With the revitalization of downtown Tucson and the addition of its many hip, new restaurants, an onlooker wouldn’t be remiss to assume eateries outside of downtown have gotten the cold shoulder.
Wilko, owned by B-Line and Time Market owner Peter Wilke, has gone through a number of transformations since originally opening as a trendy convenience store for University of Arizona students eight years ago. After a stint as a coffee-meets-wine bar with cheese boards and appetizers, the concept shifted to include dinner.
And yes, it’s one of those modern restaurants that does everything from scratch, evolving to focus on locally raised, grown, and produced ingredients, such as Sleeping Frog Farms produce, Double Check Ranch ground beef, and coffee from Exo Roast Co.
Wilko’s innovative young chef, Ian Sugarman, 29, has taken the change even further. Noting that Wilko was one of the first places in Tucson to savor a gastropub identity — serving good comfort food — he adds that casual dining around town with beer and wine has been infused with “elevated food.”
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“There’s no fine dining anymore in Tucson,” says Sugarman. And, although downtown Tucson is at the center of food talk, “we’re forcing our way back into the conversation. We want to be relevant to Tucson’s downtown renaissance.”
Tucson’s growing food scene is hot, but it’s not New York, San Francisco, or Chicago when it comes to food havens – at least, not yet. Pork belly and short ribs have been a hit for much longer in larger cities and only more recently become staples on Tucson menus.
“I follow food trends that are pushing the envelope, both nationally and internationally,” says Sugarman, as I’m oohing and aahing over lunch. First, I try a spicy watermelon gazpacho seasoned with pickled rind and feta. Yummy.
Wilko offers some unique small plates. Grilled Vietnamese meatballs catch my eye, but instead I savored a light, elegant small plate, Melon & Speck, which is honeydew topped with prosciutto, mint, chili flakes and lemon.
Sugarman recommended a couple of new sandwiches, neither of which we were sorry about ordering: The Tagliata, composed of Niman Ranch bistro steak, red onion, salsa verde, and pimenton aioli on baguette and the Mortadella made with peach mostarda, arugala, and robiola red onion on levain.
At lunchtime, the house gingerade wowed. It was pungent and prettily topped by a sprig of a dill flower. In addition, Wilko prides itself on its selection of old world, organic, biodynamic wine, which is mostly French and Italian.
From the dinner menu, Glazed Pork Shoulder surrounded by peach mostarda, accompanied by charred eggplant, had me dreaming of returning to Wilko for date night (when I’ll add a glass of wine or two).
Will I be able to resist another salted caramel tart — created at B-Line, and arguably the best dessert I’ve had in Tucson? Or instead, rationalize having the lime-blackberry pie (being from Maine, I love all kinds of berries)?
Sugarman is always imagining new dishes, and predicts the menu will change four times a year. He’s been chef on and off at Wilko for around five years. He left in 2012 to work for a year with New Orleans celebrity chef John Besh’s Italian restaurant, Domenica .
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Wilko has “an Italian aesthetic,” says Sugarman, but as he learned during his stint in the Big Easy, “we use some variations,” which depend “on who you are and where you are.”
Take one of his dinner dishes, Tortelloni, made with sweet corn, chili, lime and husk brodo. “It’s inspired by Mexican street corn, elotes,” says the Tucson native. “We use Italian pecorino cheese instead of queso fresco.
But, don’t assume it’s all just food and wine. Wilko features an impressive cocktail program. Luke Anable, who honed his mixology skills considerably at the Red Room, Penca, and as a consultant for Sidecar, is one of Tucson’s top talents behind the bar. Along with Sara Roche, they’ve developed a cleverly crafted cocktail menu.
“Luke and Sara are doing a number of creative things with seasonal cocktails,” said Manager Ryan Knox. “They’re using a variety of ingredients, along with intricate and strangely infused liquers.”
Two standout cocktails include a Sriracha Old Fashioned, which includes a house made Sriracha syrup, and a Bourbon Martini.
Sugarman says he’s ready for the influx of UA students, as well as the seasonal dinner crowds.
“We’re busiest with events at Centennial Hall. At 5:30 p.m., we fill up in a few minutes.”
Wilko is located at 943 E. University Blvd. in the Main Gate District.
For more information, visit barwilko.com.