One of the first places I visited when I moved here from San Francisco in 2006 was IBT's on Fourth Avenue. Although straight myself, I informed my new roster of friends that one of the things I really missed about the Bay Area was a good gay bar. They always had the best music, poured the best drinks and, if you were lucky, some kind of show.
That introduction to IBT's did not disappoint, as there happened to be an amateur drag competition hosted by Tucson's best drag queen, Tempest DuJour. I don't want to go into the details, but I had one of the best times that night. Total throwback to random cabaret crawls in the Castro district, drunk on sugary strong drinks and high from glitter and trash glam.
As the night wore on, the need for party fuel had become a necessity. When I asked about where I could find a late-night taco or some other greasy junk food, one of the queens handed me a menu and insisted that the food here was "tits." Hazily scanning the laminated list, I ordered a burger. When it arrived, I was happy to find it put together nicely. The flavor was there; quality meat with fresh vegetables, along with crispy hand cut fries. Wait, what? I never got anything like this back in San Francisco, at least not served in a bar.
In 2018, word spread that the IBT owners were taking over a small spot just a few doors down with a focus on food. I made my way there when it opened a few months ago with gleeful expectations.
The name was a curiosity: Blind Tiger. Not "IBT's 2" or something easy like that. When I sat down with manager Alvaro Kramkowski, he told me the title derives from speakeasy codes during prohibition.
"Back then, people would say that they had an exotic animal and charge like a dime to come see it," says Kramkowski. "But people would show up really for the booze. Through the years, a lot of speakeasys were known as "blind pigs" or "blind tigers." We just liked the name and went with it."
Kramkowski runs Blind Tiger with his husband, who owns IBT's, but let it be known that Blind Tiger is a completely separate entity from IBT's. The concept and menu is more of a 'greatest hits' from the popular bar a few doors down. Before they opened, the original space was used by the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation—and still is, as a commissary and refrigerated food storage. That is both awesome and daunting, seeing as the kitchen area is pretty limited. But that doesn't alter the cuisine at all. The fare at Blind Tiger is generous, affordable and—here's the best part—delicious.
"We have a lot of integrity with our food and people tend to clean their plates when they eat here," Kramkowski boasts. "Our goal is to be inviting to everyone, from college kids wanting some wings or a quesadilla for around $5 to people on dates looking for a comfortable setting, enjoying upscale dishes for around 20 bucks."
It came as no surprise to discover everything is house made, including all of the sauces. The fish is hand-breaded per order and the fries are par-cooked and just as hot and perfect as that kaleidoscopic evening back in 2006. The Stuffed Pork Chop ($19) has a smoky appeal, served with fresh Oaxaca cheese with a tangy warm white bean salad on the side. The inclusion of pizzas on the register (all around $9) is a nice addition, but for those eager to carb up for more Fourth Avenue pillaging, I'd recommend the Carne Asada Fries ($8.50), a summit of pure messy opulence finished with house-made pico and a tasty salsa verde crema.
The cocktails reflect classic prohibition concoctions with a Tucson twist courtesy of Kramkowski, who was born and raised here, getting his start at IBT's when he was only 19. A 1930s staple, the Dark 'n' Stormy, is now called a Stormy Monsoon and features locally produced prickly pear syrup. It is sweet and decadent, a reflection of the attitude that Fourth Avenue exudes.
Blind Tiger will be open seven days a week soon and the owners plan to transform the open back area into a comfy shaded patio with a hidden entrance. Now that the secret is out, you need to get in here.