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Chill Cafés 

Both Tooley's locations offer tasty food and a funky-chic, laid-back vibe

There are two Tooley's Cafés, with different food and slightly different vibes. We'll start with the original Tooley's, located in the Lost Barrio.

The day was warm and sunny, and the charming little patio was tempting. But before sitting down, I had to order at the counter, and when I entered the tiny room, I was transported back to a time when Tucson was a hip, not-so-big city, where good cooks could open a restaurant with nothing more than a dream and a handful of decent recipes.

Several tables were topped with various flowered oilcloth tablecloths. The mix-and-match chairs included benches fashioned from metal headboards. A wood stove sat against one wall. Huge windows tucked into exposed brick walls let sunlight in. The walls were tripped out in sunny rag-painted colors, with a colorful mural on one wall. Hanging all about were Mexican knickknacks and posters promoting upcoming art events--funky chic.

I was the only customer (at first), and I opted for the mole ($8) and a water. Tooley's only takes cash and checks, and I had about $10 on me.

It wasn't long before my lunch arrived: two enchiladas, black beans, white rice and a tiny salad of lettuce, cabbage and tomatoes.

The mole stood up to--and surpassed--the versions at numerous other places in town. The sauce was deeply dark and rich in texture, with just the right amount of bitter chocolate, served over two tortillas that had been generously stuffed with shredded turkey and sprinkled with some sort of white cheese (I'd guess jack). Turkey is big at Tooley's; it's featured in many of the Mexican plates, and they treat it well.

The black beans were juicy and tender; with the white rice, the mixture was a perfect foil for the warmth of the chiles from the mole. This is a dish I would order again.

I returned with John for a weekend breakfast. This time, the server took our order at the table on the patio. We had to sit outside, because someone had attempted (and failed) to build a fire in the little stove inside, and the room was way too smoky. No matter; it was a lovely day. John ordered an egg, potato and cheese burrito ($5.50), and I ordered a longtime fave--huevos rancheros ($6.25). I asked for over-easy eggs. We both ordered coffee ($1.50); all the coffees are double-shot espresso. Tooley's also offers a wonderful assortment of teas and juices.

While John's burrito was unremarkable--the potatoes needed to be crispier--my dish was perfect. The refried beans were served on the side; like the black beans that came with my mole, these were tender and had been smashed just enough to retain some full beans. The eggs were cooked perfectly, but they stood out thanks to the salsa that dressed the dish. There was a spike of heat balanced by the sweetness of tomato. I would also order this dish again.

I next visited the Tooley's on Congress for lunch. The menu is considerably smaller, with only a few breakfast items, and some sandwiches and salads for lunch. I ordered the turkey melt ($7) and a magic bar ($1.50).

The décor here is also funky chic, although it's a tad more funky than chic. I love the way the room opens up to the sidewalk. There's a real French Quarter feel to it.

My sandwich took an awfully long time to arrive, considering I was the only person eating in the place, so I started with my magic bar. Oodles of chocolate melted all over my fingers; the nuts and coconut were nicely crunchy, but the bar was a tad dry. From a place that seems to specialize in baked goods, I expected a little more.

The wait for my sandwich was worth it: A healthy chunk of ciabatta was filled with grilled mushrooms, smoked gouda, thin slices of turkey breast and some maple aioli. The whole thing had been grilled, making it crunchy and gooey all at once. The small salad on the side--with fresh, frilly greens, pine nuts and goat-cheese crumbles--was a perfect match.

I next stopped in on my way to the office one morning, hoping to find a breakfast sweet or two. All that was available was banana bread, chocolate-chip cookies and bagels. (There was also some decadent-looking chocolate cake in the display case, but I only have chocolate cake for breakfast on special occasions.) I opted for a cookie ($1.50) and a cup of coffee ($1.50). The coffee didn't pack the punch of the joe at the other Tooley's, but it was rich and strong. The cookie was chewy, moist and packed with chips.

The laid-back vibe at both Tooley's is certainly a plus--but it can also be a minus. The phone number on the Web site doesn't seem to work; when we contacted the Congress Street location via phone, we were told that the Park Avenue location doesn't even have a phone. The Web site says the Congress Street location is "open early, open late," which could mean anything. Regarding the Park Avenue location, the hours on the door differ from the hours on the Web site.

Also: Prices on drinks were also hard to check. Both locations take only cash; I didn't get a receipt, and there are no to-go menus. Plus, my math and the online menus didn't match. Also, at a place that brags about baked goods, there should be more than one or two options during peak hours--whatever those hours may be.

All of this can be forgiven, because Tooley's food is honest and pure, and the laid-back attitude is a wonderful anachronism in these hectic and worrisome times.

More by Rita Connelly

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