Build it Right and They Will Find You

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Roma Imports is out in the middle-of-nowhere industrial Tucson

One of the unexpected pleasures of getting to obscure food and drink establishments is driving through interesting neighbourhoods you’d otherwise never discover.

Of course, heading into the boondocks means occasionally getting lost or turned around. And in every new city I explore for great, cheap eats, there’ are at least a couple of times I mutter, “This café can’t possibly be located on this residential/industrial street.” Until suddenly, there it is.

Such thoughts come to mind as we’re trying to find Roma Imports, an Italian deli and grocery southeast of downtown Tucson. We’re driving around an industrial district, with no sign of any place selling food. Just as I’m thinking we’re lost, thar it be, all by its culinary lonesome.

This is definitely the right place, judging by the line of cars out front and the stream of customers emerging with plastic bags of takeout. This impression is confirmed as soon as we enter the front door.

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The deli looks small until you keep walking back and back

The building is narrow but goes on forever. On the right are coolers filled with fresh Italian meats and cheeses and scads of interesting appetizers (roasted garlic, prosciutto-stuffed figs, balls of fresh mozzarella, cauliflower fritters). The long left flank is jammed with frozen takeout items: lasagna, tiramisu, curries, cookies, saag paneer.

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Italian deli sandwiches don’t get better or cheaper than this

Way at the back are tables, where we tuck into hefty Italian sandwiches ($8), featuring plentiful meats and cheeses stuffed into crusty slabs of baguette. There’s enough for two meals here. We then load up on sufficient marinated goodies for a light supper of appetizers.

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Roma has scads of interesting, unusual deli items

As we head out, I ask our server how long Roma has been in this out-of-the-way location. “About 18 years,” she says. So, if you build the best Italian deli in Tucson, people will find you, even if, like me, they’re not sure where they’re going.

Roma Imports 
627 South Vine Avenue, Tucson, Arizona
Monday to Thursday 9 am-6 pm, Friday-Saturday 9 am-8 pm. Closed Sunday

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How About Duck Confit and Cabernet Cherries for Breakfast?

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Prep & Pastry is a bright Tucson breakfast joint with some eclectic dishes

“What’s your signature breakfast dish?” I ask the waitress at Prep & Pastry, a joint with a varied menu in central Tucson.

Without pausing, she replies: “The duck confit skillet. It’s what everyone comes for and writes about on Yelp and TripAdvisor.”

Sold.

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Now here’s something unique at breakfast: duck confit with Cabernet-braised cherries

The $12.75 dish certainly stands out from the same-old breakfast standards. When have you heard of ingredients like Cabernet-braised cherries and goat cheese mousse… at any time of the day, let alone seven in the morning? The standouts, though, are the slightly salty, shredded duck, excellent roasted fingerling potatoes and a couple of over-easy eggs. As a bonus, it’s served in a cast-iron skillet.

Prep & Pastry
3073 North Campbell Avenue (one other Tucson location)
Weekdays 7 am-3 pm, weekend brunch 7 am-3 pm

A Fast-Food Burger Chain I Can Support

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In-N-Out Burger is lifted right out of the 1950s

Fast-food chains are the antithesis of what I promote in this road-food blog, which is good, independently owned, affordable restaurants.

But a western U.S. hamburger chain, In-N-Out Burger has long attracted a cult-like following among hip food lovers. And when I saw Anthony Bourdain extolling the virtues of In-N-Out’s thin, crispy patties, I figured I had to check it out.

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In-N-Out is a family run, Southwest US, chain based out of California

After a couple of years of procrastinating, I finally find myself pulling into an outlet in Kingman, Arizona during a long drive between Tucson and Las Vegas. And I must say, I’m suitably impressed.

Now, don’t expect a gourmet burger made from freshly ground sirloin, cooked medium rare and topped with blue cheese and charred hot peppers. But this California-based, family run southwest U.S. chain is definitely a good step above the usual fast-food suspects.

The first thing I notice when entering the spotless premises is the 10 or more cheerful staff behind the counter, each wearing a white shirt, paper hat and red aprons secured at the back with a giant safety pin.

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My companion says the place reminds her of the 1950s. Which makes sense, considering In-N-Out was founded in 1948 and has kept many of its practices and ingredients unchanged over the years.

The second thing I notice is the concise menu: three types of hamburgers along with fries, shakes and a few other drinks. That’s it!

I order the double cheeseburger, for a whopping $3.60. When the most-pleasant attendant asks if I’d like onions, I jokingly ask if they’re caramelized. “No, but would you like them grilled?” he responds.

To me, this indicates the burgers are cooked to order—a suspicion confirmed by the several minutes it takes for the food to be ready. Everything is nicely presented, with the burgers half exposed above the paper wrapper.

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The burger wrapper tells the story

The burgers are straight forward—adorned with lettuce, tomato and sauce—but well executed with toasted buns and flavourful, nicely crisped thin patties. The thin fries could be hotter but are otherwise tasty, as is a vanilla shake you could stand a spoon in.

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Nice, crisp, inexpensive burgers

My overall impression is “fresh”, both for the food and the fresh-faced staff. Simple, but simply well done.

In-N-Out Burger
1770 Beverly Avenue, Kingman, Arizona
Daily 10:30 am-1 am, except 1:30 am closings Friday and Saturday

Swarms of Shawarma at this Calgary mini-chain

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Assembling a massive beef shawarma wrap at Calgary’s Jerusalem Shawarma

On the menu of Calgary’s Jerusalem Shawarma are listed several family plates. Here’s a tip: Just order a one-person serving, and you might still feed a small family.

My chicken shawarma plate ($13.95) arrives with an alarming quantity of food. There’s about a pound of delectable, slow-marinated and shaved chicken served on a bed of rice. Filling out the oversized platter are wedges of garlic potatoes, healthy scoops of creamy, fresh hummus and garlic sauce and a choice of salad: Greek, Russian, corn or fatuch. After five minutes of feasting, I come up for air, scarcely putting a dent in my dinner.

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Here’s my single chicken shawarma plate, with hummus and garlic sauce

My companion’s bountiful falafel plate is weighted down by six sizable falafel balls, deep fried to order. “The best I’ve ever had,” she says between mouthfuls.

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Massive falafel balls, cooked to order

While waiting, we watch shawarma and donair wraps ($11-12) being assembled. Here, copious amounts of meat and toppings—including tahini, red cabbage, parsley, banana peppers and pickles—are loaded aboard a large pita, rolled and heated in a press. The resulting logs are bigger than any burrito I’ve ever seen, easily feeding two moderate appetites.

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The takeout box is almost obligatory

Whatever you order, odds are good you’ll be asking for a leftovers box. Though I notice plenty of folks heading back to the counter, post feeding, to toss down a honey-laced piece of baklava.

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Folks were scavenging this delectable container of baklava

Jerusalem Shawarma is a fast-casual joint, where you order at the counter and then retire to a row of booths, unless you’re getting takeout. Owned and operated by five Abufarha brothers originally from Jerusalem and using their grandfather’s recipes, their mini chain has expanded in a few years to six Calgary locations. Growing almost as fast as my belly.

Jerusalem Shawarma
Unit 111, 722 85 Street SW (and five other Calgary locations)
Daily 11 am-10 pm
403-474-8994

Good, cheap Malaysian food at Vancouver’s Hawkers Delight

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The pictures certainly help navigate the Malaysian menu at Vancouver’s Hawkers Delight

I don’t recall ever eating Malaysian food and certainly not Indonesian fare. So when I come across a lauded Vancouver spot, Hawker’s Delight, offering both cuisines, and at unusually low west-coast prices, I jump at the opportunity.

Hawker’s certainly exudes a street-food vibe, occupying a tiny space with a dozen small tables and a handful of window and wall stools. It’s a no-nonsense place, where you order at a little window while watching three cooks, in behind, churning out the dishes.

As usual, I’m first in line for the lunch hour… without a clue what to order. Mee rebus, fried kuey teow, bak kut teh? I’m clearly out of my element here. Mee goreng ($7.25) rings a faint bell from an online review, so I go for the spicy version of that.

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A heaping plate of mee goreng

Good choice. It’s a heaping plastic plate of thin, fried wheat noodles mixed with egg, bean sprouts, bits of tofu and diced potato. The sauce is what makes the dish work—flavourful with some kick, but no tears.

The one disadvantage to being first in line is not seeing what other people have ordered. Which here is an appetizer of deep-fried vegetable fritters, for the ridiculous price of two for $1.20. Might be the best bargain in Vancouver.

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A busy little kitchen. The vegetable fritters are a ridiculous bargain

Hawker’s Delight
4127 Main Street, Vancouver
Monday to Saturday noon to 9 pm. Closed Sunday
Cash only
604-709-8188

Composting: Such a Waste

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You can throw just about anything into Calgary’s compost buckets

My greatest “food” discovery in 2017 wasn’t the Instant Pot, despite my sister’s devotion and some 1,500 books dedicated to its use. Not a sous-vide contraption, either. Not the latest craft brewery, botanical distillery or chef-driven fast food.

No, the thing that most impressed me was at the waste end of the food stream. Specifically, it was the introduction of compost collection in my home city of Calgary, Alberta.

I’d always done my own backyard composting of kitchen scraps and yard waste. But it was a slow, uneven process that left me, each fall, with a couple of buckets of soil and big clumps of matted grass.

So, I was quite happy to recycle my plastic composter and instead let the city collect the compost every week. What I wasn’t prepared for was all the things I could throw in the big bin, things I could never have pitched in my old composter.

Things like meat, fat and bones. Like pet waste, which in my case are droppings from wandering neighbours’ cats. More permissible pet sheddings: fur, hair and feathers, along with rawhide bones. Not so sure about cold, dead kitty. But certainly cold ashes from fireplace and barbecues.

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Some of the things you can throw in the compost bin (no, not the plastic coffee filter)

Also paper plates, coffee filters and Kleenex…. used Kleenex. And, significantly, paper towels, which can be used to wipe dirty pots and pans instead of rinsing all that wet, greasy stuff down my kitchen sink, which has a propensity for clogging.

I can also toss into the bin things like tree and hedge branches, cones, weeds, various garden vines, avocado pits and Christmas trees, none of which would ever have broken down in my old, tepid compost pile. And everything wooden from untreated lumber to Popsicle sticks. The list goes on.

The reason you can toss all this stuff into your compost bin is that Calgary’s modern, industrial-scale composting facility operates at temperatures exceeding 55 degrees Celsius. This searing heat breaks down all those bones and pits into usable soil and kills any harmful bacteria.

At $6.50 a month, I figure this weekly compost collection is a bargain. More important, it can cut most people’s garbage at least in half, sparing the city’s overflowing landfills from more than 85 million kilograms of food and yard waste every year.

Compost collection tips

Yes, you can throw all your kitchen scraps into your old, unlined compost bucket. But when you dump that bucket into the compost bin, there’s a tendency for all the loose, wet stuff to stick to the bin’s sides and bottom. In winter, said wet stuff can freeze to the bin, leading to messy cleanups.

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The bins work throughout the winter, as long as you don’t throw loose, wet stuff in

It’s better to use some kind of bag. Do-it-yourselfers can consult YouTube for learning how to fold newspaper into a collection device that fits inside your under-the-sink compost bin. Lazier types can buy compostable plastic liners; I bought a 125-bag box at Costco for peanuts. Just don’t let them sit too long under your sink, as they start to break down and leak a bit of fluid after about a week.

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A Costco-sized box of compostable bin liners. Note: You can’t use regular plastic bags