I’ve waxed pretty nostalgic in these pages, and I’ve gone way back in time for a lot of my stories, so I figured I’d do something a bit more modern this go-around. I got the idea to write about my time in Tucson from (of all things) a conversation about Phoenix in which I complained and explained that I liked Tucson much better. Now Tucson has gotten a bad rap over the years from the likes of Romy & Michelle, but I actually much prefer it to Phoenix. The way I explained it, it’s sort of like Tucson is the Austin (eccentric buildings and businesses, blossoming counterculture, scruffy-yet-attractive liberal townsfolk) to Phoenix’s Dallas (chain restaurants, miles of suburban sprawl, double popped polo collars).
The last time I was in Tucson I had a blast. It was January 2012 and some friends of mine from Alaska and I had decided it had simply been too long since we’d enjoyed laughs and liquor together, and Tucson was convenient for all of us. So I arrived, and it certainly was happening.
I was picked up by Dear Miss April and whisked away to brunch while we waited for Dear Miss Amy to arrive from Portland. That’s when the fun began. We kicked off with brunch at the Blue Willow, which is sort of a half-vegetarian, half-legit cafe-cum-roadside attraction where one can procure entrees with eggs or decorative tchotchkes. The eggs weren’t particularly memorable, and neither were the tchotchkes, but the atmosphere was relaxing and Miss April as always pleasant, amusing, and engaging.
I celebrated by taking a picture of nothing in particular (for my Foursquare checkin) and ordering a Diet Coke.
“Is Diet RC Cola ok?”
The server scurried off to procure the Diet RC and I looked at April and remarked, “That’s probably the first and last time I’ll ever hear that in a restaurant.”
I’m actually a Diet Pepsi person, but most places have Diet Coke so I just order Diet Coke for ease. Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised when I’m given Diet Pepsi instead, but most of the time it’s the good old standby Diet Coke. This Diet RC thing threw me for a loop. Whatever, I shrugged it off, ate my eggs, admired tchotchkes with April and enjoyed the sunny desert morning. I’m used to places like Tucson. I went to college in Las Vegas and spent many vacations at our resort home in Palm Springs so I’m no stranger to the dusty brown flatness punctuated by Spanish style architecture and the smell of recycled golf course water.
Of course, dusty brown flatness aside, each desert town has it’s own specific flavor, and I really like Tucson’s. It feels like the city’s growth was slower and more deliberate than to the north, and it’s really retained both this sort of Spanish Colonial atmosphere and Frontier West flavor. There’s a quiet slowness to the desert itself, and the city seems to work in concert with that harmonious force, rather than against it like larger desert cities in the Southwest. It’s comfortable, and almost immediately familiar.
After arriving at the lovely Sheraton to drop our bags and powder our noses, we procedure to the Union Public House for some drinking and nibbling. What was memorable about the evening was the house made pretzel with some absolutely decadent white cheese fondue. The place also tried to reimagine tater tots, which turned out to be a bit of a misfire, and the serve even not-so-apologetically mentioned that most folks don’t quite seem to understand it’s a “reimagining”, not an “imitation”. I not-so-apologetically suggested that perhaps a classic freezer food didn’t really need to be toyed with. Good fun was had by all.
I was lulled into a false sense of security when I asked for a Diet Coke and the server complied, and continued to proffer them throughout the evening.
Blue Willow must just have been a crazy hippie den. I thought to myself. Perhaps they really do have Coke products in Tucson.
Alas, the bill arrived.
The next day, we had some time on our hands (that happens in Tucson) and I’m an unrepentant aviation geek, so we went to the Pima Air & Space Museum, which was notable for having a ton of really cool vintage airplanes I’d read about for years and years but never really seen up close. Where else in the world could I pretend to work as a baggage handle for a TWA Constellation? I really wish we could have gone in side, even if it was run down and nasty. I just wanted to explore. But, we got a good photo op (in vintage black and white, of course!) out of it instead. Wave for the camera, Miss Amy.
The next evening, we went all progressive. Drinks at Sullivan’s (they have a good happy hour), then dinner at Guadalajara Grill. The food was forgettable (I’ve literally forgotten what I ate, I just remember it was covered in sauce). But the takeaway? They make their own freaking salsa tableside. Full. Of. Win. It was SO good. Soupy canned tomatoes mashed up in a molcajete to be even soupier, with lots of salt and a little bit of spice – just the way we wanted. It was amazing and I had to be restrained from licking the bowl.
After dinner, we’d had enough to eat and drink, but isn’t ice cream is really one of those pointless foods that aren’t really foods anyway – they don’t really provide nourishment, just pleasure (and if you’re a lactose intolerant sweet-loving masochist like me, pain). Already tempting fate with forgettable Mexican food covered in tricolor sauce, I demurred from the ice cream, but doesn’t it look amazing anyway? I have no idea what these flavors were, but I’m pretty sure one of them was salty caramel (it was that kind of place).
The conversation was wonderful, but slow (as is usually the case when one is eating ice cream) so I took advantage of the lulls to admire all of the upside-down lighting fixtures. I’d had enough Diet RC Cola for the evening (yes, the Mexican place served it,too) so I stuck with water and mood elevators.
Sorry about all the douchey filters. I was new to Instagram at the time.
The next morning we breakfasted at Ghini’s (“Caffe” on the sign, “Cafe” on the menus and business cards). What they lacked in spelling ability they certainly made up in the quality of their espresso – hot and strong, with the consistency of honey and a crema so delightfully thick and frothy it was reminiscent of the head on a tiny demitasse of stout ale. Yes! In Tucson folks!
But the grand jewel I had been looking forward to the entire trip. We met April at Little Cafe Poca Cosa for lunch. The place is run by two Mexican sisters, is cash-only, and advertises “loud music and mandatory hugs”. The first time I visited, with my Mother and friends of my recently deceased Aunt in 2002, it was in Downtown Tucson, but in a sleepy little hole in the wall. By 2012 the place had been completely remodeled and we sat outside, but the jamaica was just as fresh. I ordered the chef’s choice, which is three of whatever the chef picks plus salad. Of course everything comes with rice and beans and fresh tortillas. Everything was so fresh and gorgeous it was a shame to eat it, but when we did it was just heaven. I’m leaving this image the original size because it’s totally worth it.
After lunch we did some wandering, tried on a few barn dresses in some thrift shops, laughed at an incongruous tiki head at the entrance to a local night spot, and stopped dead in our tracks when it seemed as though the RC Cola overlord that rules Tucson seemed to realize we had skipped drinking it at a meal and sent a monster to do battle with.
We figured it was probably time to throw in the towel and head home.
Whatever Tucson, we still love you! It was a great trip!