While Tucson's food scene is fairly representative of a wide range of cultures, to my knowledge there hasn't been an Australian restaurant in the mix recently, if ever. Now, we have the Aussie Cantina on Sixth Street, near Arizona Stadium. Of course, you might be hard-pressed to find someone in Tucson who has any idea of what Australian food consists of other than "Like, shrimp on the barbie?"
Aussie Cantina inhabits a space that has housed at least five unsuccessful bars and restaurants since my days at the UA, and the owners have done a fantastic job of cleaning up and classing up the joint. The open-air concept, with a small stage, a nice bar, a lounge area and a decent-size patio are a far cry from the dive bars of the past.
The menu, revamped recently for the new year, is full of drink-friendly foods, with lots of Aussie-themed dishes (which, after 100 years of colonization by the Brits, it's not surprising that many of them resemble British dishes). Ted and I visited for a weekend lunch and a weekday night dinner. The service was quick and friendly on both visits, but the restaurant was virtually empty—we were the only table both times.
So what is Australian food? Well, we tried the shrimp on the barbie ($9 for five large shrimp), spiced, grilled and served chilled with cocktail sauce; fish and chips ($10), made with Foster's batter, of course; Aussie rolls ($10, in various flavors); Aussie meat pie ($10); Aussie-style tacos ($9 for three); and dingo dogs ($5 for three). We also tried the lamb lollypops ($10) and "the Yank" grilled bistro steak ($14).
All of the food was scrumptious. The shrimp were nicely seasoned, with a little spiciness, and weren't overcooked. The dingo dogs and the lamb lollypops were our favorite appetizers. Dingo dogs are chubby little pork sausages on a stick, dipped in Foster's beer batter and deep-fried, and served with a whole-grain, tangy mustard. The sausages were juicy, and the batter was both light and crispy. The lamb chops (two per order) are coated in a pistachio-mint pesto, grilled and served with a light lemony butter sauce. Cooked to a perfect medium-rare, they were flavorful and a nice start to the meal, though for $10 maybe three lamb lollypops would make the dish more palatable.
For the tacos, we decided on kangaroo meat (available seasonally) over the fish or spicy shrimp. The ground 'roo was very lean and had a similar flavor to a grass-fed beef, with a nice hint of gaminess. The tacos were garnished with a jicama-tomato-ginger slaw and a chipotle cream sauce. It would be nice to see kangaroo in forms other than ground meat, but the tacos were an approachable way to introduce it to an unfamiliar audience.
All of the entrées are generously portioned, and the food definitely lends itself to drinking—a good thing when you've got a fully stocked bar, a nice cocktail menu ($7.50 for the house cocktails) and 24 beers on tap ($3 to $6 a pint). The Aussie rolls, served with fries and slaw, had a variety of ingredients rolled into a puff pastry. I tried the traditional roll, which had seasoned ground beef and pork with herbs. There's also a veggie version, and a Southwestern version with Hatch chiles, red onions and red pepper aioli. The flavors were great but there was a little too much puff pastry and not quite enough filling, which made it dry. The meat pie, on the other hand, was pastry perfection, encasing slow-stewed tender beef short ribs and root veggies atop a mountain of mashed potatoes and English peas. It was simply delicious.
The fish and chips and the bistro steak were also yummy. The fish was flaky and tender, with a crispy crust, and came with fries, slaw, malt vinegar and tartar sauce. The bistro steak was a generous cut. I ordered it medium-rare, and although it came out more on the medium side, it was still very tender. The steak was served on a pile of cheesy, creamy mashed potatoes, with sautéed asparagus spears and a pat of caramelized onion butter to melt over the steak.
As Tucson's first representation of the Outback (besides that unfortunately named chain steakhouse that has nothing to do with Australian food as far as I can tell), Aussie Cantina has made a splash with its upscale pub fare. Hopefully, the customers will follow.