Showing posts with label arizona. Show all posts
Showing posts with label arizona. Show all posts

Monday, September 24, 2012

Gala Parfait: Tiki Party

Tiki has become something special to me over the years.
It is not just a kitschy party theme, type of cloyingly sweet drank, or dive bar category. Bizarrely enough it's filed alongside heavyweights like Christmas and New Year's as an important family tradition. Yes, my parents, sister and I do Tiki. And if I do say so myself, we do it damn well.

Initially, the end of summer Tiki Party at my parents' home in Tucson was a heavily-anticipated annual celebration. A break from large family gatherings brimming with kids ("we love your keikis, but this one is for adults"), and the rare party to really have a focus on drinking. Since I was college-aged when the Tiki Party debuted, I was not only surprised by this, but fully on board! Each year seemed to one-up the prior, adding a pit-roasted whole pig, ukelele orchestra, and even tradition hula dancers in full garb. It was a fantastic tradition.

Then one year the invite never went out. Then another year. The masses were restless, when would there be another Tiki Party? I tried to sate myself in California with regular visits to Tiki Ti, Tonga Room, Trader Sam's and with a big fat Tiki episode on my podcast The Table Set, but it wasn't enough. Once I found out my sister Megan missed it as much as me we conspired to convince my parents by any means necessary to bring it back.

Then this year... we finally succeeded.

It's always a whirlwind driving home to Arizona and jumping in to the preparations. It's also always startling opening the fridge in the garage to see Laura Palmer as a pig, awaiting the sacrificial pyre.

Day of, first thing's first - Get that pig going. It takes all afternoon to get a proper tender slow-cooked Kalua-style pig.

The photo opp murals Megan painted are always a hit.

And while the tables are set, I have my hands full with another task.

Shocking, I know - I manage the bar. With the addition of the bamboo tiki hut-style bar this year, things got serious.

Selecting a menu is hardly an easy task. Each year we debate, recounting drink popularity from the previous parties. The true Mai Tai is our collective favorite, but seems to be too boozy for our guests, as we always have the most leftover of it. The Blue Hawaiian is garish, but always a winner. We pre-mix everything in large batches as well, so the recipe has to work in that format - and some ingredients, such as bitters, intensify over time. This year I decided to select all new drinks; Classics that cover very different flavor profiles as well as liquor variety. No need to be rum snobs - It's just not for everybody.

In lieu of the signature Mai Tai I went out on a limb with South Pacific Punch, a potent blend of dark and light rums, fresh orange and lime juices, Falernum and passion fruit syrup. Not for the faint of heart, I think the profile of the spicy Falernum is what set this drink apart.

To satisfy the sweet drink lovers, instead of a neon blue concoction (I just can't get down with Blue Curaçao) I opted for the popular Chi Chi, a vodka-based riff on the Piña Colada with coconut cream, pineapple juice and a dust of nutmeg. Sometimes simplicity is best.

For the first time we introduced a bourbon-based tiki drink, which turned out to be the crowd favorite, the ominous-sounding Polynesian Paralysis. Akin to a Hawaiian-style Mai Tai, this one blends pineapple and citrus juices with orgeat, which marry nicely with the bourbon for a dangerously smooth sipper.

We always try to think of creative ways to keep designated drivers and non-drinkers in on the fun, and this year hibiscus lemonade and tropical iced tea just wasn't going to cut it, so I whipped up a non-alcoholic tiki classic Rainbow Punch. Here pineapple, orange, and lime juices are blended with grenadine, soda, and bitters for a well-disguised virgin.

It was an exhausting night of shaking drinks, so I was happy to have some relief long enough to get in on the Kalua pig and Polynesian potluck before it was all gone.

Perlana, one of the "best dressed" winners enjoys a Chi Chi.

Yes, no matter how much math and careful planning goes into our batch drink making, we always over-do it and have SO much leftover. Not a huge complaint, but it suffices to say that Tiki Party turns into Tucson Tiki WEEK. Aw well, maybe we'll get it right next year... Oh yes, there will be a next year.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Croquer: Elvira's

Growing up in Tucson made me relatively confident about a few things from a young age: 1) Desert survival, and 2) A palate for superior Mexican cuisine. Nestled in the foothills of the Sonoran desert, Tucson is just a short cruise up a dusty old highway from Mexico. I have many childhood memories of warm sunny afternoons in Nogales, our border town, waiting outside of la farmacias beside dried iguanas for my aunts, hunting for the perfect el payaso marionette all day in cobblestone alley marketplaces, trying my hand at bargaining, and my first taste of tequila from a clay cup filled with fresh muddled mangoes and limes. To this day one of my most exciting ambient dining experiences was at La Roca, a restaurant built into the rock walls of hilly Nogales.
Several years ago, one of Nogales' other prized restaurants Elvira's (est. 1927) closed -- But luckily for Southern Arizona's lovers of  Chef Ruben Monroy's blend of contemporary and clasico Sonoran style cooking, Elvira's has re-opened, north of the border.
Now helming the small artist community of Tubac (23 miles north of Nogales), Elvira's new space is a proud frontispiece of Chef Ruben Monroy's other faculties (he holds degrees in both graphic arts and interior design). Metal piñatas, candles, monolithic ceramic pineapples, star lanterns, carved wooden angels and more hanging glass teardrops than you can shake a stick at fill nearly every interior surface. Like his cuisine, Monroy blends old Mexico and new, but through a whimsical looking glass.
My mother, sister, two nieces and I drove down for lunch one brisk desert morning over the holidays. Slightly stunned by the elaborate decor, we were even more struck by the menu - how would we decide when there are five different dark moles alone?
Luckily drinks are a no-brainer. Elvira's house margaritas are as good as top shelf most places, thanks to fresh lime and expert balance of sour, sweet, and salty.
For the little girls we ordered a quesadilla with roasted chicken and chihuahua cheese. The simple preparation was surprisingly outstanding due to superior homemade flour tortillas and plump roasted chicken.
My sister ordered the classic Mole Negro - the "King of Moles" due to its high number of ingredients (34), including chile pasilla, banana, chile cascabel, almonds, and chile chipotle. Robust and delicious!
I got the Mole Atocpan, which came with a back story. The menu printed that this mole commemorates the 75th anniversary of the town where mole was created - San Pedro Atocpan near Mexico City. This is problematic because clearly the town is older than that! However a little research found that in 1940, Father Damian Sartes San Roman came to the parish of San Pedro Atocpan and saw the potential in marketing the town's various moles -until then only made for special occasions- as a way to raise living standards in the area. 75 years ago would roughly mark the initial trips into Mexico City to spread the magic that is mole to the mainstream. To this day every October there is a mole festival in San Pedro Atocpan.
This special recipe is actually one of the better moles I've ever tasted. Somewhat sweet and spicy with incredible richness and depth from raisins, chile ancho, chile pasilla, cocoa, cilantro, cinnamon, and more.
My mother went lighter with the Chile Poblano "Frida Kahlo" - more of a New Mexican dish. The poblano was stuffed with squash blossoms, roasted corn, queso chihuahua, and covered with bean, chipotle sauce. The flavors were tasty albeit simple, yet overall the least winning of our selections.
All in all Elvira's was more impressive than we expected, and a perfect fueling stop before heading down the frontage road to the tiny mission town of Tumacacori where my favorite spice station lives - Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Co.
The intense bouquet of scents that greet you at the door of this humble red brick chili roasting factory and spice shop is tangible. My four year-old niece said she "had a headache" and asked me to go play outside with her due to the smell, yet I was actually starting to get hungry again. An overflowing shopping bag of earthy red chili powders, herbs, spices, mesquite-smoked salts and hot sauces later, we were back on the old highway. Add a fresh tortilla and tamale stop at Mercado Y Carniceria El Herradero back in Tucson and you have, in my book, the perfect Southern Arizona afternoon.

La Entrada De Tubac
2221 E Frontage Rd. Bldg A, Ste A101; Tubac, AZ 85646; 520.398.9421
Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Co.
1868 E. Frontage Rd. Tumacacori, AZ 85640; 520.398.2591

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Super Bon!: Food City

While in Tucson last, I was out one day with my friend Nicole on the hunt for a tortilla press. It was harder to find than you'd think in a Southwestern town so alive with Latin culture, but everyone sent us to the same place, the ever-modest Food City. A fusion of Mexican specialty food market and American grocery mart, it's a bit like LA's Jon's Market but WAY more fun. They didn't end up having a tortilla press, but I mean, where else can you stock up on your Skwinkles Salsagheti??

Monday, May 18, 2009

Croquer: Sweet Republic

Yeah, gelato is officially the coolest treat around (no pun intended). From Pazzo to Scoops to Bulgarini to Milk, LA has clearly latched on to the creamy ice trend, with admirably imaginative results. Last week in Scottsdale, AZ however, I was schooled that innovative as we may be, LA is far from the only savvy parlor-town around. Called out in the current issue of Bon Appétit, Scottsdale's modest strip mall standout Sweet Republic is noted as one of the nation's hottest spots right now for artisanal gelato and ice cream. And lucky me, I was passing through town. Opened by two investment bankers from New York craving a big-time career switch (catalyzed by 9/11), owners Helen Yung and Jan Wichayanuparp built Sweet Republic upon the simple credo to "start with the purest ingredients [to] get the most flavorful ice cream experience." The selection of flavors in the one-year-old shop the day I visited definitely seemed to support the philosophy, a lustrous display of gelato, ice cream, sorbet and yogurt with descriptions such as "a limited edition blend of grapefruit sorbet and freshly picked strawberry mint."As soon as she overheard I was from LA, Wichayanuparp smiled drolly and asked where I liked to go for ice cream. Scoops came to mind first, and she nodded, agreeing the flavors were smart, but also suggesting that if more of the time spent on experimenting was used to perfect the consistency it would be even better. I paused, having to agree, as she continued to systematically run through LA's usual suspects and note their ice cream's strengths/weaknesses, meanwhile handing me a taste of her literally perfectly balanced and butter-silk-smooth Jalapeño Avocado. I was impressed. Wichayanuparp knew her stuff. And it wasn't cocky how she spoke, more as a thoughtfully critical and protective fan of a precious tradition.I next had to try one of their most popular flavors, Salted Butter Caramel ("soft buttery caramel ribbons in creamy vanilla with a sprinkle of salt"). I could understand its popularity, this was one of the best ice creams I've probably ever tasted. A iced equivalent to Lark's salted caramel cupcake; pure butter, cream, salt, and caramel harmony. Embarrassed at this point with my collection of tasting spoons, I shyly pushed on, hoping the blog-xcuse would lessen my obnoxious need to taste everything. But of course I missed one of the flavors I looked forward to sampling most, the Cheese Course Duo ("a pairing of Roquefort blue cheese and Arizona Medjool dates")... Not that the taste bud-bursting morsels of fresh Basil Lime Sorbet (YUM) or Lemon Tequila disappointed!I was shooting for a two scoop/flavor selection, which was like picking two cities to visit if granted a chartered jet. I couldn't decide. The texture and sophistication of the Jalapeño Avocado brought me back, and keeping it Latin, paired it with the fragrant cinnamon-spiced Mayan Chocolate. I was deeply pleased with this vibrant duo!Though I don't often find myself in Scottsdale, I'm sure I will be tempted to swing out of the way the next time I drive through Phoenix en route to Tucson for a sweet stop, especially with seasonal promises like Sweet Corn, Watermelon Sorbet and Blueberry Cinnamon hard-scoop yogurt. Don't let the simplicity of Sweet Republic fool you, the taste truly does speak for