We asked 15 chefs: What’s missing in Tucson’s culinary scene?

Last modified on December 29th, 2017 at 11:11 am

What’s missing in Tucson’s culinary scene?

We asked 15 chefs around Tucson this question and let them answer as briefly or in as much detail as they wanted. Here are their responses.

Dee Buizer

Senae Thai Bistro
Dee Buizer, chef and owner of Senae Thai Bistro (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Dee Buizer, chef and owner of Senae Thai Bistro (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“A good Chinese restaurant.”

Ben Caballero

HUB Restaurant & Ice Creamery
Executive chef Ben Caballero at HUB Restaurant & Ice Creamery (Credit: CJ Hamm)

Executive chef Ben Caballero at HUB Restaurant & Ice Creamery (Credit: CJ Hamm)

“Recognition — Tucson is still underestimated (rep Tuc, the underestimated city). We have so many talented chefs putting out great food. Yes we are making noise, and we are starting to be heard. But the great thing about Tucson chefs is [that] we don’t compete or hate on each other. We collaborate with one another to showcase all of our talents, and we push each other to be better. People need to know what Tucson is all about. So many takes on food, you can’t lose. This pueblo is filled with flavor. We have our own heartbeat!”

Ryan Clark

Casino Del Sol Resort
Executive chef Ryan Clark at PY Steakhouse (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Executive chef Ryan Clark at PY Steakhouse (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“Tucson’s culinary scene has been booming for the past five to seven years and continues to grow and prosper. From farms and markets, to breweries and wineries, local chefs, ethnic foods, food truck community and chef culture — we have it all. The one thing missing or better said; the one thing that I think needs improvement is an evolving support cast of chefs and cooks. With the growth of new culinary operations in Tucson, while culinary schools are shutting down programs, there is a growing problem for all of us in finding well-trained employees. This certainly is not just a problem in Tucson but all around the US. For Tucson’s culinary scene to continue to grow, it is more important than ever that as chefs we support what systems we have in place and perhaps seek other solutions to this growing problem. Donating our time to strengthen the culinary programs that do exist, becoming mentors for our employees, helping them to succeed as well as attracting talented people with passion to come to Tucson are all responsibilities of Tucson chefs and restaurateurs. It’s an exciting time to be a part of such an amazing food city and I know I’ll try my best to support it.”

Riley Chandler

Barrio Sandwiches
Riley Chandler and Don Guerra of Barrio Sandwiches (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Riley Chandler and Don Guerra of Barrio Sandwiches (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“I think Tucson’s culinary scene is missing true ethnic submersion, other than the south side’s taco haven. We don’t really have like a “Little Italy” or a “Chinatown” or like an Asian night market for nightlife and delicious cultural street food. I heard some projects along those lines may be in the works, and I hope the rumors are true. Something like Mario Batali’s Eataly with a Tucson twist would be killer!”

Mahmoud Elbarasi

The Coronet
Executive chef Moody Elbarasi and chef de cuisine Chris McClain at the Coronet (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Executive chef Mahmoud “Moody” Elbarasi and chef de cuisine Chris McClain at the Coronet (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“Smaller menus. I’ve been so inspired by places that serve a couple of appetizers, thee mains, and two deserts. When you write a menu like that everything can be made fresh that day. When eating out I love when the chef makes the decision for me.”

Tyler Fenton

Reilly Craft Drink & Pizza
Chef Tyler Fenton at Reilly Craft Pizza & Drink (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Chef Tyler Fenton at Reilly Craft Pizza & Drink (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“I think Tucson is missing fine dining. I’m not talking the fine dining of old, but the modern age of fine dining. A tasting menu with fun and inventive food, a polished but welcoming front-of-house staff. Tucson has a lot of really killer casual and upscale casual restaurants, but when it comes to the type of memorable ‘I’m going to have this menu framed’ kind of dinner, we have something missing.”

Renee Kreager

Renee’s Organic Oven
Renee Kreager of Renee's Organic Oven (Photo credit: Steven Meckler)

Renee Kreager of Renee’s Organic Oven (Credit: Steven Meckler)

“I can’t decide if it’s simply that the venue is missing, if it just hasn’t been done right here or if it’s the appreciation for it — but I long for a jazzy bar. With respectable Scotch, bourbon, rum, tequila, and wine, served pure and tableside. A few greats served with a smile! Tapas and boards a perfect menu. Super light — some dinner worthy.

A chill, knowledgeable, and sufficient service team serving in this environment both for a thoughtful dinner and for late night service. Maybe it’s a selfish service industry after-work shift beverage wishlist but I think it would be a fantastic dream come true. Dim lighting, perfect acoustics, and to be spoiled with comfort providing us with the ability to connect with our company at the table would be an impressive gift.”

Doug Levy

Executive chef Doug Levy at Feast (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Executive chef Doug Levy at Feast (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“Here’s what I think Tucson’s food scene is missing: a really solid distribution system for local farms and producers.

In California, where there’s a generations-old farming tradition in place, they’ve developed over the course of that time their own systems of distribution. The farms are huge and they have an economy of scale that allows all the farms to work with produce brokers so that the farms get regular, even daily, pickups from large refrigerated trucks that take their products to refrigerated warehouses for next day or even same day distribution.

In Tucson, we’re dealing with almost entirely first-generation, start-up farms. There is no distribution network, so at Feast, for example, I get eggs, pork, beef, poultry, mushrooms, honey, greens, sprouts, and other fruits and vegetables from at least eight or ten different local producers that I can think of as I’m writing this. That’s only the people I order from on a regular basis, and it doesn’t include local producers of beer, wine and spirits. Each one is brought to the restaurant by a different person, usually the farmer him- or herself, and usually in a van or a truck with multiple ice chests in the back.

If I have a producer driving all over southern Arizona to deliver me as often as not less than fifty dollars worth of produce, a few things happen:

First, I can only get a delivery once a week for the most part — these people have to tend their farms, ranches and what-have-you;

Second, I’m paying more than I theoretically need to for their produce because they necessarily have to build the expense of driving up or down to Tucson from wherever they may be located, running around dropping off, waiting while grocery stores and restaurateurs check in their orders and write a check, and so on;

Third, how in the world these hardworking people make a living is beyond me. The market forces them to keep their prices down, few of them have any sort of economy of scale, and that means that they aren’t hiring drivers, bookkeepers, and equipment repair people; they are drivers, bookkeepers and equipment repair people. I thought the restaurant business was hard, but what our local producers do makes me feel like even when I’m working an eleven or twelve-hour day, instead I’m drinking a cocktail out of a pineapple.

I’d love to be able to pick up the phone and get fresh, locally-produced products the next day, but we haven’t apparently achieved critical mass for that yet.”

David Martin

Red Desert BBQ & Catering
David Martin, owner and pitmaster of Red Desert BBQ (Credit: Jackie Tran)

David Martin, owner and pitmaster of Red Desert BBQ (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“I think Tucson’s culinary scene is missing late night food eats and Syrian food.”

Travis Peters

The Parish
Executive chef Travis Peters at the Parish (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Executive chef Travis Peters at the Parish (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“I think Tucson’s culinary scene is missing a consistent value-driven farmers market. I was recently invited to Dénia, Spain to help represent Tucson at a UNESCO designated cities of gastronomy celebration and one of the first places we discovered was an amazing farmers market. It was both indoors and outdoors and they were filled with purveyors selling everything from fruits, cheeses, charcuterie, vegetables snack stands, specialty stands, tapas and cafés! The aisles were filled with local chefs, citizens and tourists alike, and it was obvious this market bustled every day.

Dénia is small, [around] 40,000 people, yet it sustains a few of these markets six or seven days a week! I would love to see such markets in Tucson. We are only hours from the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean and are able to get very fresh fish on a daily basis, not to mention we have many wonderful farms, ranches, and an incredible group of talented people who make specialty items that are featured at our current mobile farmers markets. I think if we could get the citizens of Tucson to really see the value of helping create a bigger demand for such markets versus simply relying on the convenience of huge corporate grocery stores that care very little about our local farms, ranches, or economy, it would be amazing!”

Coralie Satta

Ghini’s French Caffe
Owner and chef Coralie Satta of Ghini's French Caffe (Photo provided by Coralie Satta)

Owner and chef Coralie Satta of Ghini’s French Caffe (Photo provided by Coralie Satta)

“Having lived in Kentucky for ten years, I am gravely missing some authentic soul food. Collards, fried chicken, chitlins, black-eyed peas, country ham, ham hocks, peach cobbler, Kentucky hot browns, the delicious list goes on and on.”

David Solorzano

Cielos at Lodge on the Desert
Chefs plating at a Gastronomic Union of Tucson (GUT) dinner at the Carriage House (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Chef David Solorzano (left) plating at a Gastronomic Union of Tucson (GUT) dinner at the Carriage House (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“I always miss having a handmade Korean or Japanese noodle place like they have in other cities as K-town in L.A., Portland and San Francisco when I come back home. It’s definitely a great void after a long shift or a night out or anytime of day for that matter.”

Matt Thompson

Nook's Matt & Nikki Thompson (Credit: Adam Lehrman)

Nook’s Matt & Nikki Thompson (Credit: Adam Lehrman)

“I think Tucson needs an artisan market place, like LA’s Grand Central Market, Napa’s Oxbow Market and Denver’s The Source. Tucson is full of amazing chefs, restaurants, and artists, and it would be nice to showcase some of them in one of the city’s historic buildings.”

Janos Wilder

DOWNTOWN Kitchen + Cocktails
Executive chef Janos Wilder at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Executive chef Janos Wilder at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“The food scene here is filling in quite well; we have some really good and wide-ranging ethnic restaurants, plentiful choices at every price range, a good smattering of farm-to-table places, restaurants that tell the gastronomic story of our home here in Tucson and about the right amount of high-end spots. We also have some really bright and eager chefs and entrepreneurs ready to fill any niche. I happen to love ceviches of all types, but particularly those from Peru which combine fantastic seafood with a Japanese aesthetic and eye for quality with ají chiles, leche de tigre, and the terrific potato causas topped with crab salad or Tuna or octopus. Oh my! Just thinking about it makes me want to put some on my menu right now.”

Marcus van Winden

The Dutch Eatery & Refuge
The Dutch Eatery & Refuge executive chef and co-owner Marcus van Winden (Credit: Jackie Tran)

The Dutch Eatery & Refuge executive chef and co-owner Marcus van Winden (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“I think Tucson has a pretty fantastic culinary scene, especially for its size. If I had to pinpoint something, I would say I miss tasting menus. Tasting menus are widespread in the Netherlands and Europe and they are so nice because they allow guests to try small bites of multiple dishes. Since I am usually working, I do not get out as much as I would like, but when I do, I love to sample a wide array of items from the menu, but I hate to see great food go to waste. We have a similar idea for brunch with our Breakfast Board which has five items that change daily, maybe I should come up with a similar idea for dinner.”

Jackie is a food writer and photographer native to Tucson. He loves corgis and still thinks rickrolling is funny. If you'd like to stalk him, visit jackietran.com.
  • Ellen

    Great article! It raised and interesting question and got, for the most part, well-thought out replies. Thanks for publishing this.

    I agree with Tyler Fenton and Marcus van Winden about the Tasting Menu idea, which has largely been missing since Acacia closed. ( the Arizona Inn comes close) It’s really fun to have small bites of many different foods, ideally accompanied by mini glasses of paired wines.

    Otherwise, apparently, Dee Buizer has not been to China Szechwan.

  • Drjembe

    As a whole food plant-based eater, I find it extremely disappointing that none of the chefs interviewed commented on the need for much healthier restaurant food in the Tucson culinary scene. Whether they want to admit it or not, the evidence is clear that eating more plants and very little animals foods is the best way to achieve optimal health. I hope I can see a shift in our food culture so we can stop watching our friends and family members suffer and die from the saturated fat and cholesterol clogging animal foods they eat at home and at restaurants. Not to mention all the carcinogens formed from cooking meat on grills, barbeques and ovens at high heat that produces AGE’s; or the increase in IGF-1 floating in people’s bloodstreams from eating animal protein or the production of TMAO in the liver from eating animals as well. One day I hope our culinary culture will catch up with the science and the public health mandate to eat food that truly nourishes our body and not just makes us fat and sick. Then we can truly be proud of our culinary culture.

  • Susan Tomlinson

    What I personally think is missing: a homemade soup and bread place – pure and simple; QUIET – restaurants are just too noisy eliminating the ability to carry on conversations comfortably; “different” things for breakfast – 5 Points comes the closest to going beyond the usual breakfast stuff. I really like the suggestions about tasting menus…I’d rather eat small amounts of a lot of different things, then huge amounts of the same food. Oh, and “Delectilittles”…my name for mini desserts. Who needs a 600 calorie piece of cake after a big meal? How about a piece of fresh fruit and a cookie? Or a two bite sampler of the heavier sweets?

  • TiroGrande

    I was the last chef at the Coat of Arms almost 40 years ago when it went under due to bad ownership decisions and practices. I was born and raised in Tucson and visit about three times a year. The food scene and choices available now are mind boggling. You are doing nothing wrong. Unfortunately due to some of my own bad decisions I am stuck in a state that is a culinary disaster area. Very little ethnic food and patrons ordering well done steaks and prime rib are the norm (but you give the locals what the want if you want to make a living, right?) Tucson, Your doing great! Also, Ms Satta, if you think the soul food thing would go, why don’t you change your venue?

  • Frank Bohac

    All of the ideas presented are good ones. I would add that we should provide more of a connection to the historical food heritage of our area. Where can I go to be escorted through the types of foods that have been grown, harvested and eaten here for many thousands of years?

  • Jimmy Zuma

    Only Wilder gets it right. This is like Tucson’s universal delusion that our roads are worse than everywhere else. There is a kind of collectively shared inferiority complex here, that doesn’t really square with actual evidence.

    Tucson’s food scene is spectacular, especially for a mid-sized city. We should all be grateful that property is cheap enough for talented chefs to open their own joints. That’s a big part of our magic formula.

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