Southern Hospitality Rules The Roost At Jim Clayton's Wild Goose Restaurant.
By Rebecca Cook
AN OCCUPATIONAL DELIGHT--one sometimes worth far more than fancy linen tablecloths and the latest innovation in haute cuisine--is stumbling upon a restaurant hitherto unknown. Sometimes I'll find out later that the place has been around for years, maybe even has a devoted following that would just as soon prefer I keep the kind word under my hat. Naturally, I'm compelled to spill the beans...in this case, the red beans with rice.
The Wild Goose, a tiny restaurant with big dreams and an even bigger heart, is one such establishment, located on the west side of town near A Mountain. In business off and on since 1990, The Wild Goose is the inspiration of owner Jim Clayton, an entrepreneur with an indefatigable spirit and no end of vision for all that his modest operation might some day become.
Somewhat off the beaten track (it's unlikely you'd ever happen by unless you lived in or were visiting the residential neighborhood just off Mission Road and 22nd Street), The Wild Goose specializes in Old Southern-style cooking. Tthis translates to barbecue (ribs and chicken), fried catfish, the aforementioned red beans and rice, mustard greens, cornbread and, in a deferential nod to the Southwest, a few Mexican-food items. (One warning: Although there's a set menu, all items are not always available. If you have your heart set on something in particular, better call ahead to see if it's being served that day.)
Clayton comes to Tucson by way of San Diego, and before that, Louisiana, where he no doubt first encountered Southern cuisine at its finest. His restaurant may be lacking in some amenities, but genuine warmth and hospitality are not among them. If you like funky and fairly tame dining adventures, pull up your chair and sit for a spell at this local eatery.
"Welcome to The Wild Goose!" the proprietor greets us at lunch one day. "Be sure to see what we have out back," he adds, gesturing to the rear of the building. "We have a water fountain out there, you know. How 'bout some music?" And he's off and running, taking good care of his only two customers at the peak lunch hour. He thumbs through a collection of ancient-looking record albums, settling on Nat King Cole. Soon we're listening to the scratchy strains of the velvet-voiced crooner's "Am I Blue?"
"I saw Cole at the Silver Slipper once," Clayton recalls. "They had to work on one woman with smelling salts. She'd asked him to say 'Baby,' and when he did, she passed out cold. Yeah, they worked on her for a long time." Salad (always and only served with iceberg lettuce, a few tomato wedges and a pickly thousand island dressing) is served. Clayton, however, has checked the progress of the rest of the meal and determines that we have time for a quick tour of the rest of the establishment, including the promised water fountain.
If we expected a stroll across a flagstone patio with lots of leafy greenery and a burbling water fountain, we were soon surprised to find that we were being shown much more than backyard landscaping. As we looked over a definite work in progress, it soon became obvious that we were privy to nothing less than Clayton's most cherished dreams for The Wild Goose. His irrepressible good humor and optimism as he points out the dangers of a small splintered footbridge or a side area presently filled to capacity with all manner of stuff that he hopes to develop into a small market and florist shop. Oh, and he'd like to add on a nursery and, at the same time, continue to develop his restaurant into the kind of place where people frequently stop off to pick up dinner for the family before making their way home at the end of the work day.
Meanwhile, back at our table, Nat croons on and the catfish is ready, served today along with a helping of macaroni and cheese and spicy stewed tomatoes. The catfish is remarkably good, crisp with a barely sweet cornmeal coating, and served with a heaping of tartar sauce. Neither side dish would bring raves, but the homemade French fries that accompany my friend's cheeseburger inspire jealousy.
On another occasion I sample the BBQ chicken, a hindquarter prepared with just a smidgen of sauce added after all the grilling has been done to avoid any unpleasant charring. The red beans and rice are serviceable as well, although a spicier sausage might have added more pizzazz. Cornbread muffins and peas were the side dishes of the day, and both were satisfactory.
The piece de resistance was a glorious pecan pie, brought in that day by the cook. Made with a ground pecan crust, a sweet, rich filling laced with just a rumor of brandy and topped with a slight drizzle of chocolate sauce, this was one lip-smacking way to end a meal.
Replete with good home cooking, magnanimous hospitality and the music of Nat King Cole, we take our leave of the singular experience that is The Wild Goose. "Come back now," Clayton calls after us. "Be sure and tell all your friends about us!" I sure will, Jim.
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