On Thursday nights when he was an engineering undergrad at the University of Arizona in the early 1990s, John Aldecoa and a few buddies would close their textbooks and ask the all-important question:
“Wanna hit Wildcat House?”
“We would dig around the car for change to come up with the $3 cover. I would come in with a fistful of change. We never worried about having money for drinks. We always had friends that would buy,” he recalled recently, standing in the middle of the cavernous place where he made all those college-day memories. “That was like a ritual for us every Thursday night.”
Aldecoa is hoping to help create new memories for generations of UA students and Tucson families with his Brother John’s Beer, Bourbon & BBQ inside the former Wildcat House, 1801 N. Stone Ave. (*Editor's note: The space held its grand opening New Year's Eve.)
Aldecoa is teaming up with his brother David’s New York City restaurant consulting group and David’s partner, Sascha Kreideweis, to completely renovate the 10,000-square-foot building that was home to the popular UA hangout for nearly 40 years. The Wildcat House, opened in 1977 by California-based The Graduate Restaurants Inc., closed in spring 2012.
Aldecoa said the partners, who also include his UA graduate school colleague, marketing director Ines Newby, will pump around $1 million into the project, which will include building a 2,400-square-foot Bavarian-style patio beer garden and dining area with a fireplace; creating a bourbon lounge that will offer bourbon flights, food pairings and weekly tastings; sectioning off 2,400 square feet for a private dining area with a separate bar and entrance for corporate events; and creating a stage area for live entertainment.
“It’s a big project. I don’t think anybody understands the scope of what we’re doing,” David Aldecoa said, examining the floor plans that call for expanding the kitchen and creating a dry storage space. The original kitchen had no place to store dry goods and when the brothers first took over the building in early May — they signed a 20-year lease with the new owners, who bought the building late last year — they found a box of tortilla chips on a shelf in the kitchen.
John Aldecoa said the bar was pretty much left as it was on its final night in business under former owner William Everett, complete with fries in a basket in the deep fry, drink glasses on the bar and records on the turntable in the concrete DJ booth.
The building’s owners are putting in a new roof and air conditioning; the building had been equipped only with swamp coolers. The brothers also are putting in a new parking lot. Everett cited the parking lot repair, which he estimated in 2012 to be a $500,000 project, as the reason he closed.
Inside the building, workers already have dismantled the custom-cut pine lumber, which was stacked to one side and will be repurposed throughout the redesign. The cedar planks lining the walls will be preserved and incorporated into the design.
“We want to keep the integrity of the cedar because that’s perfect for a barbecue joint,” noted David Aldecoa.
Seventies-era disco balls that once hung in the main room will be placed in the restrooms, and old patron photographs left behind by the previous owners will be incorporated into a “Throwback Thursday” themed wall. (If you think you might be in one or two of those pictures, visit facebook.com/brotherjohnsbbq and let them know. They want to share Wildcat House stories as well as the photos.)
The Aldecoas hope to largely preserve most of the heavy terra cotta wall decorations with handcrafted sculptures of everything from Wilma and Wilbur Wildcat to a trio of bobcats in UA basketball jerseys and former owner Everett as a bobcat.
Brother John’s reunites the brothers 17 years after they last worked together. The pair ran a successful pizzeria, DJ’s Pizza Pub & Grill, from 1993 to ’98. When they closed it, David Aldecoa, 45, went on to carve a successful 25-year career in the hospitality industry that included ownership of a restaurant in Massachusetts and working in Las Vegas and New York City.
John Aldecoa, 47, returned to the UA to earn his master’s in business administration. He has spent time in various management roles and is now a national technical manager with Ascension Information Services, responsible for more than 150 employees across the country. He will be the managing partner and face of the venture, David Aldecoa said.
So why barbecue in their Mexican-restaurant-saturated hometown?
“It’s an underserved market,” Newby, 31, said, ticking off a handful of independent Tucson barbecue restaurants.
The menu was curated by executive chef Nate Eckhaus, a 15-year kitchen veteran who has cooked all over the country including in Michelin star restaurants in France, Monaco and Portugal. He also successfully managed and coordinated five food and beverage outlets as executive chef at New York’s Jumeirah Essex House Hotel (now JW Marriott Essex House New York on Central Park South) and South Gate Restaurant, according to the biography provided by Newby.
Brother John’s menu will offer slow pit-smoked meats including Texas-style salt-and-pepper-rubbed brisket, “Bam Bam”-style short ribs, baby-back and St. Louis-style ribs and house-smoked pork belly. The flavors will fuse traditional Southern-style barbecue with quintessential Southwestern and Latin flair with the incorporation of locally sourced chiles.
Burgers and Southern fried chicken, along with a host of comfort-food sides and salads, round out the menu.
The restaurant will serve lunch and dinner, as well as offer two daily happy hours — one after work hours and another late at night.
David Aldecoa said the restaurant will use local and sustainable ingredients as much as possible and will work with Southern Arizona farmers and ranchers.
Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4642. On Twitter @Starburch.