Dining in Southern Arizona’s wine country is a mix of casual nibbling and fine dining.
In Willcox, where farming wine grapes has grown from cottage industry to big business in the last handful of years, you can order lasagna alongside meatloaf at G-ma D’s on Haskell Avenue. Walk a few blocks down to East Maley Street and get a smoked pulled pork sandwich from Big Tex BBQ while sitting in a 1929 railroad dining car. Hop across the street for classic Sonoran Mexican fare from Tex’s sister restaurant, Isabel’s South of the Border.
In Sonoita, where the wine history and vines run deeper and farther than in Willcox, a historical steakhouse grills rib-eyes and ribs while a Phoenix chef celebrated for his farm-to-table ethos is creating one of the region’s first true destination restaurants.
A strong restaurant scene complements the region’s already bustling wine industry, giving visitors to the wineries and tasting rooms reason to linger a bit longer.
“We see 50,000 people a year in the tasting room. … It’s nice when people come down to spend the day at the tasting rooms; they definitely need somewhere to eat,” said Keif Manning, owner and winemaker for the 10-year-old Keif-Joshua Vineyards in Sonoita.
“It’s critical” to have quality restaurants supporting the wine industry, added Kent Callaghan, whose family ran a restaurant in the building that now houses Greg LaPrad’s much anticipated restaurant Overland Trout. “There’s no question it’s a huge draw when you’ve got a place that’s top-notch.”
We’re taking a tour of some of wine country’s dining, with a side trip to Sierra Vista, a hotbed for German cuisine.
Big Tex BBQ, 130 E. Maley St., 1-520-384-4423; $6.50 to $15.
The smell of smoked meat permeates the stretch of historical Willcox that starts near the old train station and meanders to the Rex Allen Museum. It’s coming from an old railroad car that sat vacant until Jeff Willey set up Big Tex BBQ smokers and wood pile and put the 1929 Pullman dining car back to its intended use several years ago.
Willey, an affable bear of a man who can be found most days attending to his smokers, started Big Tex BBQ in 1997 as a mobile restaurant seven miles outside of town at Brown’s Country General. The wine industry was in its infancy and mostly confined to the vineyards; no one had set up a tasting room in town, so there was no real draw for being there. But after two years, he made the move into town, parking his restaurant at Haskell and Rex Allen Drive, down the street from his current location.
“At first it was pretty scary because you were downtown Willcox and there’s nothing down there,” he recalled. “I just thought with the barbecue pits smoking and bringing the smell and the dining car itself maybe being a draw — they can sit in a train dining car and have lunch — that was kind of a hope that it would work.”
Willey, who grew up in Willcox and left for Texas when he was a junior in high school, dreamed of bringing the Texas barbecue he came to love home to Willcox. When he became a father with two kids, he decided there was no place he’d rather raise them and realize his dream than Willcox.
Big Tex BBQ serves fat ribs slathered in a smoky Texas-accented sauce, brisket with a tantalizing char on the edges and smoked chicken encased in a crispy skin. He sides the meat with beer-battered french fries and crispy onion rings as well as greens or cowboy beans. In one of the more creative items on the lineup, Willey stuffs a baked potato with brisket for a one-in-all take on meat and potatoes.
G-ma D’s Cafe, 100 S. Haskell Ave., 1-520-384-0471. $5 to $10.
Donna Clough opened her cafe as a mobile kitchen five years ago. It moved into its Haskell Avenue location a year ago, a couple of blocks from the handful of wine-tasting rooms that have sprung up near East Maley Street and South Railroad Avenue.
G-Ma D’s is an all-purpose eatery, serving a bit of everything, from meatloaf and chicken-fried steak to lasagna and spaghetti. “Pretty much what everyone doesn’t do” you will find here, said Clough, who settled in Willcox in 1996 when her husband was transferred with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She doesn’t serve wine or beer there — she says she doesn’t even drink it at home — “but I love wine customers.” During the town’s twice-a-year wine festivals, business jumps exponentially.
“It brings a lot more people. At first I was like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s another ostrich phase.’ We had the ostrich phase for a while. But I don’t think this is a phase,” she said. “Every year it has increased. Last week they had the wine festival and we pretty much tripled what we usually do.”
Isabel’s South of the Border, 135 E. Maley St., 1-520-766-0859. $4.50-$14.
The spicy sister of Big Tex, Isabel’s is run by Jeff Willey’s Sonoran-born wife, Isabel Willey. The restaurant opened in May, across the street from Big Tex, serving scratch-made Sonoran-style Mexican food from recipes handed down to Isabel from her mother and grandmother. The menu leans heavily toward Mexican street food, including soft tacos filled with meat and lettuce flecked with fresh cilantro; lentil soup in a rich broth bobbing with squash; and pan-fried pork or beef gordita sandwiches.
Business over the summer was tough, but Jeff Willey said it has picked up and has been steady recently, spurred on by the fall wine festival and a jump in the number of people visiting the handful of tasting rooms downtown.
“Being downtown where some of the wine tasting rooms are, it’s helped out a bunch. When they have the festivals we are crazy busy,” he said.
The Steak Out Restaurant, 3235 Highway 82, 1-520-455-5205; azsteakout.com; $10-$36.
Sonoita’s oldest restaurant, The Steak Out has been in business since the early 1950s grilling cowboy steaks and ribs for the neighboring ranching communities. By the 1970s the restaurant and its bar that features live music was social central in the tiny town, drawing ranchers and cowboys from Sonoita, Elgin and nearby Sierra Vista.
Michael and Grace Wystrach bought the restaurant in 1979. The couple’s six children have all been involved in the restaurant, working as servers and dishwashers and grill masters. Oldest son Michael helped the family open an outpost in Marana’s Dove Mountain area that closed in July after four years.
The original all-wood Steak Out building was destroyed by an electrical fire in summer 1998; the only things that survived the blaze, which was so hot that firefighters on the scene said all they could do was stand back and watch it burn, were cast iron bean pots and two bronze statues. The Wystraches rebuilt and reopened the restaurant in 2000.
Worth a short drive
Velvet Elvis Pizza Co., 292 Naugle Ave., Patagonia, 1-520-394-2102; velvetelvispizza.com; $7 to $25.
Ecuador-born, Chicago-raised chef-owner Cecelia San Miguel gutted La Misión de San Miguel in 2003 and converted it into a 5,000-square-foot must-visit pizzeria.
San Miguel is an artist who has created the art of pizza, combining inventive ingredients for one-of-a-kind designer wood-fired pies like the Cara Mia with an herbed cream-cheese white sauce serving as a bed for marinated artichoke hearts, capers, fresh basil, pineapple and salty rich prosciutto di Parma. The Popeye has red sauce topped with organic spinach, fresh tomatoes and basil, red onions and feta and mozzarella cheeses.
You can also create your own pie for a few bucks less, but that would spoil the fun of San Miguel’s creativity. And you kind of get the feeling that the King of Rock ’n’ Roll staring at you from the velvet painting might not approve.