In the waning days of 2011, more than 100 people braved the near-freezing night air outside the Dinnerware Artspace parking lot downtown. They mingled in the dirt parking lot as lines formed at a dozen food trucks. One by one, they left with plates that redefine how we in Tucson think about street food:
• Quesadillas given an Asian twist with Korean kimchi.
• Indulgent smoked duck and Gruyère crepes.
• So-called "dirty tacos" fat with ground beef, chorizo and bits of hot dog.
• Banh Mi sandwiches stuffed with thick slices of savory pork belly.
• Decadent chocolate Whoopie pies with sea salt caramel frosting.
The evolution of Tucson's food truck culture - creative foodies dishing up more than the ubiquitous Sonoran hot dog and tacos - was one of the highlights in what was a very good year for dining in Tucson. Here are five of our favorite trends from 2011 that we look forward to seeing more of in the year ahead.
Before last year, Tucson's food truck culture was largely defined by the vendors selling Mexican food and Sonoran hot dogs.
Food trends on both coasts and the long-running recession changed all that. The Pima County Health Department licensed 941 mobile food businesses in 2011, including 235 operating as full-service food trucks. Another 45 were listed as push-cart vendors.
"When I came on ... (in mid-2010), there was Eat-A-Burger and (Jane's Rolling Wok)," said Jessica Kraus, whose 18-month-old mobile restaurant, Planet of the Crepes, has earned a five-star rating on Yelp with offerings such as manchego cheese, fig jam and roasted almond crepes. "I thought it would be less expensive to start up that way, but in the long run I sort of feel like when you go brick and mortar, by the time someone comes in and buys your food, they're pretty much paying for the real estate. ... To have a food truck, you can go out and serve something that's really great and they are actually paying for just the food. It's just a better value all around."
Today, Tucson's street food culture is emerging on par with what you find in Portland, Ore., and Los Angeles. Mobile chefs offering pork belly sliders park alongside their Mexican food bretheren to grill burgers, pipe frosting into Whoopie pies and dish up plates of steaming Chinese food prepared in a wok inside a kitchen that measures no bigger than a walk-in closet.
The Tucson Food Truck Roundup launched at Dinnerware Artspace in November and has evolved into a semi-regular event with about a dozen trucks.
The fourth roundup took place Monday evening in a bigger lot around the corner from Dinnerware, and drew about 1,000 people over five hours to the largest turnout of trucks so far: 16.
"If you want to do great food and get it out there, you can," said Kraus, the mother of two young kids. "If a spot's not working, you can take it somewhere else. Take it to the people who want it as opposed to hoping that people who want it will be willing to drive across town."
Peter Wilke was among the first to embrace the term gastropub when he opened Wilko just outside the University of Arizona's Main Gate a couple of years ago.
Brothers Aric and Josh Mussman gave it a bear hug when they opened Noble Hops in an upscale strip mall in Oro Valley in May.
By November, The Parish had debuted in a former sports bar at 6453 N. Oracle Road and Union Public House had opened at St. Philips Plaza. Jackson's Grille & Gastropub planned to open soon in Marana's Continental Ranch area.
Aric Mussman said he and his brother got into the gastropub business in response to a need.
"People get tired of going to bars and drinking crappy beer and eating crappy food. The trend is going away from that. Women, in particular, aren't really that into eating mozzarella sticks you take out of the freezer, fry in oil and pour ranch dressing over," explained Aric Mussman.
The brothers visited established gastropubs in Dallas, Denver and California.
Most were purist in their approach. "Most don't even have Bud Lite. We do because we're in Oro Valley. If people have been drinking Bud Lite for 30 years, they are not going to change," Mussman said.
Most of his customers, though, come for the good stuff, draft beer delivered from 28 taps. Samples sometimes wean customers from the lesser beers. "Any time we can steer them away from a Bud Lite or a vodka tonic, it's a victory," he said.
It works both ways.
The restaurant stopped using whole smelts as its fish and chips entree. "Some people absolutely loved it; the other half, not so much."
Mussman said he has plans to add some "more obscure" menu items as specials for his more adventurous customers - bone marrow, rabbit paté, that kind of thing.
CHICKEN AND WAFFLES
The Southern comfort-food trend that inspired devotees on both coasts in recent years looked like it would never really make it to Tucson.
But when restaurant developer John Foster teamed up with Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame chef/restaurateur Aaron May late in 2010 to open May's Counter Chicken & Waffles on East Speedway, the trend took hold.
By last summer, you could find chicken and waffles on the menus of several Tucson restaurants, including the University of Arizona-area Pasco Kitchen & Lounge, which added a Southwest sassiness to the dish. It also popped up on the menu at Shlomo & Vito's New York Delicatessen on East Skyline Drive. There this dish is served no-frills - fried chicken with a waffle and syrup.
Newcomer Union Public House, which opened last fall in St. Philip's Plaza, dresses its chicken and waffles up with a bacon-infused maple syrup and a fluffy white corn and sage waffle.
Over at May's, chicken and waffles is the centerpiece of a menu that also features Southern favorites like grits, sweet potatoes, cornbread and fried okra.
Foster said the restaurant did solid business in its first year, attracting a loyal following from the neighboring University of Arizona, including a large contingent of athletes.
"I think comfort food has something to do with it. But I think it's part of pop culture," said Foster, who defers to the venerable Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles in the Los Angeles area as the source of movie and music references that have driven its popularity.
It used to be tough to dine in Tucson if you wanted your breads and sauces sans gluten.
These days the Southern Arizona Celiac Support Group's dining guide includes dozens of restaurants with gluten-free options. Last spring, the group's annual Gluten-Free Food Faire had to move to larger digs.
In November, Gourmet Girls Gluten Free Bakery/Bistro opened on North Oracle Road. "It's been fantastic," said co-owner Susan Fulton. She and Mary Gibson offer fare ranging from French bread, pastries and wedding cakes to pancakes and grass-fed beefburgers at lunch. It's become a destination, drawing diners from as far as Vail and Benson. "We're actually getting ready to expand," Fulton said, with grab-and-go meals.
Cocktail hour returned to Tucson with a creative vengeance in 2011, fueled by celebrated crafters like 47 Scott and Janos Wilder's Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails.
"I feel like Tucsonans are starting to catch on," said 47 Scott's Travis Reese, who owns the nearly two-year-old downtown restaurant with Nicole Flowers. "... People in Tucson who have experienced it in other cities want it in their hometown."
"New concepts are happening in restaurants today and a lot of people are realizing that the bar and cocktail menu is just as important as the food," added Kristian Unvericht, Downtown's GM and bar manager.
These are not your mama's cocktails. They are savory concoctions that raid the pantry and the liquor cabinet with equal priority, incorporating ingredients including housemade bitters, garden-fresh herbs, fruits, vegetables and aromatics like ginger.
"It's something you want to sip, that you want to experience all of the different flavors," said Reese, whose summer cocktails made the New York Times Dining cover last June.
"It's redefining what cocktails are," Unvericht said. "People aren't coming in to get drunk. They are coming for an experience, to be fascinated and wowed."
Tom Beal and Inger Sandal contributed to this story.