Arizona Daily Star food writer Andi Berlin was a Wildcat at some point, but moved off to the Bay to work as a professional cheesemonger.
She was tired of living off of cheese rinds and the roast chickens nobody bought at the end of the day, so she returned to the low-expense winter wonderland known as Tucson.
Her food writing background started with her time abroad in London splurging on tomato chutney crème brulee and $30 bowls of tikka masala. Now that she’s in Tucson, she explores Tucson’s food scene and dives into the cultural aspects as well through activities such as roasting agave on the Tohono O’Odham reservation.
1) What was the first dish you had that changed your perspective on food?
When I was in my early teens, my dad began a strange odyssey where he left Arizona and moved to a rural town in Oklahoma called McAlester, population 18,000. He lived there for seven years, I believe. In the summers, my brother and I would visit him from our home in suburban Chandler. I remember it was a scary weird place, where people walked around without teeth and we weren’t supposed to tell people we were Jewish, like they didn’t know! I was very snobby about it back then. In fact, I hated it.
My dad is a New Yorker, and so we grew up eating all sorts of delicious food. They didn’t really have this sort of thing in Oklahoma, not that I knew of at least. But there was this little Chinese buffet where we went when my stepmom wanted to take our clothing to the laundromat. I always turned my nose up at it, but I remember they served unlimited egg foo young. My dad was obsessed with these golden disks of Asian omelet stuff. In his trademark dramatic way, he would ask me to fill an entire plate with them. He would then close his eyes and take each egg patty in his hand, chewing so slowly and lovingly, savoring it the same way he ate expensive sea urchin.
This really bothered me back then. I felt it was an affront to all the authentic Chinese food we ate together in Phoenix and San Francisco, etcetera. It took me years to understand why my father did this. He did it because that’s what you do with life. You take what you have, and you make it your own.
2) What are you eating these days?
I recently transitioned into living alone. Sounds like I’m dead, doesn’t it? At first it was really hard and I made futile attempts to pretend I was happy with my situation by eating things my ex didn’t like. Mostly udon noodles. I ate them every day. After awhile I got bored of this and started eating very expensive European cheeses. You don’t have to cook them so it’s less depressing, and you can eat at the kitchen counter standing up while staring at an embroidered keychain that says “stressed out” in pink letters. I’m not doing that as much lately, perhaps because I’ve run out of money. Living alone is expensive.
Now my thing is to make a bunch of pasta with chunky red sauce. This sounds weird, but I like it even better when it’s been sitting in the fridge for a couple hours. And this is the strange part. I eat it with chopsticks, and I put soy sauce on it. I know that sounds freaking nasty but it’s really good at like, midnight. And then I can go to bed, and nobody judges me. It’s awesome.
3) What was the first dish you remember cooking?
I grew up on this Phoenix restaurant called Gourmet House of Hong Kong, which had these incredible chow fun noodles in Chinese gravy sauce. Like most good Jews, I live to eat leftover Chinese straight from the fridge, so the day after one of these meals I was harboring a major chow fun craving the entire school day. It was torturing me, I wanted them so much.
When I finally got home, I discovered my father had randomly placed the entire to-go box of noodles in the freezer. I still don’t understand why. It was one big frozen block of yellow noodle ice. I wasn’t much for cooking back then, so I decided to microwave the entire thing straight from the container. I think it was in there for half an hour. When I finally took it out, it was practically sludge. I had to power through most of it, literally crying while I ate. I like to think I’ve gotten better since then.
4) What concept, ingredient, or food trend are you experimenting with these days?
I was recently diagnosed with high blood pressure, and upon my coworker’s suggestion I decided to drastically limit the amount of meat in my diet. When I’m not working, of course. It was actually much easier than I thought it would be. You all know about plant-based diets so I’m not gonna blather on about them. But I love the taste of vegetables, just simple, you know? I love how an eggplant gets mushy when you roast it, or the Brussels sprouts get when they’re all crunchy and crackly and charred. I’m not one to turn seeds into paté. But that’s probably because I can eat real paté when I want. I just choose not to most of the time.
5) Who would you most like to cook or eat dinner with?
First off I would choose Robin Williams, because I think he was a gentle man who really cherished life. I have no idea what he liked to eat, but I know he lived in Marin County and the food is pretty tasty there. Plus our dinner would be super fun, and all the servers would like us.
I’d also love to be a fly on the wall at the palace of Atahualpa during the height of the Incan empire. I visited the city he was captured in, Cajamarca, which is famous today for its cheese. I find that fascinating. But I’d love to see what Peruvian food was like before Spanish influence. Same with the Aztecs, but here I’d like to hang out with some regular folks, because I saw what those Aztec warrior dudes did and it was scary.
Lastly, and this is a real thing, I really want to travel down to the Yaqui Pueblo in Sonora and share a ceremonial dish called Wakabaki. I’ve only seen a couple pictures of it, but it seems to be a soup that’s similar to cocido with beef and garbanzo beans and squash and all the good stuff. I don’t know much about it, but I would love to see it made and learn from the women who make it.
6) What city, other than Tucson, is your favorite place to eat?
Gotta say Oakland. I lived there for a couple years and I still miss it and think about it all the time. I miss the Chinese dumpling bakeries and the Szechwan food and the smoky Korean fried chicken places with no natural lighting. My favorite was called Porno Bar and people would smoke inside and ash their cigarettes into empty yogurt cups. I miss the fabulous Ethiopian food. I miss the tiki bars. I miss the markets, I miss the gorgeous produce and lettuce that isn’t soggy. And mostly, I miss the cheese. Oh God, I miss the cheese.
7) Speaking in junk food terms, what is your favorite guilty pleasure?
McDonald’s, Asian shrimp chips, Takis Fuego, paper bags of random candies at the movie theater
8) Which three Tucson restaurants do you frequent the most, aside from your own?
I work downtown and I’m pretty obsessed with OBON. I go there at least once a week. The tonkotsu ramen is so porky and milky and awesome, but they also have poke bowls that are pretty darn reasonable for how much fish they give you. Paulo is doing some great stuff with the sushi program, and of course the cocktails are crazy weird. I also go to BK Carne Asada all the time because it’s cheap and I like to make up little meals with all the salsa bar stuff. It’s fun to party with my friends and drink bomb-ass Micheladas and listen to Sia and Vicente Fernandez on the TVs. I also love the Szechwan menu at China Szechwan. Get the dandan noodles and the water-boiled fish.
9) With a figurative electric chair in your immediate future, what is your last meal?
Sitting at Takamatsu with all my friends and family, cooking Korean barbecue together. We can get sushi too, I don’t care. Just keep the sake bombs coming and we’ll bring the house down. Hopefully not by burning it down, which would be unfortunate.
For more of Berlin’s articles, visit tucson.com/thisistucson.