Culinary surprises along Tucson segment of Interstate 10

2013-04-25T00:00:00Z 2013-04-25T11:43:42Z Culinary surprises along Tucson segment of Interstate 10Cathalena E. Burch Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
April 25, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Alongside the country fried steak and eggs and cattleman's chopped steak slathered in brown gravy, Omar's Hi-Way Chef Restaurant at the Triple T Truck Stop grills trout with lemon and tilapia with herbs and serves them both on a bed of fluffy rice pilaf.

Not exactly what you think of when it comes to truck-stop fare, or anything you would expect to find a quick split off the highway.

The restaurant, a staple along westbound Interstate 10 for nearly 60 years, is among a handful of Tucson-born eateries cooking up culinary surprises along the freeway.

Between Omar's on the far east side and R & R Pizza Express in Marana on the far northwest, you can find authentic Mexican soups, thick mesquite grilled steaks, Mexican seafood, Vietnamese pho and scratch-made country breakfasts served 24-7.

"We get people from all over the world," said Linda Molitor, who has owned R & R Pizza Express for 16 years with her husband, Mike, in a modest building off the eastbound Marana exit. "I've had people from China saying they were in town for spring training. I've had a lot of people from Canada. They don't know how far it is until the next stop so they pull over for gas and grab something to eat. Every time I hear a different accent: I ask them where they are from."

On one of his early trips through Tucson, Mexican farmer Francisco Wiebi saw Silver Saddle Steak House's giant neon sign pointing toward the frontage road off the eastbound Sixth Street/Fourth Avenue exit.

"The sign said steak. I pulled over," Wiebi said last Thursday afternoon, staring down at a plate of bones that had been baby back ribs. "I come here when I can, when I come through Tucson."

"As soon as we click that thing on, it attracts a lot of attention," said Silver Saddle general manager Orlando Alva, whose family bought the restaurant from the original owner in 1984 when it was in its infancy. "It's a huge arrow pointing down, and you can see us right off the road there. We get a lot of folks who pull in."

Around the corner from Silver Saddle, diners might think they've crossed the border into Mexico when they pull into the parking lot of Pedro and Emilia Estrella's El Indio Restaurant. A Oaxacan-style mural covering the front wall of the Mexican restaurant depicts an Old West scene. Inside the couple, who opened in a small taco stand across the street in late 1990, have collected a museum's worth of Mexican folk art, from pottery to intricate knickknacks.

Irma and Mario Hinojosa started their Country Folks Restaurant in Benson in the late 1990s. Within five years, they moved north on the interstate to the eastbound Park Avenue/Benson Highway offramp, settling into a spot that once housed an outpost of the national JB's chain.

"We get a lot of people off the freeway and people staying at the hotels nearby," Irma Hinojosa said as the midmorning rush died down last Thursday. "Truckers will be getting their trucks fixed across the street at Peterbilt (Rush Peterbilt Truck Center) and they'll stop in."

Country Folks is known for its man-sized breakfasts, from stacks of pancakes to the house special migas, eggs scrambled with veggies and peppers and spiked with corn tortilla chips before being smothered in cheddar cheese.

Breakfast is a big draw for many of the offramp eateries. At the Kettle Restaurant off the eastbound 22nd Street/Starr Pass Boulevard exit, the breakfast buffet with its plethora of egg dishes, breakfast meats and potatoes draws a crowd of travelers and regulars alike on most mornings. The Kettle has been a fixture along I-10 since the early 1980s, and Sam Sadi has owned it since 1996.

Sadi spends most of his days greeting customers at the door with a broad smile that swallows his face.

"I love working for Sam," said waitress Alya Camacho, an 18-year-old Cholla High Magnet School senior who has worked at the restaurant for about a year. "He can just sit there and talk and talk and talk."

Being located near a freeway ramp has its advantages. R&R's Molitor estimates freeway travelers make up a majority of her business. But it also can have devastating lows.

From 2007 to 2009, "we went through a very hard time because they closed all the exits (during a widening of Interstate 10)," said Abelardo Frisby, who owns Las Cazuelitas de Tucson, 1365 W. Grant Road, on the eastbound side of I-10. "We dropped almost 70 percent of our business. Right now with the Prince Road construction, it's still hurting us a lot."

Frisby said he has made up some of the lost business with his events center, which hosts quinceañeras, weddings and graduations.

Miss Saigon Bar & Grill at Ina Road and Interstate 10 isn't quite a magnet for travelers. It mostly draws on its devoted local clientele, who come in for the house special pho - Vietnamese noodle soup.

But a couple of years ago, shift manager Matt Hildreth remembers a winter visitor couple stopping in by chance.

"They loved it so much that they come in every year when they come through town," he said.

Over at Omar's, the granddaddy of Tucson's offramp restaurants, chef-manager Omar Ramirez gushes about the restaurant's signature deep-dish apple pie. It's served hot and topped with a mountain of vanilla ice cream that melts into the cinnamon-kissed crisp apples snuggled in a flaky crust dusted with cinnamon.

"I've had dates here," said longtime regular Robert Carreon, a wildland firefighter who works nearby and has been coming to Omar's since he was a kid growing up in Tucson. "We'd come over here for dinner and have that apple pie and ice cream. This is good food."

Trucker James Johnson has been on the road 30 years and regularly passes through Tucson.

"I done lost count of how many times I've been here," the South Carolina resident said last Friday, pushing his fork through the remnants of a half-eaten plate of steak and eggs.

For a spell last Friday morning, he had Omar's horseshoe-shaped counter in the coffee shop to himself. Then a fellow trucker came in and sat down across from him. A few minutes later, another trucker plopped down and turned over a coffee cup, signaling to the waitress that he wouldn't mind a splash or two from the pot of coffee she was carrying.

"I've been coming here 30 years. I like the food, and the waitresses are nice," Johnson added.

Omar's has gained a national following in recent years after it was featured on the Food Network and the Travel Channel.

"I would say we are probably the best restaurant that's stuck in a truck stop," said Ramirez, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a certified executive chef.

"What we try to strive to do at Omar's is to give our truck drivers, which are our main customers, a place to eat home-cooked food, servers who are pleasant and friendly, and kind of sassy," Ramirez said.

"A lot of the drivers are on dedicated routes, which means they have to stop in Tucson. You see these guys year after year, and when you don't see them, you wonder what happened to them. You can set your watch by when they walk in."

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