What is there to say about Kingfisher that hasn’t already been said?
For one, it does have a new owner so there is that.
In 1993, two longtime friends and chefs, Jeff Azersky and Jim “Murph” Murphy, opened Kingfisher with a plan to serve fresh seafood in a landlocked desert climate. They focused on a variety of oysters that were delivered icy fresh from Hawaii every morning.
This concept wasn’t an immediate hit but through the years and through perseverance, and the locals sending mass praise for the food, Kingfisher began to make a name for itself and soon became a Tucson dining institution. It didn’t help that they were open late on most nights, serving toasty libations and great vittles during the wee hours. Kingfisher was eventually lauded by those in the service industry.
Even if you don’t live in Tucson on the regular, you have either heard of Kingfisher, been there while on a break from northern territory winters, or read about it in various forms of publication.
After 30 years of toiling and crab boiling, Akersky and Murphy decided it was time to move on and go fishing with the idea of relaxing rather than thinking of how their sea reap could wind up on the specials menu.
In November 2022, local chef Jacqueline “Jacki” Kuder along with her partner Ted Burhans bought Kingfisher, which was quite the catch and released Jeff and Murph into the quiet flow of well-needed retirement. Or at least a settle down-ment.
As with the changing of hands within a well-established establishment, a now younger semblance is in the house which means that a change is going to come — but not too much change.
Kuder notes that if she and her executive chef Richard De La Cruz switched up the menu too much, like getting rid of such adored dishes such as the Macadamia Nut Crusted Hawaiian Fish or even the house burger, there would likely be an angry (or it is hangry?) torch and pitchfork-wielding mob rushing the joint.
“So, it’s just time to change the menu, get rid of the winter dishes now that we’ve hit 90 plus degrees,” said Kuder. “We also want to diversify the menu a little. We are adding Thai, Vietnamese, and some Caribbean flavors. Kingfisher is and will always be an American grill but we feel it’s time to bring us into the 21 century. We want to bring in some new customers — those who think they can’t afford our food or think that Kingfisher is stuck in the past.”
It’s a delicate balance of keeping tradition while giving the old haunt a new coat of paint. They’re changes that will both appease the longtime regulars and invite a divergent or uninitiated clientele. New artwork hangs on the walls, some colorful touch-ups here and there, a delicious and affordable updated lunch menu, and inventive cocktails that don’t mess around.
Kingfisher is that place where you can definitely bring your parents and grandparents but who doesn’t love a restaurant that looks and feels expensive but doesn’t rob you blind?
Exciting new menu items include Tom Yum Talay, a Thai seafood soup that includes Gulf shrimp, blue crab, scallops, mussels, and cod along with baby bok choy, wild mushrooms, and lemongrass in a sumptuous coconut broth. It doesn’t get any more fish forward with this dish and for a beloved eatery known for its seafood, it definitely puts the yum in Tom Yum Talay.
The Chilled White Gazpacho is a flavor wager that totally pays off. The days are heating up and this dish will cure the early summertime blues. A bright resonant broth that is matched with fried capers, toasted almonds, and sliced grapes — an unexpected flavor swirl that shouldn’t make sense but absolutely does.
Chef De La Cruz couldn’t be prouder of the Lobster Roll they now serve. Fortune was on my side as I had the immense pleasure to dive deep into this crustaceous beauty on a bun.
“It’s essentially a Maine-style lobster salad on a super soft, classic roll,” said De la Cruz. “We’ve got the clarified butter, fresh lemon juice, and chives on a roll that is split at the top, kind of like a hot dog. The lobster is flown in fresh a few times a week and it doesn’t matter if you’re from Boston, Maine, or wherever you think has the best lobster roll, this one is for you. This is your lobster roll and it is super delicious and we are super proud to be serving it.”
There are other new menu stunners such as the Grilled Sea Bass in a coconut rum broth, a Deep Sea Red Crab Cake served with a spicy green tartar sauce, bacon and poblano stuffed Grilled Trout, and Pan Seared Skin On Atlantic Salmon on top of chermoula sauce and smoked tomato aioli. All of these are devotedly representative of a three decades-strong establishment that’s bold in its approach as the new kids are taking you for a trip around the block of tastes, textures, and ideas.
What Kingfisher has always been known and appreciated for is its cozy bar located just right from the front entrance. It’s a throwback proper cocktail hideaway and one of my personal favorites. The drinks are always a delight and are accomplished with a swift aplomb by bartenders.
A new deal to shake hands with is the Cascade Crush, an invigorating blend of quality vodka, Amaro Sfumato Rabarbaro (a bitter and herby liqueur), fresh basil, and a syrup made from grilled strawberries. It’s absolutely refreshing with a beautiful buzz.
Then we have the Views from the 520, a combo I thought was going to be less than awesome but turned out to be surprisingly awesome. Made with Tucson’s own Whiskey Del Bac Dorado, Fernet Branca, bitters, and a house simple syrup, it’s now one of my go-to drinks spawned by an unfortunate moment of hesitancy.
“I think some people were really freaked out at first, actually,” Kuder said about the change of ownership. “I would come out, walk around the dining room, and I could tell people didn’t know who I was yet. Most customers who have been coming to Kingfisher for 20 or 30 years were really worried that the new owners were going to change everything. Now they see that we’re really keeping the same intention of the restaurant and keeping some of those staples that they all love.”
“We’ve made new additions because that’s what I am all about as a chef and owner and what Richard is about being our executive chef. We just want to let everyone know Kingfisher is a place for everyone and for every age group. Your parents love this place and we know their kids will too.”
Kingfisher is located at 2564 E. Grant Rd. and is open 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. on Monday – Thursday, 11 a.m. – midnight on Friday, 4 p.m. – midnight on Saturday, and closed on Sunday. They have a Happy Hour Monday – Friday from 2 – 5 p.m. For more information, visit kingfishertucson.com.
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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,...