot sauce, pickles, grapefruit and all sorts of stuff but the effects quickly wore off.
It was a fun experiment but not the most mind blowing as our pal had promised.
If you do this challenge let us know what you think.
Maybe if we smoked weed we'd get a more concentrated effect. I dunno...
Sausage Deli Turns 40
Now I've eaten a lot of sandwiches, and we just celebrated Austin at 4th Ave. Deli, but nothing, nothing!, compares to the majesty that is the Omar at the Sausage Deli.
When the Deli was about to turn 40 I swooped in to get the scoop on why this corner sandwich shop has endured all these decades. Its because the food is so darn good but for me...for me?...it has to be the gawdam Omar.
Its the 2nd best selling item on the menu and when you look at it, the thing just seems like a normal azz sandwich:
Salami, turkey and Swiss cheese on a roll with onion, bell peppers and pepperonchinis finished with mustard and Italian dressing. Meh you might say. To top it off they microwave it. Eww really?
Some people have asked me what my final meal would be and my usual go-to was the #19 pastrami special at Langer's Deli in LA. Its sheer perfection between bread and on a plate. But a high contender would have to be the Omar. I am so serious about that.
Plus a side of tater tots please. I mean, you can't release yourself from the mortal coil without a side of tots.
When Bourdain took his own life in June, I was so upset that I was sent home from my day job. I have never met the man, but that really doesn't matter does it?
I've read his books, I've watched all of his shows and I followed hm on social media. He just seemed like the kind of guy who if I met in an airport bar we'd strike up a conversation because I don't give a s--t about celebrity status, I'd just like to chat with a dude that has some stories to tell.
Anyway, he's gone but he left behind a trail of words and footage to inspire the next wave of chefs and culinary journalists. Bourdain influenced me in so many ways and what I do as a food writer and blogger. Still does.
Chef Wendy Gauthier
Once again, featuring restaurants and food events is awesome but I still love to write a "get to know this person" article on chefs and local food talent.
Chef Wendy of Chef Chic was one of those characters that I just wanted to type about. Every time we have hung out her big smile and personality was enough for me to stick it to the usually male dominated arena of professional chefs. We just sat and chatted for a good hour and condensing that conversation to a 1,000 words was a bit of a challenge. Plus the fact that she came so close to competing in last years Tucson Iron Chef was a mighty big factor in my focus on her.
Who knows what 2019 will place for Wendy. Will she compete as the first female in the Iron Chef scuffle?
We shall see...
GUT, Pre-Columbian/Postmodern Event
We've been to a few GUT (Gastronomic Union of Tucson) dinners but this one was one of our favorites. Easily.
The take here was to use ingredients that pre-date the influence of European occupancy and transform them into modernist cuisine. The local chefs involved totally outdid themselves and all of us were dutifully impressed.
A standout was the rabbit stew infused with a poblano puree then garnished with native flowers and the roasted quail stuffed with a duck confit with sunflower, hominy and purslane. Dear jeebus did I lick those plates clean.
So stoked to see what the GUT kids have in store for us in 2019.
If they cook it...I will come!
You know what I mean...
When I moved to Tucson in 2006, a lot of locals called this place "Too Stoned". Get it? Yeah.
Well the properties of cannabis goes far beyond the effects of THC, as hemp provides so many health benefits and the good people Flores Concepts (El Charro, etc) developed Hola Hemp tamales.
The tamales wont get you high but to say the least they are dope. Not only are they super delicious, paired with a salsa verde chef Gary of Charro Steak helped develop, but are packed with essential vitamins, minerals, fiber and anti-oxidants. Plus they are 100% vegan and gluten free so everybody can get on board with these things.
We were introduced to Hola Hemp tamales in 2018 but 2019 will see them move beyond our Tucson borders and possibly into other delicious products.
All I know is that I love feeling better after eating a food such as a tamale, not just to harbor my hunger but to help with my oft abused interior. That's why this was a highlight of 2019.
Knife Fight Finale
A definite highlight of being a food writer here in Tucson is getting to be a judge now and then for culinary competitions. 2018 marked my 2nd time being one for the annual Knife Fight finale.
The Knife Fight is an elimination challenge that starts off with about a dozen local chefs that boils down to the top two with a victor to wear the crown and carry the trophy at the end. This years finalists were Gary Hickey from Charro Steak and Roderick Ledesma from PY Steakhouse.
What I do (sort of) remember is drinking a bunch of Malort with chef Travis Peters from the Parish. Malort is this Chicago based and underground "favorite" by locals that, as some has said, kicks your mouth in the balls and oft referred to as the 'champagne of pain'. I can see why. It had this hairspray taste and consistency and the effects were close to those of those in need of unfriending a person IN PERSON. Ugh.
Regardless the food was great and in the end Rod from PY took the honor of being 2018's Knife Fight grand champion.
But that Malort stuff really made me wish for days when I hadn't heard of Malort. For real, imagine if that rinse your dentist makes you swish your mouth with after a cleaning met with the asshole cousin of brake fluid. That kind of touches on what Malort has in store for you.
District Tavern Eatz
When the District Tavern resided downtown it was this haven for those you might find in midnight coffeehouses but prefer to swaddle beers and booze instead. It had this punk-ish DIY approach and for that, when I got the chance, I would step inside and take my chances.
Not a big shocker when it shut down in 2016, due to the onslaught of downtown gentrification and rent hikes, but owner Noel Chester, after a well needed hiatus, reopened the District on Stone Avenue, this time with a kitchen.
The food was, and is, pure comfort, and with a great full bar and a jukebox that does not discriminate for all walks of musical life (think Carcass next to Nina Simone...yeah) the District Eatz was a really fun article to run.
Let's keep our fingers crossed for them in 2019 because a LOT of concepts have come and gone in that space. But I have faith.
Even though I'm an Atheist.
Autumn / Winter Tastings
Chef Ben Caballero of HUB invited me to try out his autumn menu specials, including a robust lasagna and miso glazed salmon. It was extraordinary.
Plus their new house beer made in conjunction with a local brewery was crisp and went well with everything I sampled that day. Yum!
Then in December chef Matt Kraiss of Thunder Canyon had me stop by the try his 17 hour (yes, you read that correct) smoked brisket sandwich, winter carrot soup paired with a grown up style grilled cheese sandwich, all served on house made bread. Uh-mazing!
You see, I'm a food writer because I, that's right, really love food, but a big part of it is supporting and spotlighting talent such as everyone mentioned here, and more so!, that makes this job so rewarding.
So when I get asked to pop in and try a bunch of amazing food and drinks because we've all made connections throughout the years, that is what makes what I do truly special.
Okay...and now for the bad news:
(sigh) Those that didn't make the cut...
Pickled Armenian Cucumbers
Armenian cucumbers are these big, twisty pale green mongrels and somebody from the day job brought in a bushel so I thought I'd try my hand at pickling some.
Doing mass online research I found a good combo of recipes so I spliced them together to make something wholly my own. I've been doing my own pickles for years now so...how hard could it be?
I rinsed them, shaved and them cut them down to spear-like shapes. I did the brine, I filled the jars with peppercorns, garlic, fresh dill and mustard seeds. I let the pickles chill in the pantry for about a month. Then I threw the jars (yes, I did more than one) into the fridge, went to work and when I returned, opened them in hopes of discovering a new flavor that I could literally bottle and sell.
One bite and I spit the mushy, washed out garbage vegetable right the fxxk out. Ugh. Disgusting.
I brought the other jars to work and various others that might appreciate it but....no. The overwhelming response was "Uh...what is this? Did you pickle Oscar the Grouch's mossy taint? Because this is gross."
I couldn't agree more.
Sorry about that. Not every recipe and experiment goes right the first time. Or the second. To be honest I don't think Armenian cucumbers are meant to be pickled. They're too stretched out without a lot of flavor.
That said...on to the next!
Green Fairy Pastries
We caught up with chef Jennifer Rogers parked in front of one of our favorite bars and tried some of her savory food. It was pretty good. We then learned that she does booze infused pastries and grabbed a couple of those, including the rum banana bread, and were even further impressed.
Down the line we hung out and chatted and took a bunch of pics and then...nothing.
Her website disappeared, her Facebook went away and we weren't too sure if chef Jennifer was even in Tucson anymore.
So...can't run an article or blog about a business that doesn't exist anymore. Right?
Still, I do love writing about the people that run small food businesses, especially trucks, but in this case...uh, you still with us chef Jen?
Let us know.
Then we can talk.
Same as Green Fairy Pastries; this 4th Avenue based "Jewish" deli with a music venue in back just couldn't hold on. Run by the same team that opened Tallboys, which is gone as well, Cans was a good idea that nobody thought about. Sucks though. Not only was the pastrami pretty good, as was the beer, but they recently hosted a Black Metal show. Like, who does that in Tucson?
Let's make 2019 a memorable one. What do you say?
Happy New Year everybody!
Camera, Typing and Always Grateful To Be Doing What He Does:
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
Tucson Repping, 2018