Ben Caballero Jr. is Executive Chef at one of Tucson’s busiest downtown restaurants, Hub Restaurant & Ice Creamery.
Growing up, Caballero split his time between two different culinary experiences. His mother’s side of the family in Tucson had deep rooted cooking traditions, while in Williams, Arizona, his chef father got him started in the kitchen at various hotels he was employed at.
But Caballero officially started his Tucson cooking career when Sergio Enriquez got him a job at Hacienda del Sol as a banquet cook. From there, he progressed to line cook at Harvest then sous chef at Zona 78.
Unfortunately, a car accident sidelined Caballero for a year. He credits Red’s Smokehouse’s Ramiro Scavo, who was opening Pasco at the time and visited Caballero while injured, for getting him back into the game.
After opening Pasco as sous chef and eventually moving up to executive chef, Caballero moved downtown to Hub.
What was the first dish you had that changed your perspective on food?
I was 8 or 9 years old and a tia of mine had some menudo cooking. I didn’t know what it was, but it was delicious, out of the ordinary, and so new and fresh. Every time I would see her after my first experience, she would have a pot ready for me.
What are you eating these days?
You mean besides French fries on the line?
We do a lot of family meals here. Things like pasta. I also always enjoy sushi and that menudo I mentioned. Oh and cocido, I am a soup kind of guy.
What was the first dish you remember cooking?
I was the oldest of three kids and my dad was working all day. I learned to cook a meal for my siblings that our dad made for us, which was eggs, breakfast potatoes, and bacon.
What concept, ingredient or food trend does everyone seem to love, but you just can’t stomach?
I’m not a hater! But seriously, corporate places with no prep, that call themselves fresh food. How can there be love in the food if you have a microwave? Come on, give it your all, make those sauces, cook those meats, serve hot, fresh food. There has to be some soul in the food to have it be a comfort food.
What chef, with us or passed on, would you most like to cook or eat dinner with?
My grandmothers from Mexico and Tucson whom I never met. They taught my family how to cook, and their techniques, ideas and recipes are ones that we all still use to this day.
What city, other than Tucson, is your favorite place to eat?
New York City!
They have every culture and cuisine. You can be on Mullberry Street in little Italy, turn the corner and you are in Chinatown, walk a couple blocks and boom – you’re in little Dominican. There’s so much culture and tradition in each of those pockets of ethnicity.
Speaking in junk food terms, what is your favorite guilty pleasure?
Pizza! From $5 “Hot ‘N’ Readys,” to “DiGornios.” All of it. My daughter loves them, they are quick and cheap and still pizza! My favorite though, without a doubt is a big, thin, New York style pie.
Oh and I would have to say Sonoran dogs, as well. I mean all the time. When my wife was pregnant we had this little cart that was a 2 minute walk from the house, and every night I would go get us two dogs each.
Top three Tucson restaurants?
1. Mi Nidito
2. Mariscos Chihuahua
3. Pasco/Reds/Zona 78 – for nostalgic reasons
With a figurative electric chair in your immediate future, what is your last meal?
The biggest bowl of my answer to the first question. Then we will move on to some oysters and ceviche. Then a 20 ounce ribeye, medium rare with a Michelada. Finish it off with my wife’s pineapple upside down cake.