Burger Madness championship: Zivaz cuts down the nets

Zivaz Mexican Bistro toppled Fini’s Landing Sunday in the championship round of Caliente’s Burger Madness. Read how the "traditionally innovative" fast-casual restaurant came out on top, dive into some of the other interesting happenings in our contest and read about a burger that made it on national television.

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  • Zivaz Mexican Bistro toppled Fini’s Landing Sunday in the championship round of Caliente’s Burger Madness.

    Zivaz’s Asada Burger with chipotle aioli and an optional chile relleno on top got 370 votes to 293 cast for Fini’s, a grill with a beachlike sensibility that serves a spicy Chubasco Burger among other varieties.

    “We were hoping to do this, but it’s a great surprise,” said Cecilia Valenzuela, who with her husband, Felipe, opened Zivaz eight years ago today.

    The fast-casual restaurant, which bills itself as “traditionally innovative,” features Mexican standbys like carne asada and mole in addition to entrées such as the pescado ajillo: sauteed mahi filet with guajillo spicy mushrooms.

    There is only one burger — open-flame grilled with onions, chipotle aioli, tomato and greens. (Add a chile relleno for $2).

    Cecilia Valenzuela said they added it as a 4th of July special and kept it on the menu because it was so popular.

    “Since we added the burger six years ago, everyone was telling us this is the best burger in town. And when this competition started, a lot of people told us we have to be in the competition,” she said.

    Fini’s Landing has been around less than two years.

    “I’m really surprised we got as far as we did,” said co-owner Scott Mencke. “We knew our work was cut out for us. We went into the weekend knowing it probably wasn’t going to happen, but we did everything we could.”

    Fini’s Landing lagged behind Zivaz’s throughout the day Sunday. With two hours left before voting ended at 10 p.m., Zivaz had a solid 57-vote lead — much of it generated by an aggressive email campaign to the 6,000 people on the restaurant’s email list.

    Fini’s, meanwhile, pulled out its A-game, rallying customers throughout the day, blasting updates on Facebook and attracting attention along North Swan Road with a banner depicting a shark eating a burger stretched between two palm trees in front of the restaurant. Around 2 p.m., Mencke’s partner Doug “Fini” Finical posted a campy video onto YouTube to rally supporters.

    “Trailing in the polls, yet ecstatic we made it this far, we thought we’d have a little fun and shoot a campy video to promote our cause,” Finical said in an email to Caliente Sunday afternoon.

    Zivaz, which is closed on Sundays, never relinquished its lead. Valenzuela said of the 6,000 emails she and her staff sent to supporters, 2,000 were opened and about 700 of those people followed the link to the contest.

    Zivaz entered Burger Madness as an underdog but it quickly blasted past downtown newcomer Diablo Burger 482-449 and squeaked in a win by eight votes over Rusty’s Family Restaurant & Sports Grill in Round 2. Valenzuela said the biggest challenge of the competition was against Monkey Burger in Round 3.

    “Beating Monkey Burger was very exciting for us. That was the challenge,” she said.

    Finical said that once frontrunners Zinburger and Lindy’s on 4th were out in the first round of voting, he felt like Fini’s Landing had a shot at the crown.

    “We thought Zinburger would be the big challenge, but when Zinburger didn’t make it through the first round, we thought we had it in the bag,” he said.

    Fini’s Landing, a kicked-back and kicked-up island-themed restaurant and bar in the Foothills, launched a spirited campaign on social media and in the restaurant throughout the month-long Burger Madness. The restaurant handily toppled Oro Valley bistro Noble Hops in the first round, then squeaked past Cody’s Beef ‘n’ Beans in Round 2 to face Frank’s Sports Grill & Bar in the semifinals; Fini’s beat Frank’s 548-512 to advance to the finals against Gentle Ben’s Brewing.

    “It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a great reason to interact with our customers in person and on Facebook and get everyone (together) on a common cause,” Mencke said.

  • One of the most surprising underdogs in this year’s Burger Madness was a young upstart hailing from Tucson’s south side.

    The 8-month-old Amigos Burgers and Beer trounced the Silver Saddle Steakhouse, Omar’s Hi-Way Chef and Trident Grill before falling to Zivaz Mexican Bistro in the final four.

    Located in the old Mustang Bar on South Nogales Highway, the half bar/half burger joint is owned by longtime friends Robert Gonzalez and Ramiro Flores, hence the name.

    Both have a history in Tucson’s food-service industry.

    Gonzalez has owned Crossroads Restaurant on South Fourth Avenue for 11 years. His family has run it for more than three decades.

    Flores, in addition to being the Gonzalez family attorney, also owns The Original Hideout bar on South Mission Road.

    The duo were looking for something new.

    “When Ramiro bought The Hideout, it was already an established business,” Gonzalez said. “The Crossroads was also established when I took over. We wanted to create a fun place where we could hang out.”

    They looked to the vacant property, a large windowless building sitting empty for five years just north of East Valencia Road, as their opportunity.

    For Gonzalez, a former customer of The Mustang, the location was perfect.

    “I grew up in that neighborhood,” he said. “The building has been there forever. I was emotionally attached to it.”

    After winning the space in a real estate auction, they spent the next two years making it their own.

    Gonzalez said a lot of effort was put into the “man cave” motif.

    The restaurant sports large, detailed murals of bison, cattle runs and wagon trains.

    Diners can sit at picnic benches running across the center of the room or in booths lining the walls.

    The bar side of things sports a hodgepodge of decorations, surfboards on the wall, neon signs, the rear end of a 1956 Chevy.

    The office entrance is an old vault door picked up at Gersons Building Materials.

    “We just messed around with it,” Gonzalez said. “We had no theme. It was more like: ‘This looks cool. Let’s put it in.’ ”

    Gonzalez said a mix of customers, from Raytheon employees to detectives to neighboring residents, has given Amigos a solid first year in business.

    They come primarily for the burgers, which take up a significant portion of the menu, alongside chicken wings, hot dogs, sandwiches and appetizers.

    The restaurant offers ten burgers in all.

    Among its best-sellers are the Amigo Burger, a handmade patty covered in bacon, avocado, cheese and a chipotle mayonnaise, and the Southside Burger, which comes with roasted green chiles, jalapeño jack cheese and a cilantro mayonnaise.

    “We watched a lot of burger shows, visited a lot of restaurants to get these right,” Gonzalez said. “It took a little bit of a lot of awesome burgers to create them.”

    Gonzalez said the restaurant is still picking up steam in its first year. There are no sweeping changes or expansions in the works, but “ask me next year,” he said.

    “We are going one day at a time. It has been a little overwhelming, but we are starting to take off.”

  • You don’t expect three coup d’etats in the first round of bracket match ups.

    Of the four burger powerhouses that started the Burger Madness bracket as No. 1 seeds, only Monkey Burger, 5350 E. Broadway, got past the first round. It beat Sam-Witches and Such, 6502 E. Tanque Verde Road, with 468 votes to 425. Seeds were based on the restaurants’ number of nominations.

    The other frontrunners — Zinburger Wine & Burger Bar, Lindy’s on 4th and The Parish — got benched early.

    “We were planning on winning,” said Alex White, the general manager of Zinburger, 1865 E. River Road. “We don’t lose these battles.”

    Zinburger, with another location at 6390 E. Grant Road, has a history of winning burger battles in this town — but that pride might have caused the fall. White admitted that while he and his staff encouraged diners to vote and they posted signs about the battle in the upscale burger restaurant, he did not push very hard online.

    Cody’s Beef ‘n Beans, 2708 E. Fort Lowell Road, swooped in to beat Zinburger 643-622 in the first round.

    “Cody’s Beef n’ Beans was probably more active,” White said. “I was a little arrogant, thinking we’ve won this so many times, we don’t have to push this for the first round.”

    Lindy Reilly, the owner of Lindy’s on 4th, 431 N. Fourth Ave., didn’t waste a second before rallying his fans to start voting. Smart money would have him as a sure winner; after all, he’s appeared on the Food Network and Travel Channel in recent years and just emerged from another burger skirmish on top.

    But it was a false-start as little Grumpy’s Grill at 2960 W. Ina Road — known for its peanut butter-slicked burger — swept in with a 675-582 first-round knockout. Reilly said apparently even his staunch fans skipped the registration process necessary to vote.

    Reilly isn’t bitter.

    “I love the concept, and there were so many other burgers,” he said. “I love going to try burgers everywhere.”

    The third top contender to fall, The Parish, 6453 N. Oracle Road, is a southern gastropub that only serves two hamburgers — a basic backyard burger with lettuce, tomato and red onion, and the house special Parish burger with bleu cheese, bacon, red onion marmalade and Dijon mustard.

    Defeat alongside Lindy’s and Zinburger — “the big dogs” — means almost as much as a win, said Travis Peters, The Parish chef and co-owner. Up against those guys, The Parish “always feels like the underdog.”

    Trident Grill, 2033 E. Speedway, squeezed past The Parish by a mere four votes — 465-461.

    “We only have two burgers, because we’re not a burger joint,” Peters said. “To have someone call us a top contender for something that isn’t our specialty is a big compliment. I’m not heartbroken.”

  • Good Day Cafe was open just two weeks when it found itself competing against Tucson burger legends in Caliente’s Burger Madness.

    Sullivan’s Eatery & Creamery easily muscled Good Day out in the first round, which was fine with Good Day owner Tim Lowery. Lowery is perfectly sincere when he says he was just happy to be invited to the party.

    Lowery’s burgers apparently are worthy of bragging.

    He hand- forms patties every morning from 100 percent Angus beef and serves a half-pound burger on a housemade pretzel bun starting at $4.99. Specialty burgers, including the rodeo burger with onion rings, bacon and barbecue sauce, start at $6.39.

    It is his signature house-special $1.99 breakfast — two eggs any style with toast and hash browns served all day, every day — that is bringing folks into his 33-table diner at 5683 E. Speedway. Add bacon or sausage and it’s $3.39. An endless cup of Seattle’s Best coffee is $1.79.

    Lowery, who until recently was a partner with his sister at Biscuits Country Cafe, 7026 E. Broadway near South Kolb Road, has cooked at restaurants all around Tucson. The Palo Verde High School graduate also managed national fast-food restaurants for several years.

    At Good Day, he bakes all of the breads and desserts on site daily, including tarts that are as big as two slices of pie for $3.39.

    In addition to burgers, Lowery uses the Angus beef in his house-special chicken fried steak.

  • Tucson’s food truck scene is about to get a little national love.

    Two of the city’s most intriguing vendors — Planet of the Crepes and Serial Grillers — will be featured on Cooking Channel’s “Eat St.,” a show that focuses on America’s growing obsession with food trucks.

    The show filmed last week and one day this week in Phoenix and will spend Sunday and Monday filming in Tucson.

    On Sunday, crews will set up at St. Philip’s Plaza, 4280 N. Campbell Ave., to film Jessica Kraus making savory and sweet crepes from Planet of the Crepes. She is a regular at St. Philip’s weekly farmers markets and also sets up in Sierra Vista on Thursdays.

    This is the first time Kraus will be featured on national TV so she wants to make a good impression. She’s inviting anyone who’s game to swing by the truck around 8:30 or 9 a.m. Sunday. She’s hoping to attract between 50 and 100 people, including kids dressed in capes as “creped crusaders.” She might even offer a sweet incentive (wink, wink) for those who get there early.

    The show will include shots of her preparing food and folks eating it, as well as interviews with her and with customers.

    “Eat St.” will spend the day with Serial Grillers owners brothers Travis and William Miller beginning at 7:30 a.m. Monday. The show will film the pair at 7889 E. 22nd St., at North Pantano Road, where they had set up a food truck court over the summer. The city shot down their idea not long after they opened because they didn’t have the proper permits.

    Travis Miller said “Eat St.” has requested that they make four sandwiches, all named after made-for-TV serial killers: the Gormogon and the Psycho cheesesteaks and the Chucky and Trinity Killer burgers. Serial Grillers will open for customers at noon and Miller, like Kraus, is hoping a lot of people will show up for the filming.

    In addition to their 18-month-old food truck, the Millers spun off a pizzeria, Serial Grillers Pizza at 5737 E. Speedway on Sept. 9.

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