Tucson’s Best New Restaurant

The Coronet in Tucson

I don’t come to Tucson to eat rustic European cuisine at a brasserie style restaurant. It somewhat shocks me that there is such a place here, and that it’s popular, and that the food is good AND that the location and restaurant interior are so perfectly on point! But that just proves that my ideas about Tucson cuisine are badly out of date because The Coronet has worked some serious magic and created a cozy bistro that fits in perfectly right at the junction of downtown and 4th Ave.

The Coronet in Tucson

The Coronado Hotel building dates back to 1928. Chef owners Sally Kane and Gregor Kretschmann took over the restaurant space in 2013 and opened The Coronet last year. The original windows are gorgeous and the rest of the interior blends Mission tile floors, Victorian stained glass and furnishings collected from all manner of far-flung places on Craigslist. This eclectic blend of European influences inside an old adobe building brings the Spanish style of Old Tucson into the funky setting of 4th ave. and makes it all work. Sally Kane said she wanted to create a café like you would find in any major city and she’s succeeded well because The Coronet feels true to the desert spirit but the food is definitely 21st century.

The Coronet in Tucson My friend Eric and I had cocktails and we tried the sardines, the pate and the cheese plate. All the food was beautifully presented, the cocktails weren’t too sweet or too pretentious and our server was both knowledgeable and attentive, sometimes a rare combination in Tucson. Of all the food, I least loved the pate de campagne, which I expected to be mostly meat but instead had layers of vegetables and seemed more like a terrine. But that was a fault of expectations I think, and not the actual dish.

The Coronet is completely delightful. It looks good, it feels good and it tastes good. Tucson food lovers, this is the place you’ve been waiting for. I hope you get a lot more like it.

New Restaurants in Tucson

Tucson street art

Tucson has a somewhat conflicted food culture. The overall vibe of the city is casual and some of its best food can be found in open air taco stands. However, there’s a growing group of Tucsonians who want to dress up and go out for dinner and cocktails. Every time I come back to town I find new upscale, urban restaurants with long wait times and unusual food choices.

Here are the four new restaurants I tried this visit:

Nook Downtown

Far and away my favorite of the four, Nook is a downtown Tucson’s newest breakfast/lunch place. With wooden tables and flooring, brick walls, padded chairs and a light open airy feel, Nook follows the latest restaurant design trend of stylish comfort. Like you’re at home but it’s way better looking.

Godfather benedict

I had the Godfather Benedict, one of Nook’s signature dishes, with arugula, prosciutto and poached eggs topped with hollandaise sauce and a balsamic reduction. Everything about this dish was perfectly on point. The proscuitto was thinly shaved and slightly fatty, the arugula had a nice peppery bite and this hollandaise might have been the best I’ve ever had. I fear thick clunky hollandaise sauces and so I rarely order benedict but this sauce was thin and creamy with a lemony kick to it. I wanted to lick the plate. Nook is Matt and Nikki Thompson’s first restaurant and I think they’ve knocked it out of the park. I hope Nook gets lots of love and attention so it’s going strong the next time I’m in town.

Oink Cafe

The unfortunately named Oink Cafe is another new breakfast place in town. That picture above pretty much says it all: bacon. Lots and lots of bacon. Pig is the trendy animal of choice in the 2000s and while it’s hard to argue with crispy fatty luscious bacon strips, I don’t know that Oink is doing anything new with the pig. The flight of bacon, above, had 8 different preparations, largely indistinguishable from each other.  I think your average breakfast diner would rate them as “good, slightly spicy, good, maybe sweet?, good, good, smoky?, good.” The rest of the food we had was also good but nothing I’d return to eat. I’d rate this place as solidly average with lots of bacon.

Jackson Tavern

Given that I just spent a week in Maine, i was amused to hear that one of Tucson’s newest restaurants serves New England style seafood. Jackson Tavern is Brian Metzger’s newest restaurant (also Poppy Kitchen and Gio Taco). The polished wood tables and open design of the restaurant bring a casual neighborhood feel to the dining room and the U-shaped bar in the next room definitely looks like the northeast. Of course there are pictures of lighthouses, since I can’t get away from them even in the desert. Design aside, I think the seafood concept is such an unusual choice for the southwest. Who comes to the desert looking for clam strips? But I think this restaurant is a perfect example of the growing food culture in Tucson and underlines the desire to move beyond all the usual food options in town.

IMG_1747

I had the clam strips, which were surprisingly tender albeit with quite a lot of breading. We also had deviled eggs that were ok and my friend Chris had the mac and cheese, which he said was really delicious. I think Jackson Tavern is a unique offering for Tucson. It might be a hard sell in a place so far from water but for people who want good seafood in the desert, they won’t be disappointed here.

Reforma Cocina y Cantina

Reforma Cocina y Cantina is going to do really well in Tucson because the St Phillips Plaza area is known for good dining, these owners also run the very popular Union Public House next door and the restaurant itself is lovely. Designed like a Spanish style adobe hacienda with white lights outside and a dazzling full wall display of agave spirits inside, this is exactly the kind of location the Tucson dinner crowd wants.

I wish the food were better. The best things we had were side dishes: the arroz oaxaqueno with poblano chilies and queso fresco was flavorful, spicy and delicious and the esquites, charred corn with chipotle lime crema, tasted exactly like the grilled street corn slathered with crema and cotija sold in Mexico. However, my shrimp tacos had overcooked shrimp and a lack of flavor – though the hand made tortillas were good – and the chili en nogada with poblano chili and vegetarian chorizo had way too much dried fruit and the strangest mealy consistency. Even the tortilla chips in the picture above were slightly tough and the salsa lacked salt and heat. Given Tucson’s well deserved reputation for excellent authentic Mexican food, Reforma’s food was disappointing.

However, like I said, the food isn’t the point here. We had a hard time getting a reservation on a Saturday night so it’s certainly popular and the restaurant has a nice vibe and it’s beautiful.

I’m happy to see another excellent breakfast restaurant in Tucson just as I’m happy to see Tucson’s food culture grow.  I hope that the burgeoning interest in dining out will actually develop Tucson’s food scene into a place where the beautiful restaurant spaces have food equal to the surroundings.

Yoga Vida Tucson

Yoga Vida Tucson

It’s strange to come back to Tucson because I have a lot of history here. I moved here in the mid 90’s on a whim and stayed for a decade, which was slightly longer than was good for me. In hindsight I only stayed long enough to do everything I needed to do, it just took longer than I thought. By the time I left I practically ran out of town.

Since 2006, I’ve been back to Tucson (usually reluctantly) every year or so to visit my friends and my storage shed. Normally I only stay for a brief few days but for one period of time in 2011, I moved back to Tucson temporarily to write a book and during that time I started going to this yoga studio regularly.

Being on the road all the time, I enjoy the familiarity of Bikram studios all across the nation. I know what I’m getting into and yet I have a different experience in each class. Bonnie and Yoga Vida are directly responsible for my love of yoga studios that teach the Bikram method without the dialogue. I can appreciate the need for dialogue and the emphasis on certain Bikram-specific practices (LOCK YOUR KNEE!)  but there’s a yoga spirit that can be lost in a Bikram class because of the stridency of the speech. What I really enjoy is doing a familiar sequence of poses with instructors that extemporize verbally, correct postures, tell stories and don’t talk about Japanese ham sandwiches. Plus I always come away with something to think about.

In class this weekend Bonnie started by saying “Let’s go into this slow. Work as hard as you want, but let’s start slow.”

That is pretty much the exact opposite of everything I hear in my normal life. Everything around me (including the drill sergeant in my head) says move fast, hit the ground running, catch up, you’re getting left behind. Nothing says “Go slow. Think about the work before you do the work. Easing in is ok…”

She followed this by saying “Let’s pretend we don’t know what these poses look like and focus on what they feel like.” In other words, lifting out of the arch of my foot doesn’t look like much but it feels gigantic. Shifting my gaze from my knee to my navel might not change anything about my posture but it changes everything about my intent. If I’m always depending on some exterior source, like a mirror, for corrections, I won’t ever know what it feels like to do it correctly because sometimes the changes are too small to be seen.

Interestingly, both of these sentiments can be flipped around. Some days are about starting fast, moving more and visually correcting myself. Pushing harder than I want to but getting further than I expect.

The trick is knowing what day it is.

 

Crave Coffee Bar for Dessert

Tucson, AZ

My friend Eric told me about Crave. He texted me an incredible looking dessert picture and said the coffee bar owners were from Kosovo and made all their pastries in house. Tucson doesn’t lack for coffee bars or handmade pastries but something about the picture and his enthusiasm stuck with me.

Months later I drove by Crave and on a whim I stopped for lunch . The interior is cold and clean and bright with lots of metal and glass.

Tucson, AZ

Tucson coffeehouses typically run to the warm, comfy, bright and funky, the kinds of places you can spend a whole afternoon. Crave offers a very different kind of vibe. In a different city there would be people ordering shots of espresso and slamming them while standing at that steel bar and reading the front page of the NY Times before running off the jobs in high finance. Tucson doesn’t have many people that need that kind of stand-up-rush-through-outta-my-way -I-have-stuff-to-do kind of coffee experience so I’m not sure where Crave fits into the Tucson’s coffee culture. But I do know that the coffee and the dessert are worth a return visit.

I ordered lunch, something they called a panini but was more of a wrap/quesadilla hybrid with smoked salmon, boursin, lettuce and tomato in a tortilla type flat bread.

Tucson, AZ

The fresh flavors were great but the whole thing was hard to eat. Too flimsy to pick up without everything falling out and sort of odd to eat with a fork. I hope they repackage this idea because I almost love it.

Then I got a honey biscuit to go

Crave Coffee Bar

Imagine a giant shortbread cookie soaked in the nut flavored honey they use on baklava and you have a faint idea of the delectable nature of this honey biscuit.  A little cursory googling on Kosovo desserts reveals that baklava is pretty popular there so I don’t know if that’s the inspiration for this honey biscuit or if it just has a similar flavor for me since I’m relatively unfamiliar with Eastern European desserts. Either way, I’d go back to Crave simply to order another of these biscuits.

I actually ate half of it in the cafe and then had to call on my inner adult and put the rest away or I’d have finished it and ordered a second one to go.

SO. GOOD.

Crave is an unusual addition to Tucson’s coffee houses. They’re a little out of the way, the shop is small and you won’t want to stay long. But their coffee drinks get rave reviews on line (I got the drip coffee and it was good) and I think the honey biscuits are spectacular. They do  have a drive through, so maybe that’s the best solution.

So here’s your ideal late afternoon scenario. Ready? Ok then.

Go through the Crave drive thru, get a coffee and a biscuit to go and take it somewhere scenic. Perhaps Gates Pass to watch the sunset? It’s quite a drive over there though so you might want to get two biscuits because I promise that one will be gone by the time you arrive.

Hey, no problem! Please enjoy. You’re welcome.

Robert’s Restaurant in Tucson

I have a weakness for diners. Some of my favorite memories from college involve a tiny diner in Wheaton, Illinois called Round the Clock where I’d meet my friend Kateri for Sunday lunch. We’d drink coffee and talk for 4 hours until I had to go to work where I’d jitter my way through the first couple hours of my food service shift until all I’d processed all the excess caffeine.

In the many years since I’ve found that a good diner has:

1. Above average service (bonus points for waitresses that call me honey and keep my coffee cup filled)
2. Breakfast all day (bonus points for perfect crispy hash browns and thick cut bacon)
3. Lots of great tables near windows (bonus points for a location on a busy street where I can get a lot of interesting street color with my breakfast)

I have a couple favorites across the country including Arlis’s in Bellingham, WA

Bellingham, WA

Original Market Diner in Dallas TX

Dallas, TX

And Loveless Cafe in Nashville, which isn’t a diner but has all the above mentioned elements of diner-ness.

Nashville, TN

In Tucson, there are a few decent diners but I like Robert’s the best among them.

Tucson, AZ

I like sitting at the bar watching the kitchen pass through where the waitresses congregate

Tucson, AZ

The bacon and cheddar omelette is gigantic and full of bacon, the potatoes are only ok but the jalapeno toast is baked in house and is buttery, spicy and fantastic.

Tucson, AZ

The whole vibe of the restaurant is calm, even when they’re busy. The waitstaff is speedy, there’s no crying or yelling during breakfast service and there’s almost always a seat open at the bar. I wish they were open past 2pm but you can’t have everything.

Check out Robert’s for breakfast and if you’re still hungry afterwards, they also make their own pies.

A great diner = breakfast + pie.

Get the #45 at Miss Saigon

The most popular vietnamese restaurant in Tucson also happens to be the best. Doncha love it when that happens? Miss Saigon is a small place at the edge of the UofA campus in a tiny “strip mall” that includes a Bruegger’s Bagels and Santa Barbara Ice Cream. Ice cream, bagels, bubble tea and free wifi  might well be the AZ student’s dream list for a perfect destination and thus Miss Saigon is perpetually crowded with tan kids in flip flops and shorts.

The bubble tea is a big draw

Miss Saigon, Tucson AZ

I know that not everyone enjoys giant black tapioca balls in their coconut jasmine milk tea, but I love it. I think you could get little pieces of jellied fruit instead but it doesn’t have the same visual appeal.

Even though there’s always a wait for a table, the food is worth it. I’ve never had a bad meal here and over the last year I’ve become partial to #45 Bún Thịt Nướng

Tucson, AZ

otherwise known as chargrilled pork and rice noodles with greens. I like their pho and sometimes enjoy their curry as well but I mostly wake up and crave this pork bún dish in particular. It’s just the right amount of salty, chewy, fresh goodness that I want to slather with their homemade siracha sauce and slurp up with chopsticks.

Tucson, AZ

(I admit to amusement at Miss Saigon’s website FAQ list that includes exactly three questions, one of which is “do I have to use chopsticks?” I say, yes. Definitely.)

So, check out Miss Saigon for great Vietnamese food. While you wait for a table you can eavesdrop on students talking about finals and parties and roommates and then you can wander down to Santa Barbara afterwards and get ice cream.  That’s what you call a great summer evening in Tucson.

And yes, it’s already 90 degrees so summer’s officially here. Go get a bubble tea to celebrate!

Stuck

All yoga teachers say “work with the body you have today,” which I think is intended to encourage us to be in the present moment.

Today in class Bonnie talked about the ways in which we respond to Bikram differently from day to day. Some days the poses come easily and depth and relaxation follow. Other days, it’s all work. She said that when it’s work, it’s easy to get mentally stuck remembering that it was easier yesterday or last week or when we weren’t injured or tired or over it.

Then she said, “Let yourself be stuck but not miserable.”

So you’re stuck. The poses used to be easier, you used to be more flexible, you felt better yesterday and had more focus and walked out of class feeling like a yoga superstar. Good for you.

Today is different. So what.

Be stuck. It’s where you are. You don’t have control over the elements and the tides and the moons aligning or the sick kids, cranky boss, terrible traffic or whatever else piled up to contribute to your lack of focus and flexibility in class. But don’t be miserable about it because you do have control over that, even if it’s just for 90 minutes in a hot room.

And if you’re miserable, find a way to back off so you’re stuck but not miserable. As Bonnie also points out, it’s just yoga.

Breathe.