Zinman's Food Shop, a vegan café with freshly milled grains, is off the beaten path at 111 W. Fourth St.
The location, southwest of University Boulevard and Stone Avenue, doesn't garner drive-through traffic, making Zinman's easy to miss. Drive onto Fourth Street, however, and it's difficult to miss the powder blue exterior and colorful flags.
Enter the eccentric building and you'll likely find owner Erik Shapiro or manager Mack Hawkins at the counter.
The intense aromas vary depending on the time — you might find broth slowly simmering with vegetable scraps and kombu in the morning. Or it might be the peppery smell of southern-style tepary beans and rice in the afternoon. It could also be the citrus-infused fragrance of blood oranges, tangerines, pink grapefruits, and Meyer lemons on display, grown a few miles away on Orange Grove Road.
Ignore the decorative Chinese trinkets for a moment and look down at the glass display case to find cookies, flatbreads, scones, and deceivingly plain-looking muffins. Don't be fooled. Buy a muffin for an immediate glimpse into the heart of Zinman's.
It tastes like an orange muffin. Very much like an orange muffin. So much so, it's a magnified essence of orange muffin.
"I just want it to taste like an orange," Hawkins said.
That level of intensity isn't achieved artificially by any means. The citrus is a key component, but the freshly milled grains used are the hidden star.
Flour and grains are normally pantry staples, but they have a life of their own when consumed fresh.
"Oils in old grains can go rancid, which gives off a bitter flavor," Shapiro said.
As it turns out, even the grains are local. The Pima Club wheat hails from Ramona Farms. The White Sonora wheat and durum wheat is from BKW Farms.
The freshly milled grains are also available wholesale to restaurants, though they haven't been a hot item.
"It's a hard sell," Shapiro said. "The price difference is like canned tuna versus sashimi-grade."
While Shapiro has a background in market research, he's a passionate earth-lover. He spent time with Save the Redwoods League. The positive world-views are shown in the restaurant operations as well.
Zinman's prices are quite affordable considering the expense of buying and milling local grains. They also don't accept tips, since they simply want customers to eat healthily.
Eating well isn't tough at all at Zinman's, even though it's vegan. The flavors are potent with influences from the Mediterranean, Ethiopia, China, Louisiana, and more.
East African influences come through with the Firfir ($10.25) made with shredded injera flatbread and an aromatic hot spice blend.
Chinese influences are apparent with the wok, used for the seasonal stir fry dishes served with brown rice. Add some Roasted Oyster Mushrooms ($5) from Sonoran Mushroom Company for a locally grown and extra savory delight.
Much like the muffins, dishes satisfy by highlighting the innate qualities of major ingredients rather than trying to satiate cheeseburger desires.
"If they work really hard to make it like meat, it's kind of nauseating to me," Shapiro said.
Use of spices and savory components reduce the need for fat, while fresh herbs from the garden out back help minimize the use of salt.
Also Zinman's has a menu, the kitchen regularly experiments with what's available.
While local and seasonal are among the top priorities at Zinman's, there are a few things Shapiro can't have local year-round. In particular, lemons, garlic, and onions because they "are too essential to do without simply because the earth moved." However, when those ingredients are in season, they make every effort to highlight them in something special.
Lastly, Zinman's is open to barter. Bring in some locally-grown produce in exchange for some of those orange muffins.
Zinman's Food Shop is located at 111 W. Fourth St. and is open 8 a.m. - 8 p.m. daily. Keep up with Zinman's Food Shop on Facebook. For more information, call Zinman's at (520) 777-6882 or visit zinmans.com.
Jackie Tran is a Tucson-based food writer, photographer, culinary educator, and owner-chef of the food truck Tran's Fats. Although he...