THE STORY GOES that the stone fireplace in the main house at La Tierra Linda Resort contains a hidden map to a treasure of gold heisted from a California Gold Rush transport headed East. Somewhere in the surrounding foothills -- perhaps near Sombrero Peak -- a vast fortune awaits.
True story? Like so many other tales of the West, it's difficult to know; but fact or fiction, the legend adds even a greater luster to one of northwest Tucson's most inviting attractions.
La Tierra Linda, which underwent major renovation about a year and a half ago, has at various times served as a working ranch, dude ranch, treatment center and guest resort. Its latest incarnation has blossomed into a place of grace and beauty, not only appealing to out-of-town guests but to local couples and wedding parties interested in the dramatic backdrop of the Tucson Mountains. Saguaro National Park lies adjacent to the prime property, ensuring a pristine view sans unsightly developments.
Fourteen casitas offer guests a choice of accommodations (one to three bedroom suites) and activities, including hiking, horseback riding, tennis, swimming and volleyball. But they haven't forgotten the kitchen; the food here may well be the resort's crowning achievement. And while rumors of undiscovered treasure may add to the resort's charm, the kitchen is not among them. The Ranch House Grill, one of Tucson's newest and most charming restaurants, caters (literally) to the general public.
The renovation has spruced things up, but it's the authentic Western touches that characterize the establishment. The original ranch house, now the resort's primary structure, houses the restaurant. Wood floors, saltillo tile and stone walls and fireplace (quarried from the immediate area) are rustic but understated. Food and beverage manager Jeff Bonner describes the ambiance as "authentic, elegant and simplistic Southwest décor." Call it what you like, the design is stunning.
Perhaps the only false note is a small Western village located west of the main premises. According to Bonner, owner Craig Wolfe is an avid Old West enthusiast who recreated a period town in order to indulge his own John Wayne fantasies, as well as to provide some amusement for guests. Locals might sneer at such folly, but the appeal to those raised far from the shadow of the saguaro and desert sunset is undeniable. And at La Tierra Linda, they do aim to please.
Unless invited to a wedding at the resort, locals will most likely get to know La Tierra by visiting the Ranch House Grill. The goal, states Bonner, is to create a comfortable atmosphere for families, where diners can enjoy a casual but outstanding meal. While prices aim to match those ubiquitous "family dining" themed franchises, the Ranch House hopes to win out in terms of atmosphere.
"We have a separate children's menu, horses to look at, beautiful grounds to walk around, historical wagons, a waterfall, and a gorgeous deck to watch the sun set over Sombrero Peak," he says.
So far, the gamble seems to be paying off. In a time of year when many restaurants hit the skids, the Ranch House Grill is packing 'em in -- at least on Friday and Saturday night. If Bonner and managers Mark and Francie Wolfe have their way, that's only the beginning. "In the next couple of weeks we plan to introduce a Wednesday family night," Bonner says. "Kids 12 and under will eat for free, and we'll have hayride tours of the property." Through August, the proprietors hope to woo diners for a return visit by offering the second entree at half-price (no coupon required). Given the success of my recent visit, this could turn out to be a very savvy strategy, indeed.
So let's be clear: while the Ranch House Grill is very nice, it's by no means high brow. This means your wallet doesn't take a knock-out punch, and blue jeans constitute more than acceptable dinner attire. (They're standard garb for the staff as well.) At present, one of the Grill's points of pride is its margarita menu, which features an expanding list of tequila concoctions. We sampled the prickly pear ($5.25) and the gold rush ($5.25), and found both refreshing, tasty and ample in their tumblers.
We began the evening with an appetizer of shrimp glazed with a racy apricot chipotle: large, plump and sweet crustaceans, with just the right measure of smoky searing from the grill. The spicy fruit glaze was an inspired addition.
Chef Jim Mulligan (formerly of the Rancher's Club here in Tucson, and the Enchantment Resort in Sedona) incorporates several lively touches into his dishes. Beef reigns supreme on the menu, but Mulligan gives it a regal treatment with innovative flourishes. He also has a winning way with chicken, fish and vegetarian creations. Collectively, the menu lays claim to the Southwest, but there's nothing routine about Mulligan's interpretation of the region.
Even a Caesar salad ($4.50) finds its manifest destiny with the addition of multi-colored, chili-dusted tortilla strips (in lieu of croutons), and a faint chipotle dressing instead of the standard anchovy splash.
Daily specials are standard, and we opted for the evening catch of Alaskan halibut, grilled with a Southwestern salsa ($17.95). The steak was enormous, cooked well but still moist and tender. Again the simple, smoky character was a delight, further enhanced by a salsa fresca of chopped tomato, red onion, avocado, corn, red pepper and cilantro.
Rounding out our selections was the Ranch House stuffed rib-eye ($14.95), ordered at the recommendation of our friendly and efficient waiter (the tip was greatly appreciated). The steak was cooked to the rare requested, and although I feared the heaviness of its cheese and piñon stuffing, the whole turned out to be thoroughly satisfying. Queso blanco, roasted pine nuts and slivers of green chile were modestly tucked into the steak's center, and a subdued red chile glaze covered the whole. A creamy horseradish sauce was the perfect condiment, suitably framing the delightful melange of flavors. A side of black beans was almost forgotten in the wake of such a scrumptious main course.
Desserts are all made on site, and while we were sorely tempted by an Arizona Pecan pie à la mode, with cinnamon-dusted tortilla strips topped with caramel sauce (yum!), it was the raspberry crème brûlée ($4.75) that captured our fancy. Served warm in a shallow ramekin, amber crusted with carmelized sugar, this smooth custard was creamy and rose-tinged with the blush of fresh raspberries. A fine ending, indeed.
As we walked slowly to our car at the end of the evening, taking a few minutes to stroll around the premises, we contemplated the wet violet sky, the mountain peaks and the luscious aroma of creosote after a summer rain. We were happy, full and fully at peace. The hidden treasure may never surface, but one thing is certain: the folks at Tierra Linda are indeed sitting on a gold mine.
The Ranch House Grill at La Tierra Linda Resort. 7501 N. Wade Road. 744-1857. Open for dinner only, 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday. Full bar. V, MC, AMEX, checks. Menu items: $3.25-$17.95.