B y R e b e c c a C o o k
THE FIRST THING that intrigues about Bison Witches Bar & Deli is the name.
Bison, shaggy-maned bovine creatures of the western plains, paired with Witches, leathery-faced, black-garbed hags stooped over a steaming cauldron of bat's wing and eye-of-newt soup?
There had to be one heck of a story behind a name like that.
"It's just a play on words," said co-owner Tom Partridge when I called, pen in hand, ready to record what I was sure would be one heck of an amusing anecdote.
"You know--bison witches," said Partridge, somewhat hopefully. "Buy sandwiches?"
Okay, Tom. I get it.
Fortunately for Bison Witches, the place has more going for it than the questionable cleverness of its moniker. This place dishes up some of the tastiest soup and sandwiches in town.
Tucked inside a small, funky storefront in the heart of North Fourth Avenue, Bison Witches' kitchen is open from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m.
Since the lunch crowd on two separate occasions was at full capacity, I asked Partridge if there was ever a time when things slowed down, a time I could suggest to readers who might want to avoid the crush.
"Usually 10 o'clock when the kitchen closes," he replied.
Those lucky enough or persistent enough to score a table or a place at the bar will find themselves faced with the challenge of choosing from the wide variety of appetizers, salads, soups and sandwiches on the menu.
An appetizer of chicken cheese nachos consisted of a generous platter mounded with corn tortilla chips and covered with tender, moist chicken bits, lettuce, tomatoes, cheddar cheese and the house chili con queso, which has quite a fiery kick to it. Sour cream and salsa are served on the side.
Easily a meal in itself, the nachos were delicious and fairly cried out for a beer to accompany them. It being just shy of noon, however, I reluctantly ordered ice tea, but I'll certainly keep the beer in mind when I make it back to Bison Witches for a Happy Hour.
I tried both the cream of potato bacon soup and the Wisconsin cheese soup and found both to be velvety-smooth, redolent with smoked bacon bits and deeply satisfying. All soups are served in a freshly-baked bread bowl courtesy of Tucson's Small Planet Bakery, which gives the diner the option of devouring not only the soup, but its receptacle as well. Comfort food at its finest.
But the real story at Bison Witches is the sandwiches--23 in all and very few of them the usual deli fare.
Either half or whole sandwiches may be ordered and, lest you think that only a delicate appetite would opt for the former, be aware that a whole sandwich at Bison Witches is about 10 inches long and four inches high and comes generously stuffed with all manner of meats, cheeses and vegetables. Sandwiches are served on white, wheat or rye bread.
I tried the Jayhawk on my first visit--the name is meant to honor the former residence of Partridge and co-owner Tom Clark. The sandwich was served toasted to perfection and filled with delectable pieces of chicken breast, melted provolone cheese, tomatoes, lettuce and Bison Witches' homemade honey mustard. Be warned though, the house mustard here is not for the faint-hearted or mustard-averse. It's not far from the lacerating sinus-throbbing warmth of a Chinese mustard. Consume with caution.
On another occasion, I sampled the Wildcat, which was served with an abundance of smoked beef and turkey, melted smoked gouda, lettuce and the house Russian mustard. The Russian mustard was definitely more mellow than the house-honey variety but, again, it imputed a powerful flavor that some diners might not enjoy, since it tends to overwhelm the other ingredients. The taste of the gouda, for example, was all but obliterated by this mustard ambush.
The beef and brie sandwich, a combination of sliced roast beef with melted brie, tomato, alfalfa sprouts and the Russian mustard, was also tasty, even though the brie was still in a fairly solid state and did not seem of particularly high quality.
Only of slight concern was the fact that on both of my visits the kitchen was out of spinach and artichoke dip and the chunky chicken-salad sandwich. On another occasion Bison Witches was unable to fulfill an order for a reuben sandwich because they were out of sauerkraut. Hopefully these deficits were but momentary lapses.
So, allow a little extra for window shopping on Fourth Avenue while you wait for a table to free up at Bison Witches. The quality and quantity of the food here is definitely worth the wait.
And in case you get there first during Happy Hour, save me a place at the bar.
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