Making Salsa Dance

Guadalajara Grill spoils its guests, not the food

What is it exactly about flavor and freshness?

I mean, by the time you have reached my venerable age in these sometimes United States, you'd think your tastebuds had became irreparably habituated to salt, sugar, lemon, a little pepper here and there, maybe the smokiness of a single-malt now and then, but little more. But you always get kicked in the butt, happily, with quality if you put yourself in the way of it. You get reminded of how truly complex your tongue and brain are and why it's important to spoil both as often as possible.

It just makes life better.

Last week I was so spoiled again, as usual, at the Guadalajara Grill. I'm there more often than I should be (Chips--bad! Cream-rich sauces--evil!) but not nearly as often as I want to be. I like this place so much not because its Prince Road and Campbell Avenue location is so convenient to home--though that helps tremendously--but because it is a place in which every dish I have ever had is redolent with distinct and finely tuned flavors. I don't care if it is the burro pescado (a lunch fave of fish cooked with garlic, folded into a flour tortilla with lettuce, cheese, pico de gallo and the creamy Diablo Blanco sauce), the Fideo Blanco (noodles in a white sauce, mixed with grilled fresh spinach and tomatoes) or any of the probably two dozen dishes I've treated myself to in the two years it's been open. You take that first bite and it's--Wow! Is that cinnamon? Taste the chocolate? Nice touch with the cardamom! The absolute essence of the flavors comes through and through. You can bank on it time after time after time.

The people responsible for all this are Emma Vera-Holzman and her husband, Seth. Emma, from Guadalajara, spent 15 years in Alaska, mostly in the travel business, and she met Seth, a commercial fisherman from Sitka, there. They had three other children before they gave birth to the Guadalajara Grill in August of 2002. This is another story of people coming to their senses and deciding to do what they love even if not what they have been trained to do.

"We both just loved to cook and were always having friends over," said Emma, adding that her early cooking classroom was her mother's kitchen and that there was a constant danger of becoming a wee bit porky from all the pickings there. "We'd come home from school, get the smell of the kitchen and start asking 'Mom, what did you cook today? Yummy! How did you make it?' ... and then we'd eat and eat. And that's how I learned to enjoy food and to cook."

When the travel business began to get dicey (airlines constantly changing ticket prices, the Internet making it easier for travelers to do their own search-and-purchase), the Vera-Holzmans decided to put their passion to a test. They first went back to Emma's source, Guadalajara, but found it tough to adapt to and the restaurant business there was a challenge. Fortunately for all of us, they knew about Tucson.

"Seth's parent had a house here and we would come to escape the rain in Alaska. I mean, it's so dark and it rains sideways," she said. "I fell in love with Tucson and the culture here ... and it is so close to Mexico."

In the beginning, they both cooked and did everything else, too. Now, because the restaurant has a lot of fans, they've trained other cooks. "He and I put together all the plates and the combinations, and he still makes sure that the food is made exactly how he wants it, and that the bathrooms are working and the air-conditioning is running. He's a fixer-upper and builds everything ... he's like the glue. I take care of the front. I love talking to the people, the cooking, the serving ... and he takes care of everything in the back."

This, clearly, is a partnership that works on all sorts of levels.

One of the best experiences at the Guadalajara Grill is the salsa that's made tableside. What's ready and waiting when you arrive is pretty damn good, too, but when Veronica or one of the other experts rolls her cart up to the table, you're in for a mouthwatering ride. You're in charge, of course. Don't want much onion or cilantro? No problem. More garlic? Roasted tomatoes? Tomatillos? One or two Habaneros? The chips are fresh and hot and endless, but leave room for what comes next.

My first ex- had a friend who was short and colorful and had lived her life for 80-some years exactly the way she wanted to live it. During summer visits to her "camp" high above Pagosa, Colo., we'd talk over breakfast about what we wanted for lunch, and at lunch about what we wanted for dinner. In between our work at the table, we'd head down the mountain to get the ingredients we'd need, always making time for the restorative nap. She had loose-leaf binders the size of the compact Oxford English Dictionary filled with her favorite recipes. They traveled with her and the dogs in her annual progress from Connecticut to Colorado. One of her highest phrases of praise for a particular dish was to say, "It's soooo good you want to dab it behind your ears!" And then she would shake with laughter before rapidly moving on to tell you exactly, with absolute authority and in great detail, what you should do with your life.

Well, you DO want to dab Guadalajara's salsa behind your ears. My suggestion is that you do it as soon and as often as you can. And then, have something to eat! You'll neither forget nor regret it.