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A Taco Welcome 

Jimmy Hula’s set to open in Tucson in November, preserving history and serving up tacos and more at high-traffic corner

click to enlarge Jimmy Hula’s tacos are heading to Tucson.

Jimmy Hula’s tacos are heading to Tucson.

Fish tacos and burgers named after Burt Reynolds.

Not the most traditional pairing ever, but consider that this is happening on Downtown's Fourth Avenue, where anything can happen and, on good nights, does.

Jimmy Hula's is the name of the restaurant and it's going in at the old Boatner's Gas Station on the corner of East University Boulevard and Fourth Avenue. Think funky fish tacos and hamburgers drizzled with hot sauce and humor.

Let's get a few things straight: Jimmy Hula's is technically a chain restaurant from Florida. And, yes, these Floridian tacos are being introduced into a city famous for stuffing anything into a tortilla and serving it in millions of ways.

Even so, co-owner David Blair says Tucson is ready for his fish tacos, and if his restaurant sits along the light-rail path, right on a heavily trafficked route between the UA and Fourth Avenue, then all the better.

"Yes, there are other Jimmy Hula's, but we're trying not to make it your typical chain feel," said Blair. "There are just not a lot of fish tacos out there. From a food standpoint, having been to the one in Florida and the one in Oklahoma, the fish tacos are really good and it's just a fun concept."

Blair says his plans for the eatery lean heavily on preserving the character of the vintage gas station while raising it to restaurant standard. Essentially that has involved removing old gas and oil tanks while savoring architectural details that were put in place before most of us can remember.

The interior had to be stripped out to make way for the kitchen and a dining area that will seat about 50, some along a bar and others at tables. Where cars once pulled up for oils changes will be a patio with shade sails and seating for another 40 or so.

The décor will be all exposed brick walls, kayaks and surfboards hanging on the walls and ceiling and other details you'd expect to see in a 1960s surf film, minus the seagulls and, well, water. To preserve the gas station feel he's also looking for a vintage gas pump to put outside.

The gas station—which was built in the 1950s and operated well into this century—will still have roll-up doors, but they'll open to an indoor-outdoor bar area. That means ordering drinks without the hassle of flagging down a server or stepping out of the sunshine.

But before drinks, we eat! The fish will be blackened, grilled or fried, settled on a grilled tortilla and covered in cabbage, macaroni-and-cheese, French fries, lettuce, beans, cheese and other things. Chicken, steak, pork, chorizo and other tacos will be there, too.

On the non-taco front: Burgers named after Burt Reynolds, Bon Jovi, California Cities and the devil, some in a surf theme, others soaked in barbecue sauce and heaped with slaw. Hot dogs, tots, fries, nachos, beans, salads and shrimp Po' Boys will be available in a variety of forms as well.

Hot sauces will also be featured, from flash-fire hot to spicy-but-bearable.

Blair said it will not necessarily be fashioned as a bar—he sees it more as a place for families, students and date nights—but you don't go to Fourth Avenue just for tater tots and tacos. Expect craft beers on tap with a focus on local breweries and a few domestics in-between. He'll also have margaritas and, in time, maybe some island-themed drinks.

Parking is limited in the area, so Blair and his business partner Jim Onken—a homebuilder who lives up in Phoenix—have secured 25 spots at a building about a two-minute walk from the restaurant.

Blair, a homebuilder who lives in Tucson, said this is his first restaurant. Yet he knows that all the food and ambiance in the world mean very little if service and price-point are not spot-on.

"It's about the people who work there, the passion they have," said Blair. "I am going to find people who do not want to be bored, I'm going to find people who have energy. I want people to say, 'The food, it was great, but those were some really nice people.'"

Lunches will run in the $10 range. Dinners will be around $13.

When Blair speaks of the location, he mentions the historic significance often and says he's dedicated to preserving the spot. He said various restaurant owners have been looking at the property for years, and that he hopes to establish himself there in the same way the gas station did before him.

"There are certain corners in every town that are anchors," said Blair. "Boatner's was there for decades and I would like to carry on that tradition."

Jimmy Hula's is expected to open this November.

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