Occasionally, a spasm of energy garners a bit of notice. For years Broadway swept right past the large Band-Aid-brown buildings clustered on the southwest corner of Church and Broadway. Then in 1998, the Texas-owned MRO Managament Inc. bought the property and splashed cartoonish, bright colors on it. They generally spiffed the place up, and opened some retail shops and a handful of little cafes. Until then, no one paid much attention to the failed urban-renewal corner, dubbed La Placita Village. Now, some 700 to 800 people walk through the courtyard on a daily basis, and it is easy to see why; the fountains, trees and green, green grass could tempt you to forget that you're in Tucson altogether. Downtown certainly fades away. Perhaps this is the point of revitalization?
If you want to enjoy a quick bite to eat, soak your feet in a fountain or sit and stare at some flowers, then flip off the fax and stroll on down to La Placita. You won't find a shortage of eateries.
DEB'S CONEY CAFÉ opened this past October because here in the heart of the Baked Apple there is not a hot dog cart in sight. Certainly not the kind of cart that sells the type of hot dog you eat while reading a newspaper and pretending you are someplace else entirely. And face it: On occasion, even in our esteemed pueblo, we all have a moment or two where we might wish we were someplace else. Anyplace else. Dear god, that's the time to eat a hot dog.
According to the Amercian Meat Institute (and I do have to read these things, people, because after all I'm a food critic) there is a prescribed etiquette to eating hot dogs. Apparently several sacrosanct rules must never be violated:
1) Never use a cloth napkin. Only paper is appropriate.
2) You must only eat with your hands.
3) Ketchup is acceptable only if you're under 18.
4) If you get sloppy, lick your fingers.
5) And (I am not making this up) "Do not send thank-you notes after you've attended a hot dog barbecue."
Whether or not Deborah and Joe Dickie knew the finer points of hot dog etiquette when they opened the door to Deb's Coney Café, they did their homework on hot dogs. Serving the mighty dog nine different ways, their menu pretty much covers the gamut of possibilities. You can get a New Yorker Dog (mustard, sauerkraut, onions), or a New Englander (mustard, bacon, sauerkraut, relish), or live life right and try a Coney Island Dog (meat sauce, mustard, onions).
All the hot dogs are pure beef mondo dogs, grilled to order, then slathered with whatever you choose. For two bucks, how can you go wrong? We haven't steeled our stomach to try the Border Dog (mustard, bacon, mayo, refried beans, onions, salsa), but if you're having a drowsy day at work we think you should stand in line, down a couple of these big boys and then see what rips loose at the office.
IF YOU WANT A MORE European style lunch with an actual plate instead of Styrofoam, I Golosi specializes in a swift lunch served in a sunny cafe. Friendly banter and speedy service mark this a nice spot to sit and actually enjoy your lunch hour instead of wolfing a PBJ down at the desk.
Fresh pastries and coffee are ready at 7:30 in the morning. By lunch, the menu really gets going, featuring daily pasta specials, panini, soups, salads and pizza. The eggplant parmigiana is so popular, neighboring offices call in to see if it is on the menu. Often it sells out before lunch really gets started.
If your call doesn't get in on time, you can always console yourself with one of the panini (sandwiches) made on a soft Tuscan bread. The Pomodoro e Mozzarella ($4.50) is a winner, mostly because it rests on the simplicity of a classic combination: fresh mozzarella, ripe tomatoes, basil and greens. The Prosciutto e Mozzarella ($5.25) is a tender and savory treat made all the better by the quality of the prosciutto di Parma. All sandwiches are dressed with extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper, and that's the touch that breathes life into the simple, refreshing combinations.
Salads are treated with the same attention to detail. The Antipasto Italiano ($6.45) makes an especially satisfying lunch. Featuring judicious tastes of prosciutto di Parma, bresaola and salami, the platter is spiked with olives, artichokes and pepperoncini. Ripe red tomatoes, fresh-water mozzarella and chiffonade of basil put the final touches on a gratifying lunch plate.
The pizzas are made from dough cranked out fresh daily. Each pizza is about the size of a small dinner plate, cut into four pieces, and easily enough for two. The Pizza Quattro Stagioni ($6.85) showcases prosciutto, mushrooms and artichokes. Although the crust is yeasty and thick, this rustic pizza makes a good, simple lunch.
OF COURSE, LA PLACITA VILLAGE wouldn't be a viable Tucson assembly without a quick take-out Mexican stop. Although there are several excellent places downtown to pick up a quick plate of enchiladas or tacos, you won't have this spiffy courtyard, fountain and flowers.
Tamalez serves fairly typical burritos, tamales and tacos, but competition is tough in a town where the world's greatest tacos hold a viable title. Tamalez turns a brisk business, and its breakfast burritos are worth stopping in for if you haven't had the chance for breakfast or you're stoking up for an early lunch. Breakfast burritos are served from 7 to 10 a.m. and you can choose what you want from a righteous list of breakfast fixings and make your own. If you need some serious rocket fuel, this is the place to get it.
Should you find yourself wandering the desolate sidewalks of downtown during a long, hot workday, follow the flow of foot traffic toward the rainbow-bright cluster of buildings. Over at La Placita Village there is enough color, vision for the future, and greenery to soothe the most jangled case of nerves.
For those of you who revel in Tucson's disjointed and shabby underbelly, there's still plenty to embrace. It doesn't look like downtown is going to shed its skin that soon. Lord knows, we still have the Wig-o-Rama. And the plasma center. And the Greyhound bus station with its loudspeakers squawking out those hourly departures for when it finally all becomes just too much to bear.
I Golosi. 110 S. Church Ave. 882-9050. Serving Monday through Friday 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Checks, cash. Menu items: $1.50-$6.85
Tamalez. 110 S. Church Ave. 798-3697. Serving Monday through Friday 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Checks, cash. Menu items: 99 cents-$4.99.