The trend toward small, sharable plates has been sweeping throughout Europe and the United States for years, but great tapas joints have always been few and far between in Tucson.
Jasper Neighborhood Restaurant and Bar, formerly Café Jasper, and most recently Jasper Food and Mixology, is in its third and possibly best iteration yet. Surrounded by a plethora of other classy restaurants at the corner of Skyline Drive and Campbell Avenue, Jasper serves breakfast, lunch, tapas and a limited dinner menu, all with a Peruvian flair.
The warmth of the space is striking, and the bar area of the small, cozy foothills restaurant is beautiful, with a warm wooden bar top and modern touches throughout.
Tapas and drinks are definitely the way to go at Jasper. The wine list is short but has a nice, varied selection, with glasses ranging from $7 to $12, and the cocktail menu (ranging from $8 to $10) has some creative twists on classics like the old fashioned and the mojito.
On our first visit—on a hot weeknight spiked with threatening clouds that never delivered—the restaurant was nearly empty, and Ted and I decided to go all-tapas. There is a nice selection of small plates on the dinner menu, and the six items we ordered were more than plenty to send us home stuffed.
The piquillos rellenos de gamba y queso ($7) were by far my favorite—two medium-sized piquillo peppers stuffed with goat cheese, cheddar and shrimp. The creamy mild cheese and the salty shrimp balanced out the heat of the piquillo, and the surprising peanut sauce (the Peruvian twist) was a perfect complement.
Our second-favorite was the calamari ($10), a large portion that was crisp-fried to perfection and served garnished with sliced peppers and hot sauce. Close behind the calamari was the setas al ajillo ($8.50)—a half-pound or so of large button mushrooms sautéed in butter, garlic and white-wine goodness, served with crispy crostini (of which I was wishing there were a few more). The escabeche de pescado ($9.50) was another standout and another sizable portion—a whole fillet of grilled whitefish smothered in sweet, soft grilled onions.
The empanadas ($5), offered with either spinach and cheese, or beef (or one of each, as our server graciously offered, since I had trouble deciding), were piping-hot and tasty, with a buttery, flaky crust and savory fillings. We also had the pincho de carne e mariscos ($10), a skewered selection of beef tenderloin, shrimp and whitefish smothered in a red chimichurri and served over fluffy deep-fried potato chunks. The meats were all tender and well-cooked, but the chimichurri sauce was a little on the bland side.
By the time Ted and I finished our drinks and tapas, we were too stuffed to order dessert, though the fried sweet-potato fritters drizzled with spiced syrup ($7) sounded incredibly tempting.
On my second visit to Jasper—a late weekday lunch with my co-worker Scott—I was happy to see that the restaurant was bustling with customers. The lunch menu is mostly sandwiches and salads, with a few South-of-the-border inspired dishes, like the Baja-style tacos ($9.50).
Scott decided on the grilled turkey and bacon sandwich ($9.50) with fries, and he enjoyed the simplicity of the sandwich, commenting that the crispy toasted bread was extra-buttery and rich. The kitchen delivered sweet-potato fries instead of the desired regular fries, but our server handled it graciously and even offered to buy us a scone for dessert for the mess-up (which we politely declined).
My burger ($8.50) with bacon and white cheddar (an additional $1 each) with sweet-potato fries was more than enough for a lunch meal, and was perfectly cooked to order. The lettuce was fresh and crisp, and the tomato was actually ripe—restaurants that serve hard, under-ripe tomatoes are a particular pet peeve of mine—while the bun was soft and buttery. The sweet-potato fries were definitely the highlight of my meal, though: flaky on the inside and crispy on the outside without being limp and soggy. Although the portion sizes were generous, the lunch prices seemed a bit high ($10.50 for a burger after the addition of the toppings).
Jasper also offers a fairly standard breakfast menu from 7 to 11 a.m.
Jasper's winning combination of a warm, welcoming atmosphere, friendly and attentive service, and tasty tapas plates make it a great place to share a light meal and cocktails with a few friends.