In January 2015, I had the pleasure of a unique Downtown Tucson food, culture, and history tour. These tours are scheduled Wednesdays, Fridays, & Saturdays from 1:00-4:30 PM. Our tour had 15 participants, including myself; lasted slightly more than 3 hours, and covered 2.5 miles both walking and riding the streetcar through historic Downtown.
Taste of Tucson Downtown is the creation of two enterprising ladies, Elysa Crum and Sherry Weiss. They also led the tour I was on. And fine tour guides they are.
We experienced tastings at six locations. The chef at each restaurant prepared a pre-selected tasting for our group and shared the inspiration and philosophy behind his particular cuisine.
We met at Agustin Kitchen in the Mercado, in part because it’s on the most westerly stop of our Modern Streetcar, and in part, because Ryan Clark is the owner and chef.
Chef Clark has been Tucson’s Iron Chef 3 times and is well known around the Old Pueblo for his creative dishes and cocktails.
He had already prepared our long table for the sampling, which included garlic toast with three distinct dips: goat cheese with ginger; smoked salmon; and roasted pork shoulder. All excellent! As with all of our tastings, this one lasted about 20 minutes and we were off to board the streetcar in search of our next adventure.
Disembarking the streetcar at Broadway and Church, Elysa and Sherry led us through the historic Courthouse and over to El Presidio San Agustin de Tucson, founded in 1775 to protect our little Spanish village from Apaches. Occasionally they would stop and explain something of historic interest, but never got bogged down in minutiae … you know … the level of historical detail no one can remember. Besides, I who know a lot about Tucson’s history, learned a few new things. So for me, their historical narrative was both interesting and instructive. I should have assumed as much since both ladies have a considerable teaching background.
At the Presidio, a docent gave us about a 15-minute informative tour. Out of a Metropolitan population of a million souls, I am always surprised at how many Tucsonans have never visited the old fort that has been brought back to life by a covey of volunteers, including marvelous re-enactors.
Our next culinary stop was, to my everlasting delight, La Cocina Cantina. La Cocina is one of our favorite places for eats, drinks, and enjoying live entertainment. Our group was instantly seated together and our sampling, an exquisite chili relleno, promptly presented. Jo is the owner and chef. She knows how to serve up good food and good fun. If you’ve never been to La Cocina, GO! This is how locals living in this godforsaken place in the 1870 and ‘80’s experienced a good time respite from a truly hard life.
Our next culinary destination was Miss Saigon located on 6th Avenue near Congress. I didn’t even know they had a Downtown location. When in Tucson craving Vietnamese cuisine, Miss Saigon is usually where folks head. They regularly top our Tucson Weekly’s “Best Of” list.
Our group was not disappointed. We were immediately seated at a long table and served beef broth with chunks of beef and spring rolls with peanut sauce for dipping. The spring rolls included shrimp and were very fresh. The beef broth was … what can I say … “delicate” comes to mind. And by “delicate” I do not mean bland. It was tasty but subtle. Very good!
By this time, I was beginning to realize that, although the portions were small at each tasting, I was beginning to get full. But like a good trooper, I marched on with the rest of our group to the next sampling, which was Olive Oil Central on East Congress. Really, who knew?
At Olive Oil Central we helped ourselves to small chunks of fresh bread using a toothpick for dipping in God_Only_Knows how many varieties of olive oil they have on the selves. Dozens at least. Delicious! I love olive oil in all its many manifestations. This tasting was a very pleasant surprise.
Then it was off to tasting #4 … Proper; one of our newest Downtown restaurants. Tafao (spelling unsure) is one of their bartenders and my favorite for Downtown cocktails. (Note: his tattoos are Polynesian, not New Zealand Maori) Try his creation, the Rum Diary … and think of Ernest Hemingway and a pleasant Caribbean beach. Sublime!
Here, Chef Kris Vroligk (No, I can’t pronounce it either.) served up bread boards of splendid cheeses and cold cuts and explained how he locally sources everything that he serves.
After almost three hours of Tucson history and culinary tastings, it was time for the finale: dessert at Elliott’s On Congress. Billy Elliot is owner and bartender, also well known for creative drinks and dishes. For example, he has a dazzling collection of infused vodkas that he’s happy to let you sample. But how ‘bout this concoction? Can you say, “Chocolate Covered Bacon”? No, I mean, can you say it without turning up your nose?
Served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, my chocolate covered bacon was quite tasty because of the juxtaposition of salty bacon and sweet milk chocolate. Try it!
I have dined and reviewed most of the Downtown eateries, but never Elliott’s. Scanning the menu and talking to Billy afterword, I think Elliott’s will be my next dining review.
And so ended a fine tour through the Old Pueblo. Elysa and Sherry had given each of us streetcar day tickets at Agustin Kitchen. We were now free to continue exploring Downtown on our own, then hop on the streetcar and take the leisurely ride back to the Mercado where our cars were parked.
Taste Of Tucson Downtown is an all-inclusive package for $59 per person. Our guides did all the planning and made this tour simple and truly enjoyable. Do we recommend Taste Of Tucson Downtown to our friends & family? Indeed we do!
After checking out the Taste Of Tucson Downtown Frequently Asked Questions, you can book a tour directly from their website or call: 520.425.4243.