It’s rare to find a restaurant that is a powerhouse of intention.
Urban Fresh is a family-run restaurant that focuses on community, sustainability, nutrition, local, and organic ingredients. Everything is made in-house in Tucson.
Chauncey and Dana Padilla took over Urban Fresh in May of 2015, adopting Tucson’s vegan community. Chauncey, a former member of the Air Force, and his wife Dana bought the business as a leap of faith, and now run the restaurant with the help of their two children.
Chauncey and Dana know 90% of their customers on a first-name basis. “They know our kids, we know their kids. It’s a real community. It’s like going to a friends’ house for dinner,” says Dana.
“Intentionally we didn’t advertise that we’re a vegan restaurant,” adds Chauncey, “We knew that the food would speak for itself.”
“‘At the end of the day, it’s nice to have people say, ‘I’ve had a vegan meal and it tasted good,’ Chauncey says.”
They kept the name “Urban Fresh,” and at first, much of the same menu. Many of the recipes were largely untouched, with little tweaks here and there.
The smoothie that was known as “Nilly Vanilly,” replaced American Vanilla for a heartier, more deeply flavored Mexican vanilla.
They opted for plant-based proteins, upping the protein to 26 grams a serving. The soups no longer have oil, and the baked goods are mostly gluten-free.
The bigger changes are the addition of the breakfast and lunch specials. A new dish is featured daily. The Padillas see it as a way to be creative and try out new recipes.
The raw seed burger – sunflower and hemp seeds mixed with carrot, zucchini, and tomato – was Dana’s addition, as well as Power Slaw — a toss of quinoa, kale, cabbage, and broccoli with crisp greens.
The menus are surprisingly extensive given their small kitchen and the fact that everything is house made. The menu boards are slowly becoming theirs, based on requests from their customers.
“At the end of the day, the menu now is designed for the customer,” Chauncey says.
Urban Fresh serves breakfast until 11 A.M. It’s $5.99 across the board, which makes for a surprisingly affordable and satisfying meal.
Their breakfast burrito — with potatoes, black beans, tofu, green chile sauce and pico de gallo — is a customer favorite.
The Southwest biscuits and gravy, though, are what first-time customers have to try.
Four savory biscuits swim in a spicy, warming coconut milk gravy. They season the biscuits with chopped fresh sage, thyme, and dill, and the southwest gravy picks up heat from chipotle and cayenne. With the addition of corn, black beans, adzuki beans, and seitan, the meal is not only warm and full of flavor but colorful, too.
The difference between Urban Fresh and other vegan restaurants is that Urban Fresh omits oil, added salt, and sugar. Urban Fresh bakes the food instead of deep-frying it.
They have found ways to add flavor to vegan food without compromising the nutritional value. “Refried” beans are prepared in a pressure cooker, as well as the raw, gluten-free chile relleno, and even pizza.
“It changes your mind about food. I can eat a smaller portion, be full, happy, and go back to work without feeling lethargic,” says Chauncey.
And they don’t use imitation products, like fake meat or cheese. They serve house-made seitan. “If you can make something instead of buy[ing] it, why not just make it?” says Dana.
Urban Fresh uses locally sourced ingredients and they consider themselves to be part of the greater food system.
For instance, they source tortillas from La Estrella, plants and herbs from Dreamflower Garden, hydro lettuce from Merchant’s Garden, and coffee from Yellow Brick Coffee. Taylor Moore — from the Kids Flower Garden — collects their compost and, in turn, brings fresh produce back to the restaurant.
“It’s all about developing relationships and spending the time,” says Dana. “[We want to build] a camaraderie with other local business and [support] them in a symbiotic relationship. “It’s important for sustainability. Not only the vegan aspect but the community aspect, making sure that you’re providing back to the community what they’ve given to you,” Chauncey says.
Each summer, the Padillas make a special road trip to explore other culinary landscapes and bring back things to share with their customers.
In the past, they explored Hatch in New Mexico to bring back green chilies, North Carolina for barbecue sauce, and New Orleans for hot sauce. They even found a distilled, clear hot sauce.
“We try to find something different that people haven’t tried or haven’t seen,” says Dana.
As much as the Padillas give to their customers in hard work and sustenance, the customers give right back.
For example, a customer started the Urban Fresh Facebook, essentially becoming the publicist. A chef showed up on their doorstep — showing them how to sharpen knives — and introduced them to the endless possibilities of vegan food.
“A lot of people think vegan food and think very bland, tasteless. You can make anything vegan, and make it taste good. Just because it’s vegan doesn’t mean it has to be boring or bland,” Dana says.
They serve a full spectrum of customers but one thing stands out. “Some of our customers are some of the most happy and healthy people.
It’s such a vibrant community. They feel good, they live well, they have a great attitude, and I think a lot of it has to do with diet.”
Dana and Chauncey follow a vegan diet outside of their restaurant business as well. They find that they sleep better and are more productive on a vegan diet.
“I think it also speaks to the lifestyle. We want people to eat healthier. We want people to — if not give up meat — greatly reduce their meat consumption.
Being able to provide a meal that is affordable and tastes good, that’s part of our concept. It’s also about providing something that’s really good for the community and something that makes people feel good, and is good for them, the environment.
It’s about all of that, the bigger picture,” says Dana.
“At the end of the day, it’s nice to have people say, ‘I’ve had a vegan meal and it tasted good,” Chauncey says. Bring your friends and family to meet the Padillas and settle down to a plate of biscuits and gravy. You’ll leave feeling good and quickly forget that it’s vegan.
Urban Fresh is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. every second Saturday.
Urban Fresh is located at 73 E. Pennington St. For more information, call (520) 792 9355 or visit urbanfreshtucson.com.