Thursday, June 20, 2019

Lions and Tigers and Beer...Oh My!

One of my all-time favorite things about living in Tucson is the Reid Park Zoo. The wife and I go there at least twice a year, when the weather is awesome, not only to support it but to check in with some of our four legged friends. Me hailing from the bay area in California, I am a bit partial to the otters. But seeing Nandi, the baby elephant, grow up is also fun to watch. Pretty soon she will have a brother or sister, one coming in 2020! As are the giraffes, bears, capybaras, tigers and the lions (when they are awake). For a few bucks it is the perfect way to spend a few hours in the afternoon. I mean, c'mon...its a zoo!

Another factor for my love of Tucson, outside of the food, is our expanding craft beer culture. As a food writer I am lucky to attend lots of tastings and events, even getting to know and be friends with some of the brewers. So when I got the invitation to attend a beer event at the Reid Park Zoo, all I could do is squeal in happy anticipation.

Brew at the Zoo happened on Saturday June 15th from 6:30pm-9:30 pm, just as the sun went down and the shady meadows of the zoo cooled down a relatively hot day. The event helped fund the zoo's educational programs and by the look of the attending crowd, I sure hope they brought in enough capital to fund them for the next few years.

Entering the zoo, we were really happy to see most of the nocturnal animals out, such as the lions, but seeing as it was still pretty warm they were just lamping on their tiered wood hangout and not doing much. in fact, most creatures were awake and putting on a show, so that was fun to see. But, okay, the animals we've seen. Now lets get down to the real crux of the evening:


Brew at the Zoo featured twenty-two (22!!!) breweries this year and we couldn't wait to get started. Our first stop was with our friends at Ten 55. Without asking, they filled up the silicone 6oz cup everyone got at the front entrance. I guess I wasn't really paying attention, but when I turned to see who I cut in front of, it was then I noticed a line at least 50 people deep. Minimum. Wow. Ten 55 is great and it was cool to see that the response for them was that wide.

Making our way around the zoo to the other vendors, including Thunder Canyon, Sentinal Peak, SanTan, Pueblo Vida, Mother Road, Huss Brewing, Harbottle, Green Feet, Grand Canyon Brewing Company, Dragoon, Dillinger, Copper Mine, Copper Brothel, Catalina, Button, Borderlands, Barrio, 12West and 1912 along with Booch Craft, which is a high alcohol kombucha, it became very obvious very quick that each brewery had a line just as long. Holy moley! I mean, it was great to see so many people coming out and supporting the zoo but, man, waiting at least 20-30 minutes for a 6oz pour of beer? Uhhh...

A good buddy at one of the breweries told me that he had never worked so hard. Just pouring beer. For about 4 hours. And that is saying a lot because he does a lot of events here in Tucson and abroad.

Now and then I would see a line that wasn't too bad, got my fill, drink it, then ponder standing in another line for another 6oz taste.

As it got darker, the crowd thickened and my wife and friends, along with me, decided to call it. One line literally wrapped all the way around the Tanzania Experience elephant enclosure, summoning at least a 30-45 minute wait.

Writing this blog post I feel as if I am being ungrateful, which is the complete opposite. Thank you thank you thank you Reid Park Zoo for allowing me to come in, take shots and give my love and support to you and your educational outreach. I love you guys and will see you in the autumn when we can cruise around with the animals while sipping hot chocolate. But as a guy dealing with weird social anxiety, I just couldn't do the lines. So I'll have to enjoy the beers at home or at my favorite craft beer bar or even in the tasting rooms at the featured breweries!

Cheers to all of the visiting and local breweries that killed it that night. You kids put your nose to the stone and made everyone feel welcome and happy, even if it took a while to get there.

And thank you once again Reid Park Zoo for letting me come and experience Brew at the Zoo. Hopefully by the amount of paying customers there, and there were a lot!, you secured some funding for your programs. Congratulations.

And now some photos.

Check it out...


Wow...great turn out

The first (and almost last) beer of the night, for me anyway

Big Sherm puttin' in work

I thought the line started here...ah, no

Rewarding folks for their patience...with beer!

As the sun went down, the crowd went up

Its a beautiful night for cold craft beer


One of my favorite was worth the wait

Most people didn't seem to mind the queues

Thanks Reid Park Zoo!

Camera, Typing and Very Grateful for the Invitation
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
A Beautiful Pre Summer Night, 2019

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Sunday, June 16, 2019

There Can Be Only One!

When I was a kid, seeing TV spots and newspaper ads for sunscreen, water park tickets (I grew up in LA), new Kool Aid flavors and trailers for blockbuster movies only meant one thing:


For three whole months all I would do was play video games (in an actual arcade...I'm old!), skateboard, ride my bike, go to said water parks, level up my characters in D&D and spend a week or two away at camp. The warm bliss of those times were nothing short of brief miracles...which were cut short by TV spots and newspaper ads for all that "Back to School!" crap in August. But then that only meant Halloween was near by. With Thanksgiving arriving shortly after. Which could only mean Xmas was to round off the year with gifts, lights and all that holly jolly frivolity.

New Years was okay. Valentine's Day sucked. St. Patrick's Day...meh...

Oh. Sorry. Getting off track here.

Point is, when you graduate and move into all that adult nonsense, summer really doesn't mean that much anymore. Not like it did when you were a kid. Right? To me, living in San Francisco for many years, summer meant the tourists were coming and parking got even more intolerable. But then when I moved to Tucson, summer meant "Sweet Jesus...when is it NOT going to be 100+ degrees? Did you see my power bill? Yeah! Insane! Well at least the students and snowbirds are gone! Let me tell you, back in my day..."

You see, when you grow up, unfortunately summer means something completely different. Here in the Sonoran desert, its almost a burden. Yeah, its hot. Really hot. Yeah, your electric bill is like a mortgage payment.

But, yeah, it also means that its time for badass food festivals!

During the rest of the season, our beloved chefs are working overtime to feed those students, and snowbirds, trying to make them happy, putting in long hours, planning menus to appease the masses and just trying to get home at a decent time to see their family, have a beer and, for fxxks sake, get some sleep!

But when summer hits, hey!, the city is ours lets have some fun!

For me, just like a kid watching commercials for shorts and t-shirts on sale at Sears or seeing that in TV guide all of my favorite shows were in reruns, when I get the invite to the annual Pizza Throwdown, I get that same dopey giddiness as a young suburban dork ready to hit the skate parks, get high score on Donkey Kong and, finally, try and get my stupid elf fighter/thief to level 10. Its so hard. Especially when I keep getting low rolls for my experience at the end of a module. Grrr!!!

2019 marks the 5th season for the Throwdown and, let me tell you, it was probably my favorite. Years previous had most of the contestants work inside Fresco Pizza and Pastaria, the host location since the inception, which usually proved for a cramped and difficult to maneuver environment. As the popularity of the Throwdown grew, last year's event was pretty elbow to elbow, with chefs having to run back and forth from the kitchen among the hungry throng of packed patrons, sort of like trying to exit an overstuffed elevator when you have reached your floor.

This year though was seamless. All of the contestants, including Mama Louisa's, Empire, Shifty's, Gourmet Girls, Dominick's, Upper Crust, Fiamme, Trident, Fresco and reigning champion Rocco's, along with Dante's Fire and The Dutch serving up some sweet desserts, were all tented outside allowing room for patrons to grab the goods, move indoors, if they wanted to, to eat and drink beer away from the afternoon heat.

I myself was too stoked to even consider taking my slice, and beer, away from the participants as I like to chat up what they were offering along with their process. All I can say is that after sampling one of each, and beers from Barrio, Crooked Tooth and Dillinger, I felt more elated than when I kissed that cute girl Kate at camp, even when she even moved in a bit of tongue giving me my first 'French' experience at age 11. Plus I was full. And the food at summer camp sucked.

The combinations and creativity this year were unsurpassed. Sure you're supposed to vote for your favorite, but seeing as I am the writer/blogger here and friends with a good support of the culinary lineup, I let the others do their duty while I remained impartial. On top of it all, I just couldn't decide. They were all so so delicious.

But in the end, there can be only one. Well, top three.

The winners were: 3rd place, Rocco's. 2nd place, Fresco. And in first...Fiamme!

Congratulations kids! You all earned it. And deserve it.

And thank you to the rest of the competing chefs. It was all so amazing. Like I said, I really couldn't pick a winner. This was the toughest, and tastiest, year so far.

Cheers to Tucson Originals for the invite and I can't wait for next year's Throwdown.

You see, being an adult doesn't mean you can't be excited for fun stuff in the summer. You just have to harness that youthful energy into a new happy cataclysm.

For me its pizza.

And beer.

And, yeah, the students and snowbirds are gone for a few months. Tucson is ours again!

Thanks everybody.

Now lets check out the photos from this years Pizza Throwdown!


Here we go!

Oh, it is so on

A good crowd outside

And a good (if not slightly cooler) crowd inside

That balsamic drizzle on Dominick's pizza was outstanding

Elote pizza from Empire and a frosty brew from Crooked Tooth = heaven

As Upper Crust chats up their pizza, Bobbie from Dante's sizes up the oncoming, and hungry, crowd

Scott Volpe from Fiamme, literally the hardest working pizzaiolo anywhere

So happy to hear that Mat from Fresco is putting the 'Umami Tsunami' on his regular menu

The Rocco's crew surveying their award winning, and Guy Fieri approved, pizza

Marcus from The Dutch making mini pancakes in pans used for ebelskivers

How is that crust gluten free? So good!

It was hot. Ice cream melts. Didn't matter. It was yummy.

"But Mikey...where is the Joe's Special pizza?"

Nevermind, this is what Mama Louisa's served up this year, yeah...

Matty from Shifty's after I said I was going to steal that skate deck of his. Ha!

Camera, Typing and Feelin' Cheesy 
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
A Warm Late Spring Afternoon, 2019

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