Once upon a time, before UNESCO inextricably linked our city with the word "gastronomy," Noble Hops debuted as Tucson’s first self-described gastropub. It was 2011, and the upscale menu and vast selection of craft beer at this new Oro Valley venture were met with some surprise — and a little suspicion.
Weren’t pubs supposed to serve greasy, bottom-line food, and not fare generally found in fine dining rooms? And what self-respecting barroom wouldn't have Bud Light on draft, only a bunch of frou frou brews with peculiar names?
Happily, any hesitation locals might have had with the concept only lasted only as long as it took for them to sample the food and the booze — along with beer, a full bar, and a nice selection of wine.
Perhaps some sports fans were also reassured by the presence of a row of TVs, while fresh air enthusiasts were drawn by a capacious patio with spectacular Santa Catalina vistas.
Noble Hops was created by siblings Josh and Aric Mussman and chef Angel Morales, who graduated from Cordon Bleu Scottsdale and did a stint in Las Vegas working for chef Daniel Boulud. Earlier, the Mussman brothers founded Vero Amore.
The restaurant’s name alludes to a type of hops particularly prized by brewers; they’re grown only in four small regions of Europe. According to Suzanne Kaiser, CFO of JAM Culinary Concepts, which includes Noble Hops and Vero Amore (Kaiser is also Josh and Aric Mussman’s mother), the menu was tailored towards gourmet food that went well with beer. Traditional bar snacks like nachos and wings were out.
"We tried a lot of things," said Kaiser. "The first menu had a lamb popsicle, and we later offered bone marrow."
Both lamb popsicle and bone marrow were enjoyed by many, but the longstanding tried-and-true favorites turned out to be familiar fare taken to the next culinary level: sesame-dusted Crispy Cauliflower in a hot-and-sweet chili lime sauce; the Jam Burger smothered with smoked cheddar, bacon jam, and chili aioli; and the Ahi BLT, a spin on the classic sandwich featuring seared raw ahi tuna.
Time and success brought some tweaks to the original Noble Hops concept. The plan to change the large menu each season, for example, proved too complicated to execute well, so the shift now occurs two or three times a year.
And while chefs are still given a lot of leeway to introduce different dishes, customer taste is kept in clear view. "While we’re always up for trying something new, our menu has to be guest-driven," said Kaiser. "We might offer an unusual dish as a special and see how it goes."
Wings and nachos were eventually added to the menu, though in appropriately upscale versions. The wings come in a choice of sauces that includes Thai chili, while garlic parmesan is one of the dry rub options. Poblano crema and chili aioli top the nachos alongside such standards as refried beans, shredded cheese, and guacamole, and carne asada and barrio steak are among the nacho extras.
By 2021, when the second Noble Hops opened in the midtown’s Doubletree Hotel, Tucson’s palate and the menu’s sophistication were completely in sync. It didn’t hurt that the Doubletree’s out-of-town guests were looking to experience top-notch food with a local flair.
Locals and visitors alike will be pleased by the menu that executive chef Sarah Lamberth designed for Sonoran Restaurant Week.
The starter is posole, a traditional Mexican hominy soup that’s usually made with pork or chicken. Lamberth’s version is vegetarian “so it can be enjoyed by more people.”
"We wanted to do something that was going to be fun for the guests and for the cooks," said Lamberth. "We wanted to include locally sourced ingredients and our demographic at both locations eat a lot of seafood."
Thus the main course of red snapper. It’s swathed in chiltepin beurre blanc, which, Lamberth notes, does a spin on the classic French sauce by incorporating one of the area’s heritage ingredients, the tiny chiltepin. The snapper is sided by acorn squash, another heritage ingredient that’s just coming into season, and heirloom corn on the cob, which is not only colorful but also reflects the transition from summer to autumn.
As for the dessert, the chef gives one of her predecessors credit for the slightly smoky chipotle-laced brownie complemented by a creamy cascabel mousse topping.
I can attest to the success of every course.
True story: A friend and I previewed the Sonoran Restaurant Week menu a week before it was available to the general public. We must have made very happy sounds during our meal. When we were finished, a man dining nearby came over to our table and told us he’d asked his server, "Could I have what they’re having?"
He couldn’t, but now you can.
Noble Hops is located at 1335 W. Lambert Ln. and 445 S. Alvernon Way. For more information, visit noblehops.com. Also, for more information on Sonoran Restaurant Week, which is happening from Friday, September 9 - Sunday, September 18, visit sonoranrestaurantweek.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 from New York University and was a guidebook editor at Fodor’s (Random House) and Frommer’s (Simon & Schuster) in New...