The historical role of corn in the heritage foods of Tucson and the region takes the spotlight at a new monthlong cross-border food festival celebrating three North American Cities of Gastronomy.
“The Pueblos del Maíz” festival kicks off May 5 in Tucson before moving on to San Antonio, and the Mexican cities of Merida and Puebla later in May.
Tucson opens the monthlong festival, which is apropos given we were the first American city to earn UNESCO’s City of Gastronomy designation in 2015. Ensenada, Mexico, earned its the same year, but Merida didn’t get its recognition until 2019, two years after San Antonio.
“Pueblos del Maíz,” produced by the nonprofit Tucson City of Gastronomy with support from Pima County’s American Rescue Plan for funding tourism recovery, runs May 5-8 with events being held at Hotel Congress and Fox Tucson Theatre on East Congress Street; Mission Garden at 946 W. Mission Lane; and San Xavier Co-op Farm, near the San Xavier Mission.
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Events include a block party with street food, cooking demonstrations, a chef showcase dinner, live music, a film screening, a photo exhibit and educational activities. Here’s the schedule:
May 5: Photographer/journalist Andres Lobato’s “Maize Traditions in Puebla” photo exhibit will be on display at The Citizen Hotel, 82 S. Stone Ave., beginning at 5 p.m. Admission is free.
Fox Tucson Theatre, 17 W. Congress St., will host a movie screening for Alberto Cortés’ “Maize in the Times of War” from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.; free. The film looks at the importance of corn and the dangers the crop faces for Mexican farmers. Producer Carlos Rossini and Cinema Tropical director Carlos Figueroa will hold a Q&A following the screening.
May 6: Tucson City of Gastronomy will host the Maiz Showcase, a bocadito dinner experience featuring some of Tucson’s finest chefs at Hotel Congress, 311 E. Congress St. The dinner will feature 10 Maiz-themed small plates created by local award-winning chefs, restaurateurs and food artisans including Carlotta Flores of El Charro; John Martinez of Tito & Pep; baker Don Guerra of Barrio Bread; James Beard Award winning Chef Janos Wilder; Mateo Otero of Rollies Mexican Patio; Erika Muñoz of Seis Kitchen; Borderlands Brewing chief brewer Ayla Kapahi; Kristel Johnson of Hub Creamery; and Adam Krantz of Monsoon Chocolate. The cost is $50 per person and that includes admission to El Tambo music festival at Congress. El Tambo Fest will include sets by Vox Urbana, El Santo Golpe and El Tambó DJs. It starts at 9:30 p.m. and admission is $15.
May 7: “Pueblos del Maíz Fiesta,” a free block party at Hotel Congress, runs from 5 to 10 p.m. Gertie & the T.O. Boyz, Los Hermanos Cuatro, Las Trillizas y Dulce and Native Creed will perform outdoors while Juan Wauters of Uruguay and Los Velvets of Nogales are set to perform inside at Club Congress. The party also will feature more than 15 local food and artisan vendors and a panel conversation about Maiz and the Sonoran Desert; free.
Restaurants and bars that have opened in the Tucson area in 2022
Tucson's new food truck park is tucked into a former gas station parking lot — and the food is incredible
Amber Donahue and Chris Frisch were running a thriving sports therapy business, traveling across the United States with elite athletes, when the pandemic hit.
“Overnight, our jobs were obsolete,” Amber said. “So we started thinking about businesses we could do that were pandemic-proof.”
As they traveled for work, through cities like Austin, Texas; Portland and Bend, Oregon; and Nashville, Tennessee, they noticed these cities each had food truck parks. They liked that the concept had a small footprint: it’s simply making a setting to bring together food trucks and the people who love them. And Tucson, the foodie city where their eldest daughter was recently hired as a high school teacher, didn’t have a food truck park yet.
“We thought we could bring something to this town we loved vacationing in so much,” Amber said.
“Remember the gas stations you see in the middle of nowhere? That’s what we walked into,” she said. “We gutted the whole thing and kept it bare: we have coolers full of drinks, a few snacks and decorated it with kitschy awkward family photos, just made it a place that is clean and comfortable.”
The station itself is used as a central bar to complement the sizable outdoor space they cleared of debris and turned into seating. They also built a stage for live music on weekends and have plans in the works to install misters and build more shade for the summer. Many of their materials were sourced from community donations, from families and local businesses.
“We want this to be a place people can come in the evening,” Amber said.
The business partners decided on a rotating food truck schedule so people who live in the area can experience a variety of different vendors. Harris Hotstuff, a made-to-order barbecue truck, is only set up on the weekends, while you can get Hermanos Tacos and Lebanese food truck Homemade Mediterranean during the week.
“The woman who runs Homemade Mediterranean is the hardest working person I know,” Amber said.
Amber and Chris will soon be adding a Jamaican food truck, and are looking for a pizza truck and a truck that does Chinese, Japanese, Korean or Filipino noodle dishes.
Though the two divorced seven years ago, they are involved co-parents. Last year, they bought homes near each other, both in the Catalina Foothills School District. “Our success is based on building a legacy for our children, which is something we both agree with, always,” Amber said.
When I visited, every single thing I tried stood out as one of the best meals I’ve eaten all year. I was amazed at the curated selection of food trucks.
When I asked co-owner Chris about it, he said that the park has a special culture. Everyone is super kind and they help each other out. “We open up in the mornings, Homemade Mediterranean locks up at night. Cuppa GoGo helps clean the bathrooms. We all pitch in,” he said.
The result is a tight community of vendors, each with outstanding customer service and even more special food.
The Pit is currently home to six regular trucks, with three more coming soon, and seven visiting trucks. Here’s what you can get:
This Lebanese sandwich place, Homemade Mediterranean, is simply amazing. I will be going back to try every item on their curated menu. I ordered their koefte sandwich, which is a vibrantly spiced beef patty tucked into a pita that rivals Tucson’s best flour tortillas: thin and almost laminated in its flakiness, but with a slightly more bready texture. The condiments are also stars: slightly sweet, slightly umami pickle with parsley salsa and tomato.
They had an extra falafel lying around when I stopped by and they let me try that too: perfectly crunchy with a slightly softer inside, with a dusting of sesame seeds. In my humble opinion, Lebanese hummus is the best of the Mediterranean, and I can only imagine how yummy their falafel sandwich with hummus and tahini must be.
I also got a side of fries, which I habitually get alongside Mediterranean food. I need to research why the region has french fries down pat: somehow they get extra crunchy on the outside, with a custardy middle. Heavenly.
Homemade Mediterranean is open 12:30-9 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 12:30-6 p.m. Sunday.
Bemo’s Ol’ Joe’s
Stop by Bemo's Ol' Joe's and you might find the now-closed Hog Pit co-owner, Les Baxter, sitting in a folding chair, welcoming you with a big smile. He's teamed up with chef Donald Adkins to bring you a food-truck concept with a pared-down menu, but full-volume flavor. Donald insisted I try the tot-chos, which were over-the-top in exactly the best way.
Tot-chos consist of five layers. The base, of course, are tater tots — fried, not baked. Tots’ signature riced texture and substantial crust will hold up to the hearty toppings: first a layer of melted sprinkle cheese, then a generous portion of melt-in-your-mouth pulled pork, doused in sauce and finished with a serving of slaw. While each ingredient is indulgent, they are in such perfect ratio that each bite is in harmony. I loved this place.
On my way out of The Pit, I saw someone eating a chicken sandwich from Bemo’s. I asked her how she liked it. To my surprise, she puckered her face like she was about to come up with the worst insult she possibly could, and delivered one line: “I wish there was more sauce.”
Bemo’s Ol’ Joe’s is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.
Trust me when I’ve said, I’ve eaten a lot of carne asada.
Hermanos has the real deal: succulent, a little chewy but tender, with a little crisp on some of the edges. The flour tortillas are thin, stretchy and just substantial enough to deliver the meat, pico and a splash of bright green salsa to your eager taste buds.
The one-man operation also makes impressive-looking raspados, as I witnessed from the woman who ordered in front of me, then hopped back in her truck, raspado in hand. I was so jealous.
This place is cash only, so keep that in mind.
Hermanos Tacos is open 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
Other food trucks on the regular roster:
- Cuppa GoGo — Coffee with syrups and sauces made from scratch, open 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily
- Moncho's Mex — Tacos, burros, quesadillas and more Mexican favorites, open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday-Monday
- Harris Hotstuff — Made-to-order barbecue, open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Coming soon: Jamaican, Italian and sushi!
Ceres owner's 'second wild child' fresh pasta restaurant Noodies is NOW OPEN
Editor's note: This story was originally published on March 8, 2022. Noodies opened on April 15, 2022.
Noodies! When owner Carolyn O’Connor says the word out loud, it sounds like a party, a celebration.
The name belongs to her new pasta restaurant, opening later this month, in the space formerly occupied by Bentley’s House of Coffee and Tea. Carolyn is totally re-imagining the place, complete with a mural painted by a friend who happens to experiment with abstract noodle shapes. There isn’t a better word for it than “fun.”
Noodies is a Tucson inheritance. But its lineage, like sister restaurant Ceres, comes from all over. If Ceres is inspired by the pastries and pasta of northern Italy, Noodies draws material from the checkered-tablecloth Italian-American of Syracuse, with some help by way of Hong Kong.
Syracuse is Carolyn’s hometown. It’s where she was pregnant, scrolling Pinterest, when the algorithm realized she needed more brightly-colored images of cha chaan teng — American-style diners in Hong Kong, where you can get condensed-milk French toast and macaroni soup. Those hues inspire the setting of Noodies today, if not the menu.
Though both restaurants share the foundation of Carolyn’s handmade pasta, Carolyn is clear that each restaurant is its own concept. “Ceres always felt like my baby. The first time going into something, everything was really new. Because of that everything feels so precious … Noodies felt almost like having a second child … Noodies is colorful; the food is a little more gluttonous and cheesy. I see it as a wild second child or something.”
While you will be able to get your favorite sauces from Ceres at Noodies — the tomato basil, the bolognese, the cacio e pepe — Noodies’ larger kitchen allows Carolyn to expand the menu. You’ll be able to add Italian sausage, meatballs and burrata to your order. Unlike Ceres’ lunch counter, Noodies will have both indoor and outdoor seating. Their menu will also offer sandwiches Carolyn misses from her hometown, like meatball subs and Italian grinders.
Though Carolyn never thought she would go into the restaurant business — her parents are in academics — her mother’s hospitality inspires Carolyn’s restaurants.
“My mom, she’s a really good cook, and she loves having a real dinner. She sets the table, puts out napkins, does all this stuff, makes a whole beautiful meal and a pie, tea and coffee, so she creates this whole experience for people, and it makes people feel so loved and appreciated. It’s also a legacy in my own family, taking care of people through food,” she said.
The “also” responds to Noodies’ more apparent legacy: Noodies is taking over the lease of her mother-in-law Jo Schneider’s first restaurant, Bentley’s, which occupied that space for over two decades. If Carolyn’s own mother gave her a love for feeding her community, Carolyn’s mother-in-law inspired her to make service her livelihood.
“Going into the restaurant business or being an entrepreneur was so different than what I expected (for my life). The trust (the Schneider family has) put in me, the support, how they’re always there for me, with anything. It’s such a testament to their kindness and generosity. I think Jo does that for a lot of people in this community, giving people a chance when maybe other people wouldn’t, and let them shine,” she said of Jo, who owns downtown’s LaCo.
At both Ceres and Noodies, Carolyn aspires to be that support system for her own employees. She hosts weekly tasting sessions for staff, where they all sample the specials, the soft-serve flavors and give feedback. “Everyone who works there respects everyone else and works really hard. It’s such a good thing for workplace morale. It’s very collaborative, so everyone feels really listened to,” Carolyn said.
“There’s two staff at Ceres who have been there since the day we opened,” she said. “They now know how to do everything. They’re more or less managing Ceres for the shifts, every day … I really wouldn’t have been able to take on the new project without them.”
Workers at Ceres have to be able to do it all: cook pasta and take orders and make espresso — because the space to work is tiny. Though the larger venue at Noodies allows for more specialization, people working in the front versus the back of house, Carolyn aspires for the restaurants to cross-pollinate.
“I have everyone try cooking lunch. I love it so much. It’s really fast … I think a lot of women, especially, are really intimidated to go into a kitchen and work in a line … I think giving people the chance who wouldn’t maybe necessarily think that’s a good fit for them, the opportunity to cook in a fast-paced place, and realize: I could be really good at this.
“We just started accepting resumes for Noodies. I’m not sure what the kitchen will look like, or the front of house. We wrote that all are welcome to apply. I really hope people will.”
Location: 1726 E. Speedway
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday-Monday.
For more information, check out their Instagram.
Ren Bakery and Espresso Bar
4320 N. Campbell Ave., #43
10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Baked goods from muffins and danish to scones and cinnamon rolls that are used in Ren Coffeehouse nearby, and of course, espresso.
4426 S. Sixth Ave.
Spicy candies and snacks are on the menu.
40 E. Congress St.
The Monica opened as an offshoot of El Charro Café. It is named for El Charro's founder Monica Flin and includes a market along with the restaurant.
Pacaws Wings & Things
6255 E. Golf Links Road
Opened March 17.
35 E. Toole Ave.
Bata is owned by Tyler Fenton, who, with two siblings, also owns Reilly Craft Pizza and Drink. The menu will consist of foods touched by fire, whether being grilled, charred, flame dried or burned (on purpose).
5955 W. Arizona Pavilions Drive
This Mexican restaurant at 5955 W. Arizona Pavilions Drive is the third location for chef-owner Seth Holzman, which include Guadalajara Grill Mexican, 4901 E. Broadway, and Guadalajara Grill Fiesta, 750 N. Kolb Road. It has the same menu of classic Mexican food.
Cruda Mariscos & Oyster Bar
31 N. Scott Ave.
Cruda is the newest in a slew of opulent, Mexican-influenced restaurants across Tucson. It was opened by Danny Cordova in the space left when his first downtown venture, La Chingada, moved into the former location of the now-closed restaurant Cafe Poca Cosa.
135 S. Sixth Ave.
The Delta officially opened on New Year’s Day. It is the downtown sister project of local favorite The Parish.
Tucsonans might recognize The Parish as a restaurant that transforms an Oro Valley strip mall into a shot of New Orleans. The Delta will feature the same Southern Hospitality it will be a bar with a grill menu instead of the Parish's gumbo.
Midtown Vegan Deli and Market
5071 E. Fifth St.
Tanya Barnett started her deli and market out of a desire to make veganism more accessible — for meat eaters and die-hard vegans alike. She asked vegans what ingredients they needed to find and placed them on her first order.
6872 E. Tanque Verde Road
BoSa Donuts serves more than donuts and coffee. You can get lunch there with sandwiches and other drinks.
The Century Room at Hotel Congress
311 E. Congress St.
Tucson's only jazz club, The Century Room borderlands jazz club and mezcal tasting lounge, is in the former Copper Hall banquet space at at Hotel Congress.
994 E. University Blvd.
This lunch to late-night munchies spot has classic and vegan burgers and sandwiches and sides and a considerable dessert menu.
Ni Hao Tea
2800 N. Campbell Ave.
Ni Hao Tea, with this new location, serves Boba tea and smoothies.
5526 E Grant Road
Menu items are inspired by the famous painter couple, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
Bun Dock Vietnamese Noodle
3225 N. Swan Road, Suite 111
The restaurant specializes in Vietnamese Bún (Vermicelli Salad Bowls)
Squared Up Pizza
5870 E Broadway
This pizza spot presents Sicilian pies like you get in New York. Their pies are in the traditional Sicilian square, with a thicker base and crunchy crust.
Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Starburch