Farm to Fork, Ranch to Resort
Discover Culinary Breakthroughs in Local Resort Restaurants
By Debbie Weingarten
The smell of fresh mint wafts from the bar, where a mixologist is crafting cocktails made with house-infused liquors. From my table in Casino del Sol’s PY Steakhouse, a Forbes Four-Star restaurant, I have a full view of the line of chefs dressed in white, working over flames in the kitchen. Leading the line is Chef Ryan Clark, a multiple-year winner of Tucson’s Iron Chef competition, who has long stewarded relationships with local producers and brought the farm-to-table philosophy to PY. I tasked myself with an exploratory mission of Tucson’s resort restaurants, which I soon discovered can and do stand well on their own. These restaurants are luminaries capturing Tucson’s unique flavors—unpretentious, rooted in culture and in Tucson, and sometimes, with a little kick.
Video: Tucson food is a way of life
Robust flavors: PY Steakhouse
The dishes set in front of us at PY feature whole ingredients and robust flavors. The E&R Red Wattle Pork Belly appetizer comes in a savory brown sauce, paired with chunks of watermelon and garnished with pea shoots—a perfect balance of sweet and salty. The potato pavé gratin arrives in a hot cast iron baking dish, a layer of cheddar cheese still sizzling on top. The potatoes are sliced so thin, they melt in my mouth. The herb-brined chicken breast—pungent and flavorful—is plated next to a bed of braised greens and Hayden Mills polenta. Dessert is a honey-chevre cheesecake topped with a cylinder of house-made blueberry semifreddo— smooth and decadent, but not too sweet. I leave satisfied while still somehow craving more.
Must try: A glass of vino from PY’s extensive wine cellar, which features more than 1,000 domestic and international bottles hand-selected by sommelier Kevin Brady.
Freshly picked: Epazote Kitchen & Cocktails
My next destination is the El Conquistador Tucson, A Hilton Resort, just south of the town of Catalina and tucked against Pusch Ridge, which glows pink during sunset. The head chef of the resort’s Epazote Kitchen & Cocktails, Joshua Willett, shows me the Salsa Garden located just off the patio. “Basil, mint, thyme, tomatoes,” he lists, pointing to the containers overflowing with green. He is a daily visitor to this garden, maintaining the plants and harvesting herbs and vegetables for his new summer menu. It is clear that Willet takes great pride in using fresh ingredients in his dishes. As we admire the tomatoes, the sky to the north begins to darken with the promise of monsoon rain and we head inside.
Dinner comes in courses. The Southwestern wedge salad is cool and classic, topped with corn, bacon, and cojita cheese, and drizzled with a chipotle-ranch dressing—it tastes like summer in the Midwest, but with an Arizona twist. The shrimp ceviche, which Willet has created to reflect the herbs and flavors of the season, features a light broth containing lemon basil pods and cilantro flowers, which were fresh-picked from the garden we were just standing in. But the highlight of the meal is the entrée: a thinly sliced steak (sourced from San Rafael Valley) served with sweet marinated shiitake mushrooms and stalks of crisp green asparagus. Every bite is mouthwateringly rich. As I look out the now darkened windows, lightning glints over the Santa Catalina Mountains.
Must try: The silky and sweet pistachio flan, with a cluster of salty pistachios sunken into the center.
Global gastronomy: Flying V Bar & Grill
Flying V Bar & Grill’s decor celebrates the Southwest, as does its menu. My first introduction to the restaurant is the tableside guacamolier, who deftly prepares guacamole to taste, using both traditional and non-traditional ingredients—think watermelon, cajun seasoning, cojita cheese, and bacon. Under the guidance of Executive Chef Ken Harvey, Chef de Cuisine Paulo Nascimento has created a seasonal menu of stunning offerings. Born and raised in Brazil, Nascimento has eagerly embraced the flavors of the Sonoran Desert with boldness and creativity. The fried calamari is rubbed in pasilla chile and served with a sweet orange glaze, a flavor combination as exciting as the region’s monsoon storms. The Diver Scallops are caramelized on the outside, delicate on the inside, and served atop a creamy risotto made with kumquats, salty pancetta, and sweet prickly pear agrodolce—those flavors nearly knock me over. The Pulled Rabbit Chile Relleno, drenched in a vibrant mole verde and topped with fresh cilantro and crumbly Oaxaca cheese, is so tender and rich that I can’t help but gush to the chef about how delicious it is.
Must try: The dessert menu, created by Pastry Chef Krista Owens, offers a perfect finale—a velvety Ibarra Chocolate Tart topped with red raspberries and circles of white meringue sprinkled with saguaro seeds.
Inventive mixology: GOLD
When I wander the resort grounds at Westward Look, I am amazed by the edible landscaping, which includes a terraced Organic Chef’s Garden, grape arbor, a smattering of rare citrus varieties, and fruiting mango and avocado trees. Flourishing around me are ingredients that will be utilized by the chefs and mixologists at the resort’s AAA Four-Diamond restaurant, GOLD. Leading the charge and wielding the pruning shears is Executive Chef Antonio Rodriguez, who uses what’s grown on-site, as well as what’s fresh and locally available, to create modern American cuisine that’s regionally inspired. As a result, the menu is rooted in place, filled with resort-grown herbs, fruits, and vegetables.
GOLD’s mixologists are true artists, infusing liquors in jars with food and herbs for several days. GOLD’s version of a Bloody Mary is made with vodka infused with jalapeño and cucumber. The drink that steals my heart is the brand new Naughty Chai, made by mixing a lemongrass-mint-poblano infused vodka, house-made Chinese 5-spice syrup cream, and topped with a sprig of fresh mint. The Naughty Chai is so unlike anything I’ve tasted before, that I would come back just to sip this drink on GOLD’s patio, looking out over the lights of Tucson.
Must try: The Dazed & Infused is GOLD’s take on a margarita, featuring tequila infused with pineapple and mango.
Rooted in tradition: Bob’s Steak & Chop House
I experience tradition at Bob’s Steak & Chop House. I’m cozied in a giant leather chair, listening to Sinatra crooning from the stereo, and looking out the windows at the terrace and Omni Tucson National Resort golf course below. The ambiance at Bob’s feels like a touchstone to a different era. The menu, which is filled with salads, sides, and traditional options for meat and potatoes lovers, feels as nostalgic as the setting. The menu is also reminiscent of Executive Chef Jonathan Stutzman’s southern Appalachian upbringing, with his use of fresh, local ingredients straight from the farm. Because Bob, the restaurant’s original namesake, had vivid memories of pickling vegetables in the kitchen with his mother, each table features an edible centerpiece of pickled cucumbers and red peppers in a saltwater brine. And since Bob used to feed carrots to his horses, each dish is accompanied by a large glazed carrot. Everything is big—the drinks, the heavy steak knives, the portions. When I order the duck, it is, in fact, an entire half-duck marinated in green peppercorn sauce, nicely browned on the outside and tender on the inside. Between bites of duck, I study the dining room. It is clear to me that the restaurant prides itself on generous portions, friendly service, and just great food.
Must try: One of their incredible steaks, of course.
Refreshingly decadent: AZul
It feels as though I am making a grand entrance as I walk down the wide staircase to Westin La Paloma’s AZul Restaurant & Lounge. In front of enormous windows overlooking several blue pools and a backdrop of the Catalina Mountains, Executive Chef Russell Michel describes his menu to me. A self-taught chef, Michel has spent 30 years dreaming and creating in the kitchen. He speaks about memory. “Food creates memories. There is energy in it,” he says. “It should make you feel good, not just fill you up.” The AZul menu changes four times per year. Because I visit just before the restaurant switches over to the summer menu, I find the taste of spring. The strawberry-rhubarb salad is both sweet and tart—the sharp bite of arugula and endive is grounded by the goat cheese and balanced by the ethereal quality of AZul’s house-made rhubarb vinaigrette. When I taste the roasted asparagus soup for the first time, it is like tasting asparagus picked right out of the field—earthy and fresh, with just a hint of lemon. The pan-seared sea scallops are browned on top, but when I cut one open, steam rises from the soft white inside. The scallops come served with a classic buerre blanc sauce and a sweet creamy risotto made with artichoke and field peas. For dessert, the Honey Lavender Crème Bruleé is smooth and floral, a decadent ending to this magnificent meal.
Must try: The Yucatan Chicken Pibil literally tastes like a celebration. Marinated in achiote and citrus and served with black beans, cilantro rice, and habanero pineapple compote, it is some of the best and juiciest chicken that I’ve ever had.
Wine and wonder: The Grill at Hacienda del Sol
The restaurant at Hacienda del Sol is unlike any other resort restaurant, partially because Hacienda is a different kind of resort. Rich with history and locally owned, Hacienda del Sol welcomes guests of any sort - from guests of one of the many weddings held on property to a couple on a week-long getaway - with exceptional hospitality and a connection to the joys of life in the Sonoran Desert. The Grill is no exception to that level of care and attention under the leadership of Chef Bruce Yim - a craftsman with an outstanding resume and an incredible gift for flavor. The menu - changing seasonally to take advantage of the best ingredients available - is enhanced by what can be found on the resort grounds itself. Beyond even the amazing organic garden - inspired by health guru Dr. Andrew Weil, the resort's neighbor, and developed by own of Hacienda's owners - the landscaping you see around the property as a guest was designed with the restaurant in mind. Blood oranges, grapefruit, kumquats, herbs and more aren't just decorative here, they're inspirations for dishes and cocktails as they appear throughout the year.
However, even beyond the resort's seemingly endless opportunity for inspiration, you can't talk about The Grill without mentioning the wine. With over 700 bottles in reserve and an impressive team of sommeliers (there are always three working when the restaurant's doors are open) led by Director of Wine and Spirits, John Kulikowski, there's a good reason The Grill has won seemingly every meaningful wine magazine accolade. Don't be surprised if one of the resort's owners even stops by your table to recommend a bottle. Like everything else at Hacienda, the wine program isn't stuffy or unapproachable, making your selection is more of a conversation, a quest to explore and enjoy.
Local first: Primo
My last date with Tucson’s top restaurants was with Primo, tucked inside the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort & Spa. It is the brainchild of James Beard Award-winning Executive Chef, Melissa Kelly. The Primo legacy began in Maine on the grounds of a four-acre farm, where Chef Kelly specializes in inventive Italian cuisine rooted in whole, sustainable ingredients. In addition to a full dinner menu, Primo offers a wine bar menu and a daily happy hour. The bar menu boasts a selection of wood-fired pizzas and specialty offerings, such as duck prosciutto-wrapped dates. Primo Tucson has long been the frontrunner among Southern Arizona restaurants sourcing locally grown produce and meat. The menu changes almost daily, reflecting seasonality and availability of ingredients, and everything is made 100% from scratch.
In the evening, the Primo dining room features moody lighting and intimate seating—a perfect place for evening cocktails or a dinner date. An open kitchen provides a literal window to observe the brick pizza oven and the chefs hard at work. Just off of the patio, a terraced chef’s garden provides herbs and vegetables for use in the kitchen. For an appetizer, I choose the antipasti misti—a gorgeous spread of cured meats, pickled vegetables, olives, and artisan cheeses, all selected by the chef and displayed on a wooden cutting board. The Wild Mushroom Cavatelli calls to me from the list of entrees, and I am not disappointed. The cavatelli pasta is perfectly al dente and the earthy flavor of the mushrooms lingers in my mouth. For dessert, I have the seasonal fruit crostada topped with tangy local apricots.
Must try: Since their menu changes often, take the opportunity to try something new and made with local ingredients.
My initial exploration has concluded—or has it? My gastronomic tour revealed that Tucson’s resorts offer world-class restaurants that make their own rules while exploring the possibilities of new horizons. Here, trends are made and change is welcomed. With every seasonal menu, new cocktail, and fresh ingredient, taste buds will continue to be tantalized, challenged and surprised.
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