23 October, 2020, 20:23

Enter Fini’s Landing with fresh seafood & beer on tap in the desert

It started with a need.

The need: a casual, fun neighborhood tavern. Taking up the cause: Doug Finical and Scott Mencke, friends since their University of Arizona days. The result: The 2012 founding of Fini’s Landing, a flourishing restaurant and bar.

Whether Fini’s Landing is more restaurant-with-bar or more bar-that-also-serves food “depends on which customers you ask,” Mencke says.

While the bar crowd seems pleased that the tavern also serves great tacos, wings, oysters, nachos, Sonoran-style hotdogs, and burgers, to them the available edibles are largely side benefits to the pursuit of their principal interests: enjoying cold suds while watching sports on one of the big-screen TVs.

In contrast, families and couples find the Landing an ideal place to enjoy fresh, healthy food at reasonable prices, and with selections to please almost everyone, from carnivores and pescatarians and vegetarians.

Especially pescetarians.

Patio at Fini's Landing

Patio at Fini’s Landing (Credit: Jackie Tran)

From nautical menu to decor

The restaurant has become well known as the place to go for fish tacos, especially the La Paz — beer-battered cod with pico de gallo and cilantro aioli. The Chubasco™ Shrimp taco features the crustaceans smothered with pico de gallo, avocado, and the restaurant’s trademarked hot sauce, which the owners have dubbed “Louisiana tang meets Mexican heat.”

All the seafood served at the Landing is selected for quality measured by the Monterey Bay (CA) Aquarium’s Seafood Watch process, which has as its goal minimizing serious ocean impact. The fact that Fini’s Landing was the first Arizona restaurant to be recognized for its adherence to the organization’s strict standards is not surprising: Mencke became a dedicated environmentalist years ago while investigating efforts off the Florida Keys to save sea turtles and dolphins from shrimpers’ nets.

But while the restaurant takes its seafood seriously, its nautical theme is a bit tongue-in-cheek, given the desert setting. The name combines Finical’s life-long nickname, Fini, with Landing, a term for the place at which sailors safely disembark and rest.

When you enter, you’re surrounded by all things seafaring, from the brass flip-flop handles on the front door and surfboards hanging from the ceiling to waitstaff in shorts and Tony Bahama-style shirts.

Interior at Fini's Landing

Interior at Fini’s Landing (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Although the restaurant’s parking lot is insufficiently sandy for spontaneous volleyball and the view from the Landing’s patio is of the Santa Catalinas rather than of breaking waves, a surprise appearance by Jimmy Buffett or the Beach Boys at one of the live music performances on Friday and Saturday nights would not seem out of place.

Carnivore galore

The restaurant’s commitment to sustainability extends to its purchase of meat as well as fish. All chicken, beef, and pork served at the Landing is raised on farms that guarantee 100% natural products.

The restaurant’s lengthy taco menu includes corn or flour tortilla selections stuffed with braised beef, BBQ chicken, braised pork, or carne asada, as well as several vegetarian options.

The grill’s specialty is a half-pound patty of choice ground beef topped with pecan-smoked bacon, aged cheddar cheese, jalapeño slices, crispy onion rings, and sprinkled with Chubasco™ BBQ Sauce. Like the chile sauce, it’s made on site and is available for sale in 16-ounce bottles for purchase to-go. The sauces can also be found at multiple markets throughout the Tucson area.

Fish tacos at Fini's Landing

Fish tacos at Fini’s Landing (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Initial uncertainty

Fini’s Landing is unquestionably a success story, but the partners had their doubts initially. The first space they toured — on the northwest corner of North Swan Road and East Sunrise Drive — looked intriguing to the two old friends with dreams of opening their own restaurant, but they didn’t know if it was a good location for the place they had envisioned. It was near a busy intersection, but it was also high in the Tucson Foothills, while their previous experience was operating a bar on Fourth Avenue.

And, they wondered, was this particular spot — at the far end of a shopping strip, with a tailor shop, an animal clinic, and a paint store — an ideal place for a neighborhood pub?

The two decided to check out the surrounding area, find somewhere to sit, have a beer, and review their options. But that plan turned out to have a flaw.

They couldn’t find a single place to go to grab a brew and a casual bite in this appealing residential and retail area.

“That experience answered our main question,” Finical explains, eight years later. “We had just identified what the area needed, and it was precisely what we were prepared to build.”

It was Business School 101: Find a need and fill it.

Within a short time, Fini’s Landing became one of the Foothills’ most popular eating and drinking destinations.

Since then there has been little reason for the two men to look back.

A restaurant update

Yet, now approaching the thriving restaurant’s eighth anniversary, Fini’s Landing is undergoing a variety of changes. Why mess with success? “I think we’re experiencing something like a restaurant owner’s seven-year itch,” Mencke says with a grin.

Following their intuitions once again, he and Finical decided that it was time to up their game.

They are quick to caution, however, that the Landing’s regulars need not fear extensive change. The taproom’s unusual, boat-shaped bar remains intact, and the restaurant’s acclaimed fish tacos and award-winning cheeseburgers still top the menu. Friendly dogs (with owners) are still welcome on the Landing’s breezy, screened-in front veranda.

Burger at Fini's Landing

Burger at Fini’s Landing (Credit: Jackie Tran)

And, for sure, the signature easygoing seacoast ambiance has not changed, nor has the tavern’s commitment to sustainability, recycling, and virtually all things environmentally responsible.

New staff

But discerning customers may notice “a few important fresheners,” as Mencke puts it.

Perhaps most significantly, a new executive chef, Ryan Jones, who began sharpening his kitchen knives for Fox Restaurant Concepts — including at Zinburger, Blanco Tacos & Tequila and Culinary Dropout — has created a new weekend breakfast menu and added a variety of original lunch and dinner entrées.

Jones can also be found on fall football Sundays behind a new wood-burning grill on the restaurant’s recently enlarged patio, turning out mouth-watering, Dr. Pepper-marinated, sauce-dripping braised ribs worthy of any fancy Arizona ranch cookout.

Now overseeing the front of the house is Glen Stosius, a restaurant executive with more than 15 years of management experience at Tucson restaurants — including having operated the popular RA Sushi Bar & Restaurant.

Pork belly tacos at Fini's Landing (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Pork belly tacos at Fini’s Landing (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Among other innovations, Stosius has expanded the Landing’s specialty cocktail list, which now features, among other intriguing concoctions, the Mallory Square, a killer margarita made with Hornitos Reposado, Patron Citronge, plus a wee touch of bartender magic.

In addition, the bar has a new tap tower, offering 16 draft beers, many of them local, including the house signature: Barrio Brewery’s Beached Ale.

A menu refresher

A refreshed menu — many items the inspiration of Chef Jones — has recently landed on the restaurant’s tables.

A likely new favorite will be the Pork Belly Taco, with an abundant serving of lightly fried pork bathed in a sauce of pepper, pumpkin seeds, serrano chiles, garlic, and cumin, and balanced with a side of pickled red onion salad.

Rounding out the updated list of entrées is an inventive new Carne Asada Bowl, part California salad, part Mexican-style beef, all Arizona farm freshness. The dish’s ingredients include cabbage, black beans, radish, avocado, red onions, and cilantro. The deep flavor of the beef, balanced by the delicacy of the fruit and vegetables, produces a piquancy that would elude most culinary practitioners — albeit clearly not the Landing’s creative new chef.

Bowl at Fini's Landing

Bowl at Fini’s Landing (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Refreshing the setting — and beyond

Complementing the original nautical design that is largely Finical’s — described by one patron as “the creative influence” of the two partners — the restaurant’s tabletops are newly decorated with bright hand-painted beach scenes. They were created especially for the dining room by local artist Gary Williams, who, not entirely coincidentally, is Mencke’s father-in-law.

Particularly notable is the long rectangular table by the restaurant’s front door. It sports a to-scale painted map of Baja California, complete with identifiable locations of family-favorite peninsula get-away spots.

What may arrive next on Fini’s Landing’s briny docks? Expansion? A beach-themed dance hall? A second Tucson location? The owners smile but offer few hints. Who knows? They could have something in mind, or they may be waiting to respond to a new need whenever it pops up. That strategy certainly worked out well the first time.

Fini’s Landing is located at 5689 N. Swan Rd., on the northwest corner of Sunrise Drive and Swan Road. It is open from 11 – 1 a.m. Monday through Thursday and until 2 a.m. on Friday; 8 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Saturday, and 8 a.m. – midnight on Sunday.

For more information, call (520) 299-1010 or visit finislanding.com.

Max is a Tucson artist, painting colorful, textured abstracts; a writer, and a former non-profit executive. He loves food and sharing it with his wife. Their three dogs eat kibble. Mostly.

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