It’s that near fairy tale dream for some folks to open up a cozy bed and breakfast, a quaint café, or even a neighborhood bar with the wishful promise that, sure, you may not get rich but at least you’re not stuck in an office or breaking your back doing manual labor.
The idea set by numerous paperback novels, family night TV shows, and movies where a smiling owner of said business always seems to be wiping something down and happy to be doing it tends to leave out one very important fact: Owning a bar, restaurant or any food and drink outfit is really really difficult.
How often have you stepped inside a new place, sat down, and checked out the menu to find that the options are so vast — a drink menu so ambitious — all you could say to yourself is “Wow, these people must be loaded.”
Later you discover they put their life savings into it, are on their fifth mortgage, and owe the bank times infinity with loans. Oh, and here’s the best part…they used to be lawyers and never worked in the service industry before. Then a few months later you drive past the place only to see that it is now a vape shop.
It happens. It happens a lot.
I say this because the owners of On The Rocks, a new bar and restaurant on Speedway and Pantano, are fairly new to the food and beverage industry. Matt and Kyla Rice ran a house painting business in Seattle before moving to Las Vegas to expand their business, only to find themselves moving to Tucson five years ago to take care of an ailing family member.
So, what’s their dream? To own and operate a bar. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Does Tucson really need another vape shop?
After spending a grand afternoon at On The Rocks with the Rice’s, I am happy to say that dream is going to be a long and tasty one. Even without the veteran chef or bartender pedigree (although they have worked in the industry either in the trenches or doing their homework to see what works and doesn’t in successful ventures) Matt and Kyla are doing it right on so many levels.
On The Rocks is open and cozy with a comfortable lounge area and welcoming bar. Matt calls their place a “dive” but after I explained some actual dive bars here in the Old Pueblo, and what goes on inside, his perception quickly switched from Mordor to the Shire.
On The Rocks is a bar, yes, but it is also a family place. This is funny because their oldest daughter works as a server while their 15-year-old is looking forward to getting her hands messy in the kitchen. It’s just a nice change of pace at a place along that stretch of east side territory. Having an honest bar with honest drinks and food inviting neighbors of all varieties is a presence bearing longevity in any circle of service.
It’s still hard work, though.
It all pays off because the food at On The Rocks is absolutely yummy — surprisingly good, actually. That is only said because it’s quite clear the Rice family was in the wrong business when it came to painting houses. They were obviously cooks of some spectacle in another form or format of times past.
When the Tuscan Chicken Panini made its way in front of me I was at first floored at its presentation, and proportion. Immediately after biting into it, the flavors of the perfectly seasoned chicken with a balsamic glaze finished with a housemade garlic aioli made me wish I lived a lot closer.
The Mushroom Swiss Burger was just as delightfully tasty and substantial in stature.
Currently, they offer three flatbread pizzas so I gave the BBQ Chicken Flatbread a spin. It was a nice balance of sauce, cheese, and protein without skimping or getting heavy-handed with the ingredients. This is the snack you want to share with others as you nuzzle a frosty pint or a cocktail that’ll make you gloriously tick your eyebrows up before that post-sip grin appears.
The residents of the Pantano Vista region are fortunate to have fun fare such as this within their reach. Lucky ducks.
After sampling the Bone-In Wings with their hot sauce, I told Kyla and Matt they need to enter them into the next “Tucson Wing Off” (that is if we have one, I’m sure we do). Again, like the other dishes I ate, these guys are meaty, monumental, and mouthwatering. Pretty sure I forgot to take a picture of them because I was halfway done when I looked at my camera and uttered “Oops.” You’ll see why when you stop by and try them.
To finish off my eat and meat fest at On The Rocks, a server brought out their Wedge Salad and I snorted with a laugh. The thing was like the Matterhorn, a sierra of fresh iceberg lettuce, housemade ranch dressing, bacon and blue cheese crumbles, tomatoes, and onions, all formed together to create a crisp victual vista.
This Rice family isn’t fooling around when it comes to generosity with flavor and portions, while at the same time being extremely smart about not overdoing it. The menu is mercifully paired down to the essentials and doesn’t deviate from what they need and what you want.
On The Rocks quietly had its grand opening on Saturday, June 11, relying solely on word of mouth and some social media posts. The ensuing days following are proving with an increase of regulars and those willing to make the drive out to see what the fuss is all about.
It’s really refreshing to see a family that is fairly green to the food scene quickly develop into seasoned service professionals so fast. The food is that good — so are the drinks (so is all of it). Because of that, I have a feeling this place is here to stay.
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Mark Whittaker began his journalism career in San Francisco around 1997. It was for a small Northern California music magazine that segued into contributing to numerous magazines, websites, newspapers and weeklies throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s. Mark interviewed bands,...