Wholesome Eats

Heading for Old Tucson or the Desert Museum? You may want to consider breakfast or lunch at Coyote Pause

They should put up a sign on Kinney Road just before you enter Tucson Mountain Park: "Last Food for 125 Years." That's counting years backward, the time warp you fall into once you get to Old Tucson.

Between the Tucson Mountain Park boundary and that Old West amusement park/movie location, and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum beyond, there are a few miles of winding, dippy, saguaro-lined two-lane highway. If you want to grab breakfast before you get to the tourist attractions, or eat lunch on your way out, your last chance/first chance is the Coyote Pause Café.

Don't think of it as a last resort, though. It's an unpretentious place that offers a pretty standard but appealing breakfast and lunch menu, and the café handily meets or exceeds one's modest expectations.

Coyote Pause occupies half of a little complex called Cat Mountain Station, a restored retail artisan and gift center. The gift-shop vibe has even penetrated the walls of the café, but the few items offered for sale, while Southwestern-themed, aren't at all kitschy. You can buy one of Susan Lowell's wonderful javelina kiddie books, or some condiments actually made here in Arizona (unlike AriZona Iced Tea, which comes from New York and is run by people who'd never even visited this state when they started their business). The dining room and patio are bright and clean and colorful, and that includes the plastic tablecloths. Little Indian weavings hang from the walls, as do Native American-style paintings and metal-framed mirrors for sale. The Southwestern theme extends to the menu, where many items are named after desert critters. It all manages to be quite pleasant, and not the least bit tacky.

You order your food from laminated menus at the counter as you enter the dining room, and your selections are delivered to your table. The fare is divided into breakfast and lunch sections, but, despite an admonition still on the menu, it's all served throughout the business day (currently 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., Wednesdays--Sundays).

Most of the breakfast items are what you'd expect: various egg preparations with home fries and toast, with meat sides and cottage cheese available for an extra charge, plus Belgian waffles and French toast. The more individual selections are the Southwest egg wraps ($6.50), basically breakfast burritos with egg, meat (or, in one case, green chile) and cheese fillings, dished up with a bit of salsa and guacamole on the side, and a generous helping of home fries.

The carne asada and jack-cheese egg wrap was quite tasty, even though much of the meat had been wrapped into one end of the burro, with much of the cheese at the other. The egg, which looked to be scrambled, was evenly distributed, at least. The carne asada had been chopped into manageable bite-size pieces; it didn't taste strongly of the grill, but it did carry good flavor and was not overdone. The guacamole was turning brown, the inevitable fate of avocado separated from its pit, but it tasted fresh, and the salsa had a low-to-medium spice factor. The home fries, glory be, were not burned (as they so often are elsewhere), and were laced with just enough onion and seasonings to perk them up.

The lunch side of the menu presents the usual array of salads (chicken, Greek, Cobb, chef's, various vegetarian combos and so on, $6.95--$7.25) and an equally unsurprising list of sandwiches (most are $7.25 whole, $5.50 half). What caught my eye was the Desert Delight: roasted turkey breast, roasted red peppers, jack cheese and black olive tapenade squeezed between slices of grilled rosemary focaccia. The focaccia was not dripping with oil and was not overpowered by the rosemary, two things that dissuade some people from trying this puffy Italian bread. More oil and herbs might be desirable if this were being served on a preprandial bread plate, but as a sandwich component, it was exactly right. The ingredients inside the crisp focaccia were fully satisfactory, but what really set this sandwich apart was the olive tapenade, imparting a wonderful, but not overbearing, dark richness. It came with a side of fries, tender on the inside, a crunchy beer batter on the outside. Yum.

The regular menu includes a turkey quesadilla, but one day last week, the lunch special was a generous veggie quesadilla, a flour tortilla folded over spinach and white and yellow cheeses, with caramelized onions adding a nice little zing. Guacamole, salsa and sour cream tagged along at the side.

There are lots of big-cup coffee options, with prices approaching the Starbucks league ($3.60 for a 12-ounce mocha, $4.45 for 16 ounces). I'm more of a lemonade man myself, and was delighted by the prickly pear lemonade ($1.75, with unlimited do-it-yourself refills). It was pink, but a natural pink derived from the cactus fruit rather than some mysterious food coloring. It had a bit of bite from the lemons, and a nice natural sweetness without the bitter aftertaste of artificial sweeteners. It's addictive at either breakfast or lunch.

For dessert, Coyote Pause offers scoops of Dreyer's ice cream, milkshakes and some baked goods. The cherry pie, served warm ($3.95), with a lattice-top crust, balanced sweetness with the fruit's natural, mild tartness. Very nice. By the way, there's also an array of entrées and sides in reduced portions for kids.

The Coyote Pause Café, situated near two of Tucson's biggest tourist attractions, understandably has an unintimidating, tourist-friendly menu (which should also appeal to the older Midwest transplants who populate the area nearby), but it doesn't pander to food wimps--that olive tapenade is sufficient evidence. It's a wholesome, cheery place that would provide a pleasing start or finish to any morning outing west of the Tucson Mountains.

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