Borderlands Banquet: Sonoran Restaurant Week returns with renewed importance

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The quesabirria combo with a traditional Mexican stew at El Taco Rustico

As if it wasn’t difficult enough to choose between all the great places to eat across town, for this year’s Sonoran Restaurant Week, Tucson is just showing off. Sonoran Restaurant Week is a 10-day celebration of our local food culture, giving participating restaurants the opportunity to cook up special dishes highlighting the unique foods and flavors that make our corner of the world so delicious.

After the toughest year for restaurants in recent memory, this special Tucson holiday also serves as a celebration of our restaurants themselves and their roles in the community. The third annual Sonoran Restaurant Week has the most participants ever, with 50 restaurants, breweries and cafes across town serving up specialty options from Friday, Sept. 10 to Sunday, Sept. 19. 

“The goal of this has stayed the same, but the importance of that goal is all the more apparent because of the pandemic,” said Laura Reese, co-creator of Sonoran Restaurant Week. “Our goal was always to get people to experience our local restaurants in Southern Arizona. That was originally dining in, but we also encourage take-out. It’s just to experience the foods and flavors that make our region so delicious. The idea was always getting people inside restaurants, supporting them and trying something new.” 

This year’s Sonoran Restaurant Week features local eateries and breweries each putting their own twist on local food culture: Borderlands Brewing Company is serving up a selection of tacos paired with desert-inspired craft beers; Commoner & Co. has a Sonoran corn carbonara with smoked bacon; and Flora’s Market Run is making a special Sonoran Mousse Tart for dessert with spiced mousse and a caramel churro. 

Some of the participating restaurants are younger than Sonoran Restaurant Week itself, whereas El Charro also happens to be celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. 

All of the Charro family is participating this year (El Charro, Charro Vida, Charro Steak & Del Rey and Barrio Charro), with each branch cooking up special dishes to highlight their different locations. At Charro Steak & Del Rey, you can get nopalitos with calabacitas, as well as mesquite-roasted quail enchiladas. The vegetarian-friendly Charro Vida features a plant-based ceviche. And the mainstay El Charro is cooking up quesabirria chimichangas. 

“The whole menu is pretty Tucson’d up,” said Charro owner Ray Flores. “If you look at the City of Gastronomy certification, a lot of it has to do with certain local ingredients. For example, we’re using calabacitas because it’s one of the ‘Three Sisters,’ and we’re using the cactus nopal for the Sonoran profile. Cooking on mesquite is also a big part of it, especially roasting quail with it, because quail is a big part of Arizona protein cooking options.”

While their entrees feature some Arizona classics, the green chiles and mole on their Sonoran Restaurant Week dishes are a more explicit nod to Mexican food culture. The Charro locations also work with other Tucson establishments with their food, such as using Barrio Bread’s grains for their cookies.

“We look at events like this as part of the fabric or community of Tucson. I know people throw that around pretty lightly, but we don’t. We’ve been here for nearly 100 years, and it’s really important that we look at the bigger picture,” Flores said. “There’s been a lot of events where restaurants go to some other venue and bring their food. And while those events can be great, you don’t often get to put your best foot forward because you’re bringing your food into a different setting. What I love about this is how it creates a marketing movement and traffic pattern to get people into restaurants. For a community, restaurants are needed as places to gather and places to entertain. That’s part of what we want to provide for Tucson.”

The HUB Restaurant is featuring a variety of seafood mixed with borderlands flavors, including a shrimp elote pasta with sauteed vegetables, and fried calamari with spicy tomato aioli. El Taco Rustico is serving up their beloved tacos with a quesabirria twist, featuring a side of traditional Mexican stew, salsa and guacamole.

Reese says planning out this year’s Sonoran Restaurant Week included staying flexible for CDC guidelines and keeping an ear on the community. While there was a Sonoran Restaurant Week in 2020, many restaurants were take-out only and some others weren’t open at all. Many participating restaurants are now fully dine-in, and plenty others are continuing their outdoor dining options. 

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm. It’s not just about supporting these restaurants, but truly enjoying them, especially with a lot of people being vaccinated and all the safe dining options these restaurants have,” Reese said. “I know there’s a lot of restaurants that have taken the downtime of the past year to renovate and revamp the menu. A lot of them are even using Sonoran Restaurant Week to debut these changes.” 

One such renovation took place at the Hotel Congress’ Cup Café—it wouldn’t be a Tucson event if it didn’t include Hotel Congress, right? Over the summer, Hotel Congress updated its outdoor stage, Cup Cafe, and partner location Maynards Market. The updates changed the restaurant space, but also included additions to the menus. 

“The role of restaurants in the community hasn’t necessarily changed, but the pandemic has given us a deeper appreciation of just what that role is,” said Hotel Congress marketing manager Jeaninne Kaufer. “Tucson has had to see the closure of many beloved restaurants over the course of the pandemic, and these have been very sad moments over the last year and a half... Restaurants are a place of gathering, sharing, enjoying the company of our friends and family, getting to know someone on a first date. Restaurants give us the opportunity to discover something new, experience flavors from around the world and from our own backyard.”

The Cup Cafe is offering a special three-course menu for Sonoran Restaurant Week. First, you can choose between a southwest salad with roasted corn, pico de gallo, tortilla strips and cilantro lime vinaigrette, or a Sonoran-style shrimp cocktail with pickled red onion and tortilla strips. The main course is a choice between Sonoran sopes or a Santa Cruz flank steak marinated with local honey plus chimichurri, calabacitas and crushed potatoes. Finally, they’re offering a slice of one of their scratch-made cakes or pies. 

“Incorporating and highlighting native wild foods has become a central focus of both Cup Café and Maynards,” Kaufer said. “This supports local farms and producers while also highlighting the rich food history of our region... The Sonoran Desert has a deep culture and heritage surrounding food and agriculture. Tucson is the oldest continuously inhabited and cultivated area in the southwest U.S. with an archaeological record of habitation and crop cultivation going back 4,000 years, plus a 300-year tradition of orchards, vineyards, and livestock ranching.”

Another renovated room at Hotel Congress will serve as a new venture for Sonoran Restaurant Week: the Sonoran Sip Room. Congress’ former Copper Hall space will turn into a tasting lounge featuring wines and liquors from throughout the borderlands region. This venture was made in partnership with the Agave Heritage Festival. 

The Sonoran Sip Room will feature wines from Flying Leap Vineyards, Dos Cabezas, Callaghan Vineyards, Sonoran Wines and more. Their special agave distillates include Bacanora Mazot, LaMata, Racho Tepua Bacanora, Mezcal Vago, Sotol Por Siembre and more. 

“Essentially it’s a consolidated tasting room. We’re going to have a lot of regional wines and agave spirits that are available for tasting. So it’s going to be a fun place to grab a sip downtown before or after going to a participating restaurant,” Reese said. “I think it will be an exciting way to sip your way through the Sonoran Desert.” 

Appetizers at the Sip Room will be made with indigenous ingredients grown on the San Xavier Co-op Farm, which is this year’s Sonoran Restaurant Week non-profit community partner. Reese says a food-related nonprofit is always selected to maintain the week’s focus on everything from “food security to food access to cultivating local ingredients.” Sonoran Restaurant Week has previously selected the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona as their non-profit community partner. 

The San Xavier Co-op Farm, run by members of the Tohono O’odham Nation, focuses on healthy farming practices and growing traditional Sonoran crops. Among their tenets are sustainable use of land and water, respect for animals, and passing on traditional knowledge.

“I’ve been a fan of what they’ve been doing for so long, and I think their mission to continue cultivating and growing a lot of indigenous ingredients that make our region special is so important to support,” Reese said. “And the drought has been a huge challenge they’ve had to cope with, so I think supporting them by raising awareness and funds is what Sonoran Restaurant Week is all about.” 

Although they’re not a Sonoran Restaurant Week participant, it should be noted this month is a special occasion for another popular Tucson eatery: eegee’s is celebrating its 50th anniversary concurrent with Sonoran Restaurant Week! If you’ve had enough fancy Sonoran cuisine at the end of the week and are in the mood for something quicker, you can enjoy some special eegee flavors this month. And Saturday, Sept. 18 is dubbed “National eegee’s Day” with special events to be announced across town.

So yes, there’s plenty to choose from this Sonoran Restaurant Week. You can visit the Sonoran Restaurant Week website to see the special offerings from the participating restaurants, or if you’re feeling more adventurous, take a walk through town and just see what local dishes grab your attention. 

“Some people might be confused on the name because of the Mexican ‘Sonora,’ but the Sonoran Desert works almost as an extension or combination,” Flores said. “The culture prevails across the border, it doesn’t matter what side we’re on. So, therefore, the food culture stretches across as well.”  

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