The writing is on the wall at Nook, an Urban Kitchen. Literally. An industrial neon sign beams Eat Well, Live Well. Half mantra, half mandate, it’s a palpable vibe at this popular downtown eatery.
Dip into Nook one of two ways: Enter off Stone into a welcoming alcove filled with local art for sale, or duck into the restaurant off Congress Street, meandering through an urbane patio fringed by container gardens hosting various herbs and veggies. Nikki Thompson and her husband Matt Thompson incorporate these items — and other local produce — into Nook fare whenever possible.
The Thompsons are the creators of Nook, but Nikki’s mom also pitches in. “She’s a baker, line cook, and overall helper,” says Matt. Nikki adds, “She’s the real boss nobody crosses.”
Nikki and Matt met at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute as students in 2003, graduating two years later. As part of their apprenticeship, they moved to Oahu, Hawaii, to sharpen their knife skills and learn firsthand about that famous aloha spirit. Back in Tucson, they opened their first solo venture, 2 Hearts, 1 Kitchen, in 2007. It continues today as the catering portion of their business.
Subsequent pocket cafés at the Sheriff’s Department and the Pima County Adult Detention Center closed in 2015, which meant that the couple could focus on Nook. Opened in March of 2015, with help from partner Todd Anderson, Nook has been going strong ever since.
The menu caters to those who like to dine out in the first half of the day — a preference that appears under the general category of “Brunch” on the Nook menu. The options range from light breakfasts to classic brunch fare and creative lunches.
Because seating is first-come, first-served — whether on the patio or indoors at a table, comfy banquette, or barstool overlooking the exhibition kitchen — don’t be surprised if there’s a bit of a wait on weekends.
Looking for a light option or a sweet starter? Consider a plate of warm blueberry scones graced with butter and housemade strawberry jam spiked with lemon juice. The lemon adds a welcoming tart note to the sugar-studded pastries.
Purists will appreciate the Breakfast Nook — two eggs, thick bacon, and smashed hash or griddlecakes. Ah, the griddlecakes. How do they come out so impossibly fluffy and light? The recipe is Nikki’s mom’s but, according to Matt, the secret is making them in small batches and not overworking the batter. Regardless, you will most likely find yourself on either team Cinnamon Roll or team Chocolate Chip, depending on your mood. You win either way.
Nook offers a handful of brunch favorites, as well as some destined-to-become new ones. Omelette lovers will enjoy the Folded Eggs — Nook’s take on the classic made with ham and cheese; or spinach, tomato. and roasted garlic.
Handheld options run the gamut from a classic tuna melt to a Korean burger with a red chili glaze and pineapple kimchi.
There are salads, of course, including a Nourish Bowl featuring falafel, veggies, and goat cheese, when you’re feeling healthy.
But the specialties are where it’s at. The Breakfast Tamale Pie is Southwest comfort food at its best, featuring house-made masa, fire-roasted chiles, and cheese topped with two eggs. Bonus for many: It’s gluten free.
Nook also offers a trio of Benedicts that are the perfect mash-up of regional and New American cuisines. The Honey-Chipotle Carnitas top a crumpet with crispy, sweet-spicy pork and wilted spinach. The Shakshuka Benedict — which is fun to say and also delicious — swaps out the crumpet for a crunchy chickpea cake then adds spinach, poached eggs, spiced tomato, and Hollandaise. The ever-popular Godfather Benedict comes with prosciutto, arugula, and perfect half-domed eggs slicked with a lemony hollandaise bright enough to put a smile on your face for the rest of the day.
And while the brunch menu is seasonal, die-hard regulars can make that a challenge as they lobby for their favorites to stay. With employees who strive to be chefs someday, the couple likes to encourage new ideas and creativity. “But it’s hard to change without upsetting people,” Nikki says with a smile and a shrug.
Whether you want to rev up or wind down, Nook has your sip. The locally roasted Exo coffee looks and tastes as it should — strong. If you’ve already tanked up, order OJ and watch as staff juices fresh oranges to be delivered seconds later.
Blending the Thompsons’ travel backgrounds, the Aloha Tucson cocktail features Tito’s vodka, pineapple juice, and lime, which balances out the sweetness of the juice. You can also choose from a half dozen or so mimosas featuring flavors such as prickly pear or guava or keep it old school by ordering the classic.
Although you can’t book a table for brunch, you can reserve a place for dinner — and it’s a good idea to do so, since the evening meal is only offered on Friday and Saturday nights.
The menu is selective and reflects Asian influences in the Pineapple Crab Rangoon starter, the Ginger Salmon Salad, and the Kimchi Fries made with hanger steak, caramelized kimchi, Sriracha, and cilantro. You’ll also find a Biscuit Pot Pie (Nikki’s fave), and the Kitchen Sink (Matt’s top pick) — an open-faced fresh-ground chicken Sloppy Joe. “It’s what you might cook at home,” says Nikki, “but kicked up a notch.”
Prices span from $7 appetizers to $16 entrees. High-quality fresh food meets affordable prices. What’s not to like?
“We want to keep growing and evolving,” says Nikki. Plans include honing their dinner program and revamping the patio to reflect a more Biergarten feel with additional beer and food options. “When our friends come over, it’s where we like to hang out.
The lighting is really nice out there at night,” says Matt. “We’ve moved around a lot, and now we are here to stay. This is home,” says Nikki with a definitive nod.
Nook, located inside the US Bank building at 1 E. Congress St., is open for brunch from 9 a.m. - 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. - 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, and from 5 - 10 p.m. for dinner on Fridays and Saturdays.
For more information, visit nookdowntown.com or Keep up with Nook on Facebook.