Kingfisher has been keeping things fresh for more than 25 years — literally and metaphorically.
“We’ve always used the freshest ingredients we could get our hands on,” said chef-owner Jim Murphy, who co-founded the innovative American grill in September 1993 with Jeff Azersky, John Burke, and Tim Ivankovich.
Since freshness is particularly important when it comes to seafood, a Kingfisher specialty, the fact of the restaurant’s longevity lends credence to that claim.
But the ability to avoid menu fatigue while retaining several signature dishes and traditions — and while maintaining remarkable staff loyalty — is also key to Kingfisher’s success.
Changing up a number of offerings each season is one way of accomplishing this goal, even when it means disappointing some regulars.
According to Murphy, diners raised a huge hue and cry when the Jerk Shrimp Club — the classic sandwich, but substituting Mexican shrimp with jerk spice rub for chicken — was taken off the menu. They were similarly dismayed at the departure of the Seafood Tacos, notable for their filling — a raw mix panfried to perfection. Murphy chuckles and shrugs his shoulders philosophically: “That’s just what we do.”
But of course, there’s a method to the madness of upsetting customers. “Rotating items off the menu keeps the cooks engaged,” Murphy said, “and the guest is pleasantly surprised at the dish’s return. Absence makes the heart fond.”
Kingfisher’s annual road trip is an even bolder way to shake things up; this year will mark the 25th summer excursion.
Exploring the different culinary regions of the United States — California/Hawaii, the Pacific Northwest, Midwest, Southeast, Southwest, and East Coast — encourages exploration with flavors. The menus are not only a reward for the die-hard Tucsonans who stay in town during the hottest season but also give the staff more leeway to try different recipes based on their experiences and interests.
“We get lots of input. Someone might say, ‘I was up in Montana this year and tried this great dish.’ So we’ll go for it,” Murphy said. Some dishes don’t cut it with customers and a few are rejected pre-emptively — Cincinnati chili is “a bridge too far,” Murphy laughs — but some return annually, including the whole pig prepared Cuban Mojo-style, as served in South Florida.
“We’ve always used the freshest ingredients we could get our hands on,” said Murphy.
But underpinning these creative menu mashups is the more crucial ability to keep even the signature dishes from getting tired. This circles back to the basic mandate: Use the freshest ingredients possible.
Consider the Macadamia Nut-Crusted Hawaiian Fish, which is always on the menu. “A guest can order it two nights in a row and have it be very different,” Murphy said. “The preparation is constant but the flavor depends on which fish we get in on any particular day.”
In addition, some of the signature dishes depart from the versions you’ll find in most places — for example, Kingfisher’s New England Clam Chowder made without bacon. This omission was a nod to restaurant co-founder John Burke, a pescetarian. Although Burke went on to pursue other culinary ventures, and Tim Ivankovich died of a heart attack in 2012, the legacies of both co-founders live on in several ways.
Kingfisher’s excellent wine list, in particular, can be credited to Ivankovich. He was a self-taught expert who, in keeping with the American food focus, sought out outstanding bottles of US origin (with the exception of bubbly).
His stint at a Nantucket restaurant called 21 Federal Street also spurred Ivankovich’s interest in small batch bourbons — little known around the country when Kingfisher first opened — and led him to create some of the bar’s most popular cocktails. These include the Grover’s Martini, garnished with bleu cheese-stuffed olives.
Fun fact: When you google “Grover’s Martini,” Kingfisher comes up first out of nearly a million listings.
With its cozy booths and studded leather bar stools that date back to Kingfisher’s predecessor, the Iron Mask, the bar is a sought-after nook to sip and sup. But all the dining areas are attractive in a swanky casual fashion, including the private events room, which has a stained-glass representation of the namesake bird above the door.
That’s one of the few pieces that’s constant: Kingfisher’s large collection of local artwork rotates fairly often. “And sometimes guests who usually sit at a certain table think the art has changed when they change tables, and they’re looking at the room from a different perspective. That’s even easier,” Murphy jokes.
The outgoing Murphy is a natural to serve as the restaurant’s spokesperson but the fourth original partner, Jeff Azersky, remains equally involved in day-to-day operations, both in and out of the kitchen.
Hailing from the seafood-happy south shore of Massachusetts, he is one of the key reasons that fish gets so much emphasis here. Among his specific contributions to the menu is the signature Steamed Black Mussels with Sriracha — dating back to the days when the staff had to buy the hot sauce by the case because it was such a rarity.
And Azersky was an enthusiastic proponent of a tradition that will be ten years old this year: Oysterfest, always held on the Saturday morning of the University of Arizona’s homecoming weekend in October. Featuring oysters every which way — raw, fried, stewed, Rockefeller’ed, you name it — as well as fellow mollusks in such forms as clam chowder, this event has grown more popular each year.
But Kingfisher’s biggest annual blowout is Fat Tuesday, celebrating its 25th anniversary on March 5. Kicking off at 5 p.m. and lasting until 11:59 p.m. – midnight marks the start of the somber and abstemious Ash Wednesday — it sizzles with New Orleans-inspired music and food.
Jazz and Zydeco provide the backbeat for the likes of Seafood Gumbo, Cajun RedBeans, and Crawfish Etouffe. The desserts, including Bourbon Pecan Tart, New Orleans Bread Pudding, and Flaming Bananas Foster, showcase the considerable talents of pastry chef Marianne Banes, who has been with the restaurant since its inception.
In the late 1990s, Tucson missed the opportunity to achieve a Guinness Book of Records-worthy feat: hosting the world’s shortest Mardi Gras parade.
Murphy explains, “When Nonie, which specialized in Cajun and Creole cuisine, was down the block” – it’s now Dante’s Fire — “we wanted to team up with [owner] Chris Leonard to march 170 yards between our restaurants. We tried to get a permit two years in a row but the city refused to give us one.”
Never mind that it didn’t succeed. The attempt to do something fresh and fun is characteristic Kingfisher.
Kingfisher is open from 11 a.m. - 3 p.m. for lunch, 3 - 5 p.m. with their late lunch menu, 5 - 10 p.m. for dinner, and 10 p.m. - midnight with their late dinner menu Monday through Friday.
On Saturdays and Sundays, they're open for dinner from 5 - 10 p.m. and with their late menu from 10 p.m. - midnight.
Kingfisher is located at 2564 E. Grant Rd. For more information, visit kingfishertucson.com.
Edie Jarolim has worn many hats, including a sombrero on a one-too-many-margaritas night. She earned a Ph.D. in American literature...