Downtown Gem

Cushing Street Bar & Restaurant offers good, uptown comfort food in the heart of the city

OK, so reviewing a restaurant on what is probably one of the busiest weekends in the Old Pueblo may not be quite fair. All those rodeo folks and golf fans can really pack an eatery to the point of breaking. The service can't keep up, and sometimes, the kitchen goes under, and the food suffers.

Luckily that wasn't the case on a recent Friday night at The Cushing Street Bar & Restaurant. When we walked in, the place was half empty, with some tables still occupied by the Friday afternoon drink crowd. Maybe it was the rainy weather that kept people away. Maybe it's because not enough people know about this wonderful little place tucked in Barrio Viejo, just south of the Tucson Community Center.

More people should. This place is a gem.

Cushing Street Bar & Restaurant has long been a part of the downtown scene. In the 1960s, it served as the neighborhood bodega, as well as home to the family who owned the store. Then, in 1972, it was converted into a bar and restaurant, where it opened to rave reviews. Back then, Cushing Street was the hip place to sip sangrias, munch on Americanized Mexican food and enjoy live music by local artists on the beautiful patio. Over time, there were several ownership changes, some good and some bad. Hours were sketchy, and a trip downtown sometimes met with closed doors. Happily, Cushing Street, at last, seems to have achieved stability and is once again a pleasant place to enjoy a few drinks or a nice meal.

Part of the charm here is the décor: high ceilings, thick walls, a brick floor. Nothing much has changed since the original restaurant opened in the '70s. The long, lovely wooden bar is still there, complete with a brass foot rail. The floor-to-ceiling cabinets remain, filled with old bottles, antiques and other curios. And of course, there's that patio. Too bad it was raining the night we visited. Patio closed.

No matter; we were here for the food. The menu at Cushing Street could be labeled "uptown comfort food." Plenty of homemade-type favorites grace the menu, each with a modern twist. Chicken potpie, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, quesadillas, burgers, pork tenderloin, veggie lasagna and salads are a few of the choices. Sadly, the prices are quite modern, too, perhaps a little too high for what you're getting. The Cajun meatloaf, for example, was priced at $12, maybe a couple of dollars high for comfort food.

John, my husband, is a meatloaf aficionado, so it was no surprise that he ordered the Cajun meatloaf, served with mashed potatoes and fresh veggies on the side. I decided on the pesto stuffed chicken breast ($15), based solely on the fact that it was the only entrée, aside from the vegetable lasagna, that wasn't served with some variety of potato. The menu promised homemade pasta in a tomato buerre blanc.

We also ordered the antipasto plate ($9) and a cup of New England clam chowder ($3). The antipasto plate arrived, piled high with salami, provolone cheese, olives, artichoke hearts, pasta salad and greens. Everything was fresh and tasty, but I would've liked to have seen a little more of the vinaigrette tossed in.

The clam chowder, on the other hand, was seasoned with an herb I couldn't quite put my taste buds on. It was very good, thick and creamy with potatoes and clams, but let's just say it might not pass muster in Boston. The kitchen would do well to rename it Tucson Clam Chowder.

Our entrées arrived in a timely manner. The Cajun meatloaf was a thick slab of ground beef, topped with creamy gravy and lightly whipped potatoes. The green beans were cooked just right, not too soft, not too hard. John proclaimed the entrée to be "very good," although when I took a bite, it was little hard to tell just where the Cajun was. Again, good food mislabeled.

My chicken breast was beautifully presented with a mirapoix of veggies and mashed potatoes and green beans. No, that's not an error. It seems there had been a change "in" the menu in the last few weeks, but not "on" the menu. Our server was most apologetic, offering a pasta salad instead of the mashed potatoes. I stuck with the taters. The chicken was very good, tender and plump, cooked to perfection. The filling, again, was missing the dominant flavor of pesto, but I would certainly recommend this dish to others. We both cleaned our plates.

We decided to share the homemade chocolate mousse. The velvety, thick mousse was served parfait-style in a martini glass with fresh whipped cream, and was definitely a nice finish to a nice meal.

The wine selection has a nice mix of reds, whites and champagnes, all moderately priced, some by the glass or by the bottle.

On a lunch visit, sadly on another rainy day, I was eating alone. I went for the shrimp quesadilla ($10), a dish that's definitely worth the wait (items on the menu that may take a little longer are so noted). The portion was good-sized by lunch standards: six triangles of perfectly crisp flour tortillas stuffed with grilled shrimp, gooey cheddar cheese and garlic sour cream. I would never have guessed garlic sour cream--the flavor was barely there--but that's OK, because too much raw garlic can ruin any good dish.

Ever the curious diner, I couldn't help but notice my neighbors' food. They'd ordered the potpie. This dish looked great, but again, the name was a tad misleading. The dish was served in a bowl and looked more like stew.

Dessert this time was tres leches cake from Le Caves Bakery. The big slice, garnished with the yummy whipped cream, was very, very good.

Cushing Street Bar & Restaurant offers a pleasant little diversion to a humdrum week. The only recommendation I'd give is a menu re-write. Keep the meatloaf, but drop "Cajun" from the title. Avoid using the word "pesto" in the stuffed chicken breast unless the flavor level is brought up a bit. Give details on other dishes. Lower some of the prices. And please, bring back the pasta. It doesn't have to be homemade, just so there's something on the side other than mashed potatoes.

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