Fondue Memories

Take A Dip Under The Stars At Jerry's Lee Ho.

PROBABLY NOT MANY people still remember the opening of Lee Ho's market in 1912. But if they did, they could tell you how Lee Ho was the first general store in Tucson, opened on Valentines Day in 1912. And yes, for you history buffs, that was the day Arizona became a state. For the next 50 years or so, the market served as the hub of a thriving community, until the historic barrio was encroached upon and erased by the crashing wave of the short-sighted '70s.

Gentrification happens. It can't be helped. And as the Barrio Viejo has spiffed itself up and become a trendy place to renovate, Jerry's Lee Ho market has lucked out by landing in the loving hands of owners Gilles and Barbara Desjardines. Best of all, Tucson inherited a very hip and honest historic preservation.

Some restorations are irritating because they feel as if they have to staple on a character or invent a story or legend to prop up the building. But here, a faithful kind of awe permeates the place. When you step in the door, you step back into Tucson circa 1938. With the original meat counter, the tremendous vaulted ceiling, the funky storefront window, the aesthetics are all about the genuine desire to preserve a bit of history without too much hoopla or fanfare.

True to its original intentions, Jerry's Lee Ho Market has carved its own niche as an outstanding butcher shop. In days of yore, it was possible to get to know your neighborhood butcher. He actually knew your likes and dislikes, when to save a certain chop or steak, who liked the soup bone, what dog needed a knuckle to gnaw. Of course this was before Basha's vast stretches of freezers and two-for-one specials on expired meat.

Welcome back. At Jerry's Lee Ho Market, not only will the Desjardineses make it a point to get to know you and your own personal tastes, they are committed to insuring that their meats are organic, and raised in Southern Arizona. It is actually possible to walk in, chat up Gilles or Barbara, and watch as they select and cut the exact portion you choose of the certified Black Angus beef, ostrich, buffalo, venison or lamb. Seafood is flown in for weekend shoppers.

The commitment to excellence extends to the entire inventory. When possible, the Desjardineses support local farmers by carrying fresh Arizona produce. You'll find the little things in life that really matter: exquisite capers, imported mustards and fresh tortillas. A fortifying list of deli items including fresh sandwiches and soups is available. Probably one of the most unique offerings, however, is the opportunity to climb up the rickety stairs and dine in full splendor out on the rooftop.

Wisely, the Desjardineses have fashioned a menu tailored to not only the fresh produce offered in the shop, but also to the romance of dining al fresco out on the roof. Cupped up in the night, about to drift out and up into the Arizona sky, you can fondue to your heart's content.

With either the traditional Chinese fire pot (a broth pot), Swiss cheese fondue or hot oil, you can tailor a meal from a wide assortment of fresh meats, seafood and vegetables. The portions are so generous one pot will easily feed two to three people. If you have a group, you might want to try two; an oil pot and a broth pot would be a sound bet for a platter of seafood and meats, along with vegetables.

We tried the House Platter ($59.95), which was easily enough food for six people. A groaning platter of freshly prepared meats--mounds of cubed aged tenderloin, lamb, ostrich, scallops and shrimp--was brought tableside. An equally enormous platter of fresh vegetables--red and green bell pepper, whole mushrooms, cauliflower, fresh tomato, carrots and cucumber--also arrived. A trio of dipping sauces--a cocktail sauce, a jalapeño-pineapple glaze and a tarragon-caper remoulade--let us tailor each morsel in the way that best suited our whims. Obviously, the resulting inventions reflect the caprice of the diner, so make sure to bring inventive, fun people. After all, there is no chef to blame; you'll be cooking for yourselves.

The cheese pot is made up mostly of Swiss cheese, and it is a pungent and thick fondue. This isn't a creamy dipping fondue, but a thick, glistening dip that winds around the bread and clings. Be careful to monitor your heat, or it cooks down quickly and congeals. One suggestion might be to request a small ramekin of vermouth or an emulsifier to whisk in as the cheese thickens. We noticed that as we chatted and laughed and took our time, even the broth pot billowed away quickly. Additional replenishments might stave off unnecessary scorch.

We barely needed to breathe a request or mention a concern, and a server immediately attended to our needs. Whether it is water for tea, a bit more bread or a particular type of vegetable, the service at Jerry's Lee Ho was all about making our experience satisfying and highly personal.

Of course there are a few notes of caution.

Remember this: Those forks stay in boiling hot oil for up to a minute and they become hot. As in molten. Use the accompanying silverware provided to remove the food from the fork before you eat. Several in our party left the revelry with blisters on their lips from eating directly from their fondue fork. Of course it only took once, but if you are forewarned and don't suffer from an excessive impulse disorder, this is easily negotiated.

Be sure to wear warm, comfortable clothing. Since the restaurant is casual, it's OK to dress to your own comfort level. Once you're out under the stars with fragrant billowing pots, cooking and chatting under a clear December sky, a sense of ease and even freedom settles over you. You might find entire hours slip by. That old tired saying, 'It's the journey, not the destination,' might flit across your mind, but don't think about it too seriously. Don't do anything too seriously. Just consider dessert.

Of course with fondue, the chocolate pot is your only choice. Fresh, seasonal fruit will be selected along with some pastries or cookies to dip and sample. This is an ideal dessert for the after-theater crowd. At $6.95 per person, a group receives a rather substantial pot of rich, semi-sweet Belgian chocolate, which makes the best match for fruit. We were fortunate enough to have ripe pear, banana and papaya, and some biscuits. If you are ordering dessert after the splendid fondue repast, you'll probably be too full to commit to a full order. Consider ordering a sample or fondue for one.

The venue is priceless. Cupped up in your ship of night, about to set sail over Barrio Viejo, you'll find yourself having one of those Tucson moments. Not a mandated one with a thousand tourists, but a genuine, quirky, funky one. Roosters and goats mill about below while vehicles on I-10 whisk by in the distance. But there you are, atop a hundred-year-old building, eating fondue in the Sonoran desert with the high-rises of downtown looming over your shoulder. But right where you are, with a few friends, a billowing pot, on the roof of the historic Jerry's Lee Ho market, you won't want to be anywhere else.

Jerry's Lee Ho Market. 600 S. Meyer Ave. 623-7131. Open for rooftop fondue dinners: Thursdays through Saturdays, 5 to 11 p.m. By reservation only. Market hours: Mondays through Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Beer and Wine. AmEx, Visa, CB, Disc, MC. Menu items: $6.95-59.95. Reservations: required for rooftop fondue.
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