Not The Greek Mafia 

The always inviting café Gus Balon’s has been around for more than 60 years and some thought it used to have mob ties

click to enlarge Kelli Phillips working the line at Gus Balon’s.

Mark Whittaker

Kelli Phillips working the line at Gus Balon’s.

When current owner and head cook Kelli Phillips' great grandfather, came to America from Greece in 1904, his changed his original last name from Poulopolous to Balon to fit with his new home. It was much later when his son, Gustave, decided to open a restaurant in Tucson in the early '60s that everyone said that he would fail, unless he had some mob money behind him.

"If we had mafia money we would all be driving better cars," Kelli says laughing while working the line as another busy breakfast service draws to a close and lunch prep begins. "It is so not true but for years they thought this was a mob run restaurant. I love how my grandfather proved everybody wrong by becoming a success all on his own."

Gus Balon's is anything but fancy. This is the kind of breakfast and lunch stand your family has been coming to for decades because the food is always on point, the prices are fair, the staff has been the same which shows a deep dedication to the owners and customers and when you showed up that one day all by yourself just wanting some eggs and hash browns you left knowing a few more people and possibly made a friend. That is relatively unheard of in snotty trendy spots or faddy flash concepts, which Gus Balon's will (probably) never be.

And everyone is perfectly all right with that.

The original Gus Balon's was located on Grant and Country Club roads which ran from 1961 to 1965 before moving to the current location on 22nd Street which was built on site from the ground up. Having spent some time in the military, Gus moved his family to New Mexico where he ended up cooking for the scientists involved with the Manhattan Project. It was there he learned how to bake bread and soon evolved into a master baker. The bread, rolls and biscuits eaten in the restaurant today are the same recipes he was serving since the mid-19th century. It was Kelli's mom who brought them to Tucson. Suffering from severe allergies, it was our dry warm climate that eventually made her right and it was soon after that Gus got into the Tucson restaurant business.

"It is definitely not an easy business to run," notes Kelli unsheathing a pan of their famous meatloaf, which is dense, rich with flavor and tastes like family tradition. "But it's the only business we know and because of our longtime customers, and all of the new ones, is why we keep doing what we do. Even though some people think that we shut down years ago. That is obviously not true."

When Kelli's parents left the business she, along with her husband Will, decided to keep the memory of Gus alive by continuing the downhome comfort fare going and Southern Arizona is grateful for that. On a random weekday late morning, Gus Balon's is packed. Folks tucked into the diner tables or reading newspapers along the counter are enjoying hearty American-style breakfasts such as Kelli's signature egg sandwich that includes ham, cheese, green chili, jalapenos between their toasted house made bread or Will's omelet which is loaded with juicy cuts of steak, mushrooms, onions and Swiss cheese. The pancakes are golden towers of buttery fluff and the French toast is c'est magnifique!

For the lunch crowd, there are always rotating daily specials so you need to pop in and see what they got cooking fresh that day. Some of the menu standards one needs to try is definitely the chopped sirloin burger wrapped in thick cut smoky bacon and for some reason never seems to get any love when the 'Best of' burger nominees are announced. This is a mouth-saddening shame because it is a fantastically delicious, and quite drippy, monolith of flavor and decadent bliss. If you have the time, their take on southern-fried chicken is simply divine although it takes sometimes close to a half hour to get to you but the wait is so worth it. Crispy, slightly spicy and might make your grandma rethink her own existence in the kitchen.

A bit of advice though: Please save some room for one of their scratch made pies. Theirs is the kind of small town blue ribbon entries local legends are made of. And speaking of legends, the house specialty, the cinnamon roll is, well ... let's just say that at a puffy five to six inches in height you might start to rethink your own existence in any room of the house. Just trust here; you need a Gus Balon's cinnamon roll in your life, if not right now.

Kelli and Will just installed three enlarged framed original photos of Gus and his wife Kathleen on the back wall, so when you come in and grab a seat it is comforting to know that you are being taken care of by generations of a family that know how to treat, and feed you, right.


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