Still Fresh 

Wildflower is celebrating its 15th year in Tucson, still offering stylish takes on American cuisine

Fifteen years ago, Sam Fox opened Wildflower, a Tucson restaurant that featured American food with style. Since then, the Fox restaurant empire has grown to more than a dozen concepts in cities from California to New Jersey. Sam Fox is a hometown boy who's made it big. And Wildflower, where it all started, continues to thrive.

Today the place is in the good hands of chef Omar Huerta, who knows how to keep the concept fresh.

Lunch is a strong point at Wildflower and it seems that no matter what day of the week you go, the place is packed. Add the beautiful shaded patio, and you've got yourself a nice spot to while away an hour or two.

There's a mix-and-match style to the dining room: green and gold, beige and blue, upholstered chairs, simple wooden chairs, mirrors behind the small bar, large paintings of wildflowers, vases of hydrangeas on a wooden table, an open service station, a semi-open kitchen and huge skylight. It can be noisy, but that's a sign of a successful restaurant.

We started with the soup of the day, gazpacho ($7). The ingredients were blended to create a thick, cold, smooth soup that popped with the flavors of summer. It had been "finished off"—as the server noted—with bits of salmon that complemented the smoky heat of the soup. The ciabatta that is served with meals was perfect for sopping it all up.

Our entrées were a chicken salad sandwich ($10) and chicken and dumplings ($15).

The sandwich was served on toasted brown-sugar wheat bread. Inside was a healthy portion of mostly shredded chicken in a pinkish mayo with red grapes, havarti and avocado. The result was a creamy sandwich with hints of sweetness and crunchiness.

While chicken and dumplings might be a quintessentially American dish, Wildflower's version is anything but. The chicken is slow-braised white meat with a skin that had been mildly seasoned and turned a golden brown. The dumplings were ricotta dumplings—in other words, gnocchi. And the pan juices, which were what made this dish stand out, held an interesting blend of fava beans, spinach and a touch of shredded apricots. It was a total delight.

To get the full Wildflower experience, you have to sample one of pastry chef Karen "Spike" Ames' amazing desserts. Chocolate lovers will go for her Bars of Zin ($8). The name comes from Bistro Zin, one of the early Fox restaurants, which is now Zinburger. The presentation is beautiful, and this is a dessert meant to be shared. Inside is a thick layer of crispy chocolate praline cookie and a massive amount of cappuccino mousse, all wrapped in hardened dark chocolate, which adds another layer of both flavor and texture. Did I mention the scoop of vanilla bean gelato that comes with it? It's good, but almost unnecessary.

Service was top-notch: there when we needed it and purposefully absent when we didn't. On both visits the staffers were friendly and knowledgeable. This is typical of Fox restaurants, in my experience, and it shows what a little bit of training can do to enhance a dining experience.

Our dinner visit was on a Tuesday evening, when all the wines are half-price. We ordered the Tangent Pinot Grigio ($14; normally $28), a wine that was created for Fox's company.

The wine paired nicely with our starter, the Chef's Board ($13). It consisted of goat and manchego cheeses, apricot butter, olives, roasted red pepper strips, roasted garlic cloves, cassis pepper jam, Marcona almonds, red grapes and toasted ciabatta. It would have sufficed as a nice, light dinner for two. The board contained a riot of colors, textures and flavors, all in perfect balance. The jam and the goat cheese were especially nice together.

The fish special was mahi mahi ($24), and was served with crispy, roasted red potatoes and roasted broccoli. You couldn't have asked for a better prepared piece of fish. Fork-tender and rich from the butter sauce, it was most satisfying, as were the big chunks of vegetables.

Our other entrée, the paella, also pleased us. Clams, mussels, scallops, shrimp, white-meat chicken, chorizo and English peas were cooked with tomatoes to create a mix that held just a hint of the sea. There was no taste of chorizo, but the peas were a delightful touch.

Dessert this time was apple empanadas ($8). The assistant server who brought them to the table called them pop tarts. Pop tarts, empanadas—whatever. They were tasty and most cleverly presented. The empanadas were accompanied by a small pastry bag filled with house-made cinnamon cream cheese so that you could dress the little hand pies yourself. A scoop of vanilla gelato and some caramel sauce completed the dish. It was Spike at her finest.

Lasting 15 years is an accomplishment in the restaurant industry, and sometimes a restaurant will rest on its laurels rather than challenge itself (and diners). This is certainly not the case at Wildflower. This gem of a restaurant only seems to get better with time.

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More by Rita Connelly

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