Some restaurant and bar owners around Tucson believe that the local flavor on the walls of their eateries is just as important as the flavors found in their signature dishes.
Across the city, brilliant, brightly colored paintings and other works created by Tucson artists are prompting people to think, gaze and smile while noshing on their chimichangas, shrimp and grits and pollo bolognaise.
Each restaurant has its own taste when choosing works.
Here are some local spots to get you started.
6453 N. Oracle Road; theparishtucson.com
For the last 10 years, The Parish has been all about tasty Southern fusion cuisine and good vibes, whether you are hitting the North Oracle restaurant on Mardi Gras or on a typical Friday night for dinner.
Local art has always been part of that, according to co-owner and chef Travis Peters.
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“It was a very conscious decision to include local art in the space,” Peters said. “If you know anything about me, nearly everything I do is to celebrate Tucson, to promote the city. My mom’s family has been here since 1875. Tucson is very much in our blood. It has been very good to me.”
The first art hanging at The Parish were pieces created by students at Arts for All, a nonprofit organization that offers programs to children with and without disabilities.
“A lot of these kids might not have access to the arts otherwise,” Peters said. “It was a big honor for us.”
Peters said while they have had curators for the art over the years, there has never been a set time frame when pieces go up or come down. These days, you can find a wall of funky, mustachioed men and other works by artist Donovan White, and several surrealist oil and mixed media pieces by David M. Ehlen.
“We know a lot of local artists,” Peters said. “We will reach out to people if we really love their stuff.”
Peters said while the paintings at The Parish are for sale, the works at his other restaurant, The Delta, 135 S. Sixth Ave., downtown, were commissioned specifically for that space.
Among the pieces you will find there: velvet paintings of the owners’ moms by Diane Bombshelter; a graffiti collage in the back hallway, courtesy of Monty Ses Esposito; an entire wall curated by Pop-Cycle on North Fourth Avenue; and a Warhol-esque, pop art series of gramophones by Thomas Gardner.
745 N. Fourth Ave.; facebook.com/CafeMaggie4thAve
Cafe Maggie owner Chander Vemulapalli is carrying on a tradition when he allows artists to hang their works in his place of business.
Vemulapalli has owned the cafe, formerly the long-lived Epic Café at the corner of North Fourth Avenue and East University Boulevard only for about a year, but “the art is something that goes back decades,” he said.
The cafe’s large ceilings allow for large works, abstract paintings by Kyle Zuehlke, surrealist pieces by J.M.G. Clark and a landscape on canvas by Leanne C. Miller.
Vemulapalli said he doesn’t accept any liability if works are damaged by customers.
“If I have someone fighting with their spouse and a painting gets in the middle of it, that is not my problem,” he said.
By the same token, he does not take any commission if a painting sells.
Vemulapalli said that there is no specific theme to the works that are hung at Cafe Maggie. He has veto power, but has yet to say “no” to anything.
The art brings more life to his cafe, he said, and offers a place where artists can promote their pieces.
Vemulapalli said Cafe Maggie recently started a monthly after-hours arts night in which it stays open after closing time and allows local artists who aren’t on the walls to showcase their works in a gallery format.
“The synergy of helping an artist get a little more exposure and helping the café get a little more exposure is a win-win as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
Mr. Head’s Gallery & Bar
513 N. Fourth Ave.; facebook.com/mrheads
While Cafe Maggie caters more to Fourth Avenue’s day crowd, offering quiche and cookies with a side of surrealism, Mr. Head’s Gallery and Bar a few blocks south is more for the craft beer and whiskey shot crowd.
But, like Cafe Maggie, Mr. Head’s is all about the local art.
The works at Mr. Head’s can be striking. Black and white cutout characters by Donovan White line the exposed-brick walls. A large mural portraying a skeleton with saguaros coming out of the skull by local graffiti artist Rock “CYFI” Martinez greets customers on the bar's back patio.
An exhibition of works from local artist Sean Terry, the artist who painted the giant cassette tape in the karaoke lounge at the recently relocated Bumsted’s at Wonderwall, recently ended but was popular.
Terry’s paintings range from an anthropomorphic white rabbit a la “Alice in Wonderland” with a Salvador Dali melting clock in his paw, to javelinas with long legs, like the robots in “War of the Worlds,” towering over Mission San Xavier del Bac.
“We were selling one of his pieces a week,” said bar manager Ben Sattler. “He does some really cool stuff. His style hits home with Tucsonans.”
Sattler said owner Micah Blatt, a glass artist, started the bar more than a decade ago in part to showcase his work and the work of his friends.
“It is 100% commission-free,” Sattler said. “We want to make it a good experience for everybody involved.”
7153 E. Tanque Verde Road; gustotucson.com
Over the years, Glenn “Gus” Gerson has made his Italian restaurant Gusto Osteria a place where east-side art aficionados are offered a feast for the eyes in addition to the feast on their tables.
Gerson started decorating his restaurant with works by Jos Villabrille, whose large-scale murals can be found in shopping centers and restaurants all over town.
“He would have big pieces that would give us nice cover,” Gerson said. “He is such an amazing artist.”
Gerson relies these days on about five different local creators, led by watercolor artists Tracy Lynn Ross and Susan Meyer, to make his dining room look like a bonafide gallery.
Come in for Gerson’s eggplant Parmesan and pork ricotta, both house specialties, and you’ll find paintings of dogs, birds, scenic views and Southwestern themes.
Pieces can be found on every wall. Works rotate seasonally.
“These are the best artists I have had here,” Gerson said, “If we sell one of their pieces, they are usually ready with another. They put everything together nicely.”
The only problem, Gerson says, is when a piece he loves goes to a customer. You can find several paintings that have hung in his restaurant now hanging in his home.
“My wife and I always say we are lucky to have these artists,” Gerson said. “They take good care of us.”
Restaurants and bars that have opened in the Tucson area in 2022
Rudy’s “Country Store” & Bar-B-Q
2130 E Ajo Way
Rudy’s specializes in all things barbecue from their popular brisket to smoked turkey breast, chicken, ribs and pulled pork. Meat is sold by the half-pound — ranging from $6.99 for sausage links to $10.99 for brisket — and sides are a la carte.
By the Bucket
2130 N. Kolb Road
By the Bucket sells hot spaghetti to go in a bucket, meatballs, meatball subs, deserts and cold drinks.
Peace, Love and Pops
814 E University Blvd
299 S. Park Ave
Texas Burrito Company
1570 E. Tucson Marketplace Blvd
This new restaurant on Tucson's south side is run by Jason Scott, who incorporates his Texan roots and barbecue into traditional Sonoran food.
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.
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.
5526 E Grant Road
Menu items are inspired by the famous painter couple, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
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.
6872 E. Tanque Verde Road
BoSa Donuts serves more than donuts and coffee. You can get lunch there with sandwiches and other drinks.
Bun Dock Vietnamese Noodle
3225 N. Swan Road, Suite 111
The restaurant specializes in Vietnamese Bún (Vermicelli Salad Bowls)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ni Hao Tea
2800 N. Campbell Ave.
Ni Hao Tea, with this new location, serves Boba tea and smoothies.
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.
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.
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).
Pacaws Wings & Things
6255 E. Golf Links Road
Opened March 17.
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.
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!