It’s 1 a.m. Saturday and while most of us have a good time or sleep in, Scott Martley prepares his northwest Tucson cuisine for the hours of hard work ahead.
He lights the commercial ovens he has at home. He’s running his commercial blender. Then it’s time to measure, scoop, mix, grease, knead and everything else that goes into baking a delicious, fragrant loaf of crispy German dark rye bread. Sometimes it’s different. Maybe today it will be jalapeno and polenta bread.
At a more reasonable hour later in the morning, his wife and partner Nikki Martley gets up to harvest her lovingly homegrown microgreens.
At the cottage bakery, Blue Finch Bakery – not a storefront – it’s a weekly routine. It is hard work, but satisfying.
“Food is one of the magic substances,” Scott said. “It crosses borders, it crosses everything… You try to put a local influence on a deep tradition. Everyone comes to the table with their personal journey.
“‘That’s what I think bread should have.'” It’s really hard to meet those expectations because everyone has a different one. Link quality is unity.
Blue Finch Bakery is one of many establishments in Tucson celebrating 10 days of Sonoran Restaurant Week. From Friday, September 9 through Sunday, September 18, more than 100 restaurants will be offering prix-fixe menus, giving diners the chance to visit restaurants they’ve never tried or discover old favorites.
Tucsonfoodie.com, a digital magazine that writes about the UNESCO City of Food and its offerings, recently took over the fourth event. He is aided in the effort by Visit Tucson.
“The purpose of Sonoran Restaurant Week is to encourage people to get out and explore the restaurant scene in Tucson,” said Shane Reiser, owner of tucsonfoodie.com.
“It’s a week where a lot of great restaurants – we now have 100 – are offering a fixed price menu, so all you have to do is go to one of the participating restaurants, ask for the menu of the Sonoran Restaurant Week You are going to get a delicious meal for a bargain.
Ana Aguayo started Taco Fish as a food truck selling fish tacos 17 years ago. This business expanded into a casual brick-and-mortar restaurant. Want something other than fish or shrimp tacos? There are also manta rays, stingrays, octopuses and marlins in the form of quesadillas, caldos, tostadas and cocktails.
A fresh, serve-yourself garnish and a stand of pico de gallo await you on the side. These days, Aguayo runs the place but still runs the kitchen.
“I like to cook at home, like home-cooked food,” she said, “and, yes, I loved cooking here at the restaurant.”
A few blocks from Taco Fish is another casual dining spot, Rollies Mexican Patio. On this Saturday afternoon, finding parking was a challenge, but the atmosphere inside was great fun. Chef Mateo Otero wants customers to feel on his terrace.
Eating there is like participating in the family tradition of Otero, and that tradition is really long.
“I was born and raised here,” Otero said. “My mother’s family has been here for seven generations already.”
This matches why he and his restaurant are participating in Sonoran Restaurant Week.
“I think Tucson is part of the Sonoran Desert, and it’s Tucson food here that we represent here at Rollies,” Otero added. “I call it Tucson Chicano food. It’s our version of Sonora food.
More than anything, however, Otero says that when he serves his food, he’s offering his Tucson heritage.
“I truly believe that this food is my blood,” he said. “These are the dishes I grew up eating, but I want to put my own twist on them.”
The menu reflects Otero’s interest. Look for Nana’s tacos, a Tucson specialty where a ground beef patty is fried in a corn tortilla. There are also taco wraps, street tacos, quesadillas, birria, flat enchiladas, and loaded fries. Quench your thirst with horchata and sodas. For adults, try a local brewski, michelada or margarita.
In addition, a food truck will soon be appearing at L’Annex.
Satisfy your craving for freshly made pasta and pizza at Reilly Craft Pizza & Drink downtown on Pennington, or in northwest Tucson at its second location on Oracle and Ina roads. Both places are popping, but that’s no surprise. The food and drinks speak for themselves.
“Reilly is a modern take on Italian cuisine,” said Courtney Fenton, one of the partner-owners. “We focus on quality ingredients, local ingredients and an elevated dining experience, so all of our pasta is freshly made on site. We make our own sausages, really trying to get the best, freshest ingredients. I think that translates really well into the food.
Fenton and his brothers own both Reilly locations and a new restaurant, Bata, on Toole. She said their fond memories revolve around food, which drew them to the industry.
“There’s something unique in itself about comforting others and being able to share those moments,” Fenton said.
“Food is a great way to show you care; it’s a great way to feel comfortable and welcome.”
Cross I-10 at Congress on the west side, walk down the road a bit and you’re in a different Tucson, but that’s where Tucson-native chef Ralph Felix runs the kitchen at Agustin Kitchen.
General Manager Neil Scott describes it as casual fine dining, tucked away in a corner of Mercado San Agustin. On the bar side, a large counter opens onto the outdoor courtyard. Dishes are graciously served in the paneled dining room.
The kitchen overlooks the dining room and, when he has a second, Felix glances past the large marble counter and the fresh oysters on ice to see how the service is going. When he sees customers enjoying what he and his staff have created, he is happy.
“It makes all the work interesting,” Felix said. “When I’m working long hours, long hours, long days, when I’m not spending the holidays with my family, but I’m cooking good food and people call me to the table and say, ‘Thank you , this is the best meal we have ever had, well worth it.
On the regular dinner menu, find halibut crudo, lacquered duck breast or littleneck clams. There is also lunch service and a weekend brunch menu. It’s sophisticated food, but what does Felix like to eat at home?
“You know what?” he said. “As a chef, we work so hard, such long days, sometimes you come home, you’re happy to eat a bowl of cereal.”
Scott credits his team for the success of the place.
“I tend to give credit to the people who actually perform it,” he said. “I may be here to help make it happen, but it’s the guys who put it together every day.”
Reiser said it was a joy to work with restaurants like these during Sonoran Restaurant Week. He wants everyone to be proud and appreciate Tucson’s culinary traditions and newcomers.
“Tucson’s dining scene is really exploding,” Reiser said. “A lot of new restaurants are really elevating the whole scene, and we’re more and more of a destination, a food and culinary destination.”
Meanwhile, at Blue Finch Bakery, Nikki prepares orders for customers who have texted their arrival times. That’s how it works at Blue Finch. On Sundays, the website opens to orders, and since it’s an artisan bakery, Scott doesn’t earn much. Don’t forget to order on Sunday, because by Wednesday most of their goodies are sold out.
The Martleys don’t do it for the money; they donate part of their weekly income to non-profit organizations. This is another thing; the same thing that makes all restaurant workers do it.
“You bring a group of people together over food,” Scott said. “Meeting new people, you often do that with food, and I love being part of that connection with so many people.”