Welcome, The Webster

This week, finally, The Webster opened in Iowa City, Iowa.

The Webster is the long-delayed restaurant owned and operated by my daughter Riene and her chef, husband Sam Gelman. They named the restaurant after Sam’s paternal grandfather.

The kids moved to Iowa City – Sam’s hometown – after long stints in NYC and in Boston where they met. Sam worked at Momofuku restaurants working his way up to Chief Culinary Officer. He’s a fabulous chef and I can honestly say the meals he’s created for us over the years have been memorable. I still dream about his cassoulet.

Riene started slinging pizzas here in Tucson. Her specialty was the front of the house and by the time she moved to New York she was working as a manager at Tom Colicchio’s Craft. Her knowledge of wine is impressive. She always seems to find exactly what I’m looking for.

Anyway, they moved to Iowa City to open their own place. They had a pretty specific idea of what they wanted: Fresh and local quality ingredients prepared with finesse and passion and a distinctly Midwestern touch.

Things were moving along at a decent pace when covid hit and everything came to a screeching slow down.

Little by little Iowa City reopened and then they were able to put the finishing touches on The Webster.

The first dinner service was  on May 11th. The only thing missing was us.

Iowa is a bountiful place. Green fields spread in every direction growing corn and wheat and other essential crops. Rivers and lakes are filled with all manner of fish. Pork reigns supreme, but quality grown beef is plentiful. In recent years, young artisans have begun growing and producing craft provisions of all kinds.

The menu brings these products to the table all under Sam’s steady hand.

There are handmade breads, cornbread and biscuits, vegetable-focused small plates, seasonally-inspired house made fresh pasta dishes, and larger plates for two to three people. That’s a fun way to eat, adding to a spirited conviviality to the meal.

One of the pasta offerings, duck egg tagliatelle, cultured butter and reserve Midwest cheese, is a take on fettuccini alfredo and the buckwheat chitarra, spring peas, guanciale, egg is Sam’s ode to pasta carbonara.

The shareable large plates include roasted Iowa chicken, crispy leg, miche, jus supreme is available half or whole.

I’m hoping the whole Wisconsin trout with spring pea & radish, buttermilk and smoked roe will still be on the menu when visit later in the year. The fish might be but I’m sure, given the seasonality of the menu, the accompaniments will be different.

Sides have their own section and include warm nugget potato salad, pella bologna, scallion, togarashi (a sweet, spicy condiment that is popping up on modern menus.)

I sure wish we could be there….

Everybody has an Uncle Joe! Now Tucson has Zio Peppe.

Today is the day!

Zio Peppe is open! Granted only for take-out or delivery, but none-the-less we can now enjoy some clever, carefully curated pizzas and pastas from two of Tucson’s best chefs, Devon Sanner and Mat Cable.

Devon worked for years alongside Janos Wilder and Mat owns both Fresco Pizza and First We Eat Catering with a partial ownership in Dante’s Fire, so you’ve probably been enjoying their foods for some time now.

Located at 6502 E Tanque Verde Road, Zio Peppe was inspired by Cable Uncle Joe Sottosante, who brought Sicilian pizza to Tucson at Tesseo’s Pizza almost a half century ago.

Both chefs are Tucson natives and as such kept Tucson flavors in mind when creating their menu.

For example, the pizza dough blends Caputo 00 flour and local mesquite and hard red wheat flour. Ingredients are sourced from a dozen local sources. And they’re all baked in a rotating oven with the flames just inches away.

While you’ll find a fab pizza with mushrooms grown in Marana at BKW Farms and house made sausage, there’s the Prickly Pickle. This flavors-of-Tucson pie has nopales, cholla buds pickled in pepperoncini brine, red onions in escabeche and guajillo and black pepper crema.

The guys call Zio Peppe (it means Uncle Joe because everyone has an uncle Joe) also spin pasta choices with a nod toward Tucson. The lasagna has a kick from chorizo, red chile sauce, chile con queso, ricotta, spinach.

Other choices might not be so fiery, but certainly sound fabulous. Rumor has it the risotto is to die for.

Sanner and Cable call Zio Peppe a ‘love letter to Tucson’ and its designation as UNESCO’s World City of Gastronomy, in fact there is a gorgeous mural on the wall outside.

To view the full menu and to place orders visit https://ziopeppeaz.com/

Phone 520-888-4242 for daily dessert selection.

Knowing the passion that these guys makes me eager to order a pie or two very soon.

Happy Birthday, El Charro

2022 marks a special anniversary in Tucson.

El Charro Café will celebrate 100 years of serving Tucsonans their iconic Mexican food. The restaurant is the oldest Mexican restaurant run by the same family in the country. Tia Monica started the restaurant in 1921. Today A third generation of the Flores family continues to cook up and serve her culinary creations.

The El Charro story is well-known in these parts (creators of both the chimichanga and the toopo are just a part of the legend), but the real story of El Charro is the people who have dined there.

Over the decades, the Flores family has been a part of peoples’ lives. Birthdays, weddings, engagements, anniversaries, births, end of life celebrations. Former employees have gone on to own their own restaurants, become established writers and celebrated educators and contribute to the Tucson community in numerous ways.

Si Charro, the official name of the collection of restaurants they run, has planned a year long celebration with special events, menus and more.

As part of the celebration, Si Charro 100, is calling for  stories of your favorite El Charro memories. Whether it’s a special event, a work-related story or an exceptional meal, El Charro wants to hear them.

Then 100 of the best stories will be featured in publications and media posts. The writers of the chosen stories will receive a $100 gift certificate to be spent at any of the Si Charro locations.

Send your stories to the dedicated webpage www.siCharro100.com

Deadline is December 2021.

Barrio Brewing Celebrates 30 years of Keeping Tucsonans Happy!

Barrio Brewing is Tucson’s original brewery and Arizona’s oldest.

This week they celebrate 30 years in business!

Dennis Arnold and his wife Tauna opened a small brewery with the idea of sharing their passion for beer with Tucsonans.

The place became so popular they had to move to bugger digs.

The Arnolds are innovators in many ways. First with brewing a long list of beers, then selling the beer statewide, canning their products and in 2020 turning over the reins to the employees. The Barrio Blond is Arizona’s longest continuously brews beer

Today Barrio is 100% employee owned. And because the employees are also the owners, they are invested in every aspect of the business resulting in great beer, outstanding food and sincere, friendly service.

Located in a former warehouse just south of Downtown, Barrio Brewing is a great place to meet and eat.

A full list of beers is always on tap. The food is pub food but done with flair. You don’t just get French fries, you get beer-battered fries. The Big Bang Burger is ‘slathered’ with ancho-chipotle chili cream. The Reuban’s High on Rye is s huge stack of corned beef simmered in Barrio Rojo Ale. The menu has a half dozen kinds of tacos and a Sonoran hot dog.

The patio has a great feel and you get to watch trains swing in and out of Tucson on the nearby track.

Congrats Barrio Brewing and thank you for thirty years of fab beer and plenty of good times.

Feast Celebrates the Big 2 – 0

Feast, one of Tucson’s most popular restaurants, turned 20 on May 1st. While not of ‘legal age’, this event is most remarkable. Restaurants seldom make it past five years, so 20 years is an outstanding accomplishment. But if you’ve ever eaten there (or in this last year ordered a pick-up dinner) you know why Feast has endured.

Doug Levy, owner, executive chef and creative mastermind at Feast is probably the main reason for Feast’s long run. Doug grew up in Tucson and earned his chops working at Café Terra Cotta, where he was hired for his pizza experience. From there he became the executive chef at The Dish, an innovative bistro that woke Tucsonans up to new ways of eating and drinking.

In 2001, Doug took the next logical step and opened Feast.

From the very beginning, Feast stood out from other, more traditional places. The place was tiny with maybe eight tables. The menu changed monthly.

And then there was something they called Tasteful Takeout, where customers could pick a prepared dish that was displayed in a glass case. Choices were limited and once an item was gone, it was gone. People went crazy.

I remember the first time I ate there. I had a broiled fish dish that came with beans. Beans with fish? Unheard of, but I went home with those flavors on my tongue and in my head. I had to go back. Others felt the same way.

Levy was also a wine geek and as such the wine program – even in the days before the term ‘wine program’ was the hip term to use – offered options way beyond the categories ‘Red’, ‘White’ or “Bubbles’. The wines came from around the world not just France, Italy and an odd California rose. Again, people were awed with the huge variety of choices.

Feast expanded allowing for more in house dining, the Tasteful Takeout took a back seat and of course there was more wine.

Then Levy built a freestanding building down the road apiece. Here he was able to expand not just dining options but the wine list became a wine book with hundreds of options. If you couldn’t find a wine you liked well, then you weren’t looking. Wine tastings were added and are still going strong although they’re done via Zoom.

The vibe was casual and welcoming. The food continued to evolve as Tucsonans tastes matured and the wine program began to win numerous awards from distinguished sources. Monthly changes might mean diners wouldn’t always get to have a previous favorite, but Levy’s dishes are always delightful and creative.  (One of my faves, the lobster bread pudding, is one of the few that seems to stay on the menu. Lucky me.)

Then along came the pandemic and Levy had to make some choices. He decided to keep the dining room closed. But this is when his experience with Tasteful Takeout kicked in. Doug expanded the idea so customers could call ahead and then pick up their dinner with limited contact. Even the wine was available. And if need be, they delivered.

Doug was able to keep many of his team, who it must be noted have worked for him for years, which is uncommon in the hospitality industry. This speaks to Levy’s smarts.

Long active in giving back to the community, Levy began cooking meals for first responders, hospital workers and others who toiled daily during the insane first days of the pandemic. Customers could buy the dinners. Levy and team would cook and deliver the meals all over town. This outstanding service is still going strong and has expanded to include homeless shelters and crisis centers. I think I read that the number of donated meals just hit 7,000.

We all should be thankful for the Feast team.

Plans to open the dining room are just around the corner and that probably means getting a table will be at a premium but I’ll be there. You should be, too.

Happy Anniversary Feast! Happy Anniversary, Doug Levy. And thank you for many years of wonderful dining. Here’s a virtual toast to the past and to many years of great dining to come.

Gone with the Wind

Our weekly picnic in the park got blown away today so we brought the great sandwiches from 4th Avenue Deli home instead of heading down to Armory Park.

The Ma Barker was tender sliced chicken with bacon, spicy wing sauce and ranch dressing. There was plenty of bacon and the wing sauce was creamy and had the right amount of heat.

The classic Turkey Sandwich comes Roma tomato, red onion, green leaf, & mayo, but we swapped out the red onion for avocado. This humble sandwich was declared ‘perfect’.

Both sandwiches were served on a Sicilian hoagie roll.

Sorry the black and white cookies disappeared before I could snap a pic.

We’ll definitely go back.

Two Local Chefs Show How Tucson Rolls (um, Cooks)

Culinary competitions in Tucson used to run hot and heavy. Done with a great sense of friendly feuding these events brought the restaurant community together. We foodies were in heaven with all the fab food, wine and hobnobbing.

Due to Covid and time, none are active at the moment.

My first memories are of the Tucson Culinary Festival that was run by the Tucson Originals. In the first year two member chefs were chosen to compete for the Tucson Copper Chef title. The winner would defend the title the following year. The event grew each year and everyone had tons of fun, ate plenty of great food and drank some fine wine. But eventually the festival ran its course and the competition ended.

Barbecue fights, taco challenges and other competitions followed but none with the flair of the Culinary Festival.

Then along came the Stella Artois Iron Chef Competition; a little more upscale, thanks to the sponsorship, but also tons of fun.  This one is still going strong although put on hold due to the pandemic.

Most recently, local chefs created Tucson’s original underground cooking competition for a cause called Tucson Knife Fight. Knife Fight, like so many others, has been put on hold.

But that doesn’t mean our local chefs aren’t finding ways to compete. In fact, two of Tucson’s fiercest competitors have recently brought home trophies and other prizes and have been showing the city proud.

Travis Gary Peters, owner and chef at The Parish, has been known to throw down a knife or two. Back in 2019, he appeared on Guy’s Grocery Games and took home the top prize of $20,000. He also won the Iron Chef in 2017.

Recently, he’s been competing on a more laid-back scale when he entered the King’s Hawaiian Recipe Contest.

Chefs had to create a sandwich using King’s Hawaiian Bread and then upload a photo to the contest website.

Chef Peter’s Queso Birria Burger came in second. Chef toasted a bun in beef fat and then layered a grass-fed burger, Oaxacan cheese, a cheese crisp, pico de gallo, green and red salsa and lime. The result was a savory, spicy, gooey burger with a crunch. The photo is drool-worthy.

Chef Travis says the burger will most likely be found at his soon to be open new venture, The District, which will be located in the former Downtown Kitchen & Cocktails.

Another chef, Michael Elefante, took a team on the road to Las Vegas to compete in several categories at the Steak Cookoff Association. Chef Elefante, along with Chef Gary Hickey of Charro Steak, was one of the originators of The Tucson Knife Fight.

You may know Chef Elefante from his classic Tucson restaurant, Mama Louisa’s, where he’s been cooking and creating fabulous Italian dishes for sometime now. His family has owned the place for decades and it remains a Tucson favorite.

He has a reputation as a fierce competitor having been on Guy’s Grocery Games and a perennial participant in Tucson Iron Chef and Knife Fight.

Chef Elefante’s team competed against 50 other teams. The team consisted of Jay Adams from Traeger, Chef Elefante and his cousin, Ben Holden. Chef Obie from Mountain Oyster Club came along for moral support.

They took home three prizes: 10th in Steak, 11th in Bloody Mary and 18th in Grilled Cheese. The Bloody Mary was a spin on Italian Beef with Tabasco Whiskey. Chef thinks the grilled cheese may have been too big! Is there such a thing?

I’ll be posting about other Tucson chefs in various competitions as they happen. This may be slow but my money is on Tucson chefs racking up many wins.

Janos Vamos! Indeed.

This week I finally got my act together and ordered pick up dinner from Janos Vamos at Carriage House.

Carriage House, as you might know, is Chef Janos Wilder’s latest adventure in a long and celebrated career. Like many restaurant owners in town, he closed his charming Downtown Kitchen & Cocktails and ‘retired’.

As with most creative persons, this James Beard Award winning chef wasn’t quite ready to give up the apron so now Janos offers a menu called Janos Vamos, aka Janos to GO. In many ways it’s a return to his roots when he had his food truck early in his career.

The menu features a couple of starters – one usually being his Downtown Caesar Salad – a choice of three entrees and a dessert.

Orders must be received by Wednesday and sone via the website. It’s easy. The hard part is choosing what you want to eat. The entrees include a meat, a seafood or a vegetarian option.

Pickup was quick and easy. Orders sat on a table inside Carriage House with a very, nice woman there to help.

Everything comes neatly packaged with directions for reheating.

Our starter was the Caesar salad which we split. Next time we’ll order two. We ate it with a slice of seeded wheat from Barrio Bread.

For our entrée we opted for what Janos called, ‘Slow-roasted Salmon Swims into Tucson’. The salmon had been slow-roasted at 250 degrees so it would remain ‘moist and succulent’ and allow for a quick reheat in the microwave. The tender, pink fish was swimming in a carrot nage (nage is a way of cooking that results in a

‘broth which, while light, is strong enough to be served as a light sauce with the dish itself’), snap peas and asparagus. A minted pea cream sat on top and then we were given a small cup of Castelveltrano olives to garnish it off.

The salmon was perfect, fork tender and sweet. The pea mash and the carrot nage added a creamy texture with just hints of each veggie. The snap peas snapped as though they’d just been picked as did the asparagus.

Our wine choice was a chilled Albarino which turned out to be the ideal pairing.

We didn’t order dessert, but we will next time.

The dinner was wonderful and romantic.

I can’t wait to do it again.

Adios Andi

The Tucson food writing community is a special group of people. We’re not besties by any means but over the years we’ve partied together, traveled together, judged contests together and supported one another’s success. There’s always a bit of professional jealousy, of course, but I think we’re thrilled when one of us has a book published or an article in the Times or gets to be the tour guide for a national food show.

That’s why we’ve got mixed emotions as we say good-by and good luck to Andi Berlin. Andi has written food columns for the Arizona Star and thisistucson.com for seven years, but she recently accepted a job at azcentral.com where she’ll be the new dining critic.

We’re all very excited for her but miss her already.

Andi is young but she has an old soul when it comes to food journalism. Her most recent column – and most likely her last in Tucson – is a prime example Featuring five retro restaurants that reflect the charm and history of our city’s culinary scene the piece proves Andi understands that food writing isn’t always about trendy eats.

A few years back she took on the assignment to eat 100 tacos. Not in one sitting like those crazy professional eaters but in one month. She ate tacos all over Tucson, all kinds of tacos, in all sorts of places. And then she chronicled her adventure in delicious detail.

A graduate of the U of A’s journalism school she knows the difference between a madeleine and a mandolin. She knows a macaroon from a macaron.

And while she’d no stranger to high dining, Andi loves searching out all those small, out of the way places. She loves writing about dim sum and dumplings, tortillas and tripe, raspados and risotto. And she does it all with passion and talent. Andi made every research an adventure.

Andi is a friend. I respect her opinion and insight. She was part of my research when I was writing my book, ‘Arizona Chimichangas’ and we’ve shared the opening of restaurants and bars. We’ve also mourned their closings.

I know we’ll be able to read all her writings thanks to the internet, but it won’t be the same. Andi won’t be here.

But I also know that Andi will shine in her new job. She’ll show those folks up north what outstanding food writing is all about. Andi will make them hunger for more.

In this time of covid, we food writers haven’t been able to gather together like in the old days, so I doubt they will be a big going away party for Andi. But know this Andi Berlin, we’re there with you in your grand new adventure.

Good Luck and good eating.

Janos and Arizona Art Live Present

For all of you who are missing Chef Janos Wilder’s luscious cooking there’s a special event just around the corner where you can pick up a specially created dinner.

Teaming with Arizona Arts Live as part of their ‘Ready for the Renaissance’ celebration Janos will be cooking a four-course meal that features the many wondrous ingredients found in our beautiful desert climes.

Chef Wilder has been at the forefront of celebrating the natural bounty of the Sonoran Desert and Tucson’s rich culinary past, He was influential in Tucson being named the first North American UNESCO City of Gastronomy.

This meal reflects those flavors.

CHEF JANOS WILDER’S “READY FOR RENAISSANCE” MENU

TUCSON SPRING GARDEN CHILE RELLENO SALAD

roasted Anaheim chile with black turtle bean ‘soil’, snap peas, fava beans,

fresh cholla buds in escabeche, radishes, borage blossoms,

 jalapeno orange vinaigrette

+++

PAN-SEARED CABRILLA MOJO de AJO

 green corn tamale pie, roasted butternut squash sauce, salsa fresca

+++

LAMB 2 WAYS from the HEART of MEXICO

loin with chipotle recado, mushroom chilaquiles, Native Seeds/SEARCH mole, green chile vinaigrette; lamb shoulder barbacoa, chipotle molasses sweet potatoes esquites

+++

DARK CHOCOLATE JALAPENO ICE CREAM SUNDAE KIT

$65 ++

The complete dinner is priced at $65++ per person and can be ordered online at https://carriagehousetucson.instagift.com/az-arts-live-in-the-kitchen-with-janos-wilder

Orders will be taken up until midnight on Monday, April 26th and can be picked up at the Carriage House located at 125 S Arizona Avenue between 4 and 5:30pm on Thursday, April 29th.

Arizona Arts Live has a series of events planned to celebrate the wonder of Tucson and Southern Arizona including live performances, commissioned murals and more ‘live’ dinners.

An accompanying video is available in which Chef Janos discusses his methods and philosophy when it comes to creating these wonderous dishes.