It’s 1 a.m. Saturday and while most of us are having a good time or sleeping, Scott Martley is prepping his northwest Tucson kitchen for the hours of hot, hard work ahead.
He turns on the commercial ovens he has at his home. He gives his commercial mixer a twirl. Then it’s measure, scoop, mix, grease, knead and everything else that goes into baking a fragrant, delicious loaf of crusty, German dark rye bread. Sometimes it’s different. Perhaps today it will be a jalapeno and polenta loaf.
At a more reasonable hour later in the morning, wife and partner Nikki Martley gets up to harvest her home- and lovingly grown microgreens.
At the cottage bakery, Blue Finch Bakery — not a storefront — this is a weekly routine. It’s hard work, but satisfying.
“Food is one of the magical substances,” Scott said. “It crosses borders, it crosses everything…You’re trying to put a local influence on a deep tradition. Everybody comes to the table with their personal background.
“‘This is what I think bread should taste like.’” It’s really hard to meet those expectations because everybody has a different one. The binding quality is togetherness.”
Blue Finch Bakery is one of Tucson’s many establishments celebrating the 10-day Sonoran Restaurant Week. From Friday, Sept. 9 to Sunday, Sept. 18, more than 100 restaurants will offer fixed-price menus, giving guests the opportunity to visit restaurants they’ve never tried or to check out old favorites.
Tucsonfoodie.com, a digital magazine that writes about the UNESCO City of Gastronomy and its offerings, recently took ownership of the fourth event. It is aided in the endeavor by Visit Tucson.
“The purpose of Sonoran Restaurant Week is to encourage people to go out and explore the restaurant scene in Tucson,” said Shane Reiser, who owns tucsonfoodie.com.
“It’s a week where a lot of great restaurants — we now have 100 — offer a fixed-price menu, so all you have to do is go to any of the participating restaurants, ask for the Sonoran Restaurant Week menu. You’re going to get a delicious meal for a deal.”
Ana Aguayo started Taco Fish as a food truck selling fish tacos 17 years ago. That business expanded to a brick-and-mortar, casual restaurant. Want something besides fish or shrimp tacos? There are also manta ray, stingray, octopus and marlin coming in the forms of quesadillas, caldos, tostadas and cocktails.
A serve-yourself fresh garnish and pico de gallo stand waits on the side. These days, Aguayo manages the place but still helms the kitchen.
“I like to cook food in my house, like homemade food,” she said, “and, yes, I have loved cooking here at the restaurant.”
Just a few blocks down the street from Taco Fish is another casual dining place, Rollies Mexican Patio. On this Saturday afternoon, finding parking was a challenge, but the atmosphere inside was full of fun. Chef Mateo Otero wants guests to feel they’re on his home patio.
Eating there is like participating in Otero’s family tradition, and that tradition is long indeed.
“I was born and raised here,” Otero said. “My mother’s family has been here for seven generations already.”
It pairs with why he and his restaurant are participating in Sonoran Restaurant Week.
“I feel that Tucson’s a part of the Sonoran Desert, and this is Tucson’s food right here that we represent here at Rollies,” Otero added. “I call it Tucson Chicano food. It’s our twist on Sonoran food.”
More than anything, however, Otero says that when he serves his food, he is offering his Tucson heritage.
“I truly believe that this food is my blood,” he said. “These are the dishes that I grew up eating, but I want to put my own twist on them.”
The menu reflects Otero’s interest. Look for Nana’s tacos, a Tucson specialty where a ground beef patty is fried right into a corn tortilla. There are also rolled tacos, street tacos, quesadillas, birria, flat enchiladas and loaded fries. Quench your thirst with horchata and sodas. For the adults try a local brewski, michelada or margarita.
In addition, a food truck will soon make its appearance at The Annex.
Satisfy your hankering for freshly made pasta and pizza at Downtown’s Reilly Craft Pizza & Drink on Pennington, or in northwest Tucson at its second location at Oracle and Ina roads. Both locations are popping, but that’s no surprise. The food and drinks speak for themselves.
“Reilly is a modern take on Italian cuisine,” said Courtney Fenton, one of the partner-owners. “We focus on quality ingredients, local ingredients and an elevated dining experience, so all of our pasta is made fresh in house. We make our own sausage, really trying to have the best, freshest ingredients. I think that really translates well in the food.”
Fenton and her brothers own both Reilly locations and a new restaurant, Bata, on Toole. She said their good memories revolve around food, which drew them to the industry.
“There’s something innately unique in providing comfort for other people and being able to share in those moments,” Fenton said.
“Food is a great way to show that you care; it’s a great way to feel comfortable and welcome.”
Cross I-10 at Congress to the west side, go just a little way down the road and you are in a different Tucson, but that is where Tucson native Chef Ralph Felix runs the kitchen at Agustin Kitchen.
General manager Neil Scott describes it as casual fine dining, tucked in a corner of Mercado San Agustin. The bar side has a large counter open to the outside courtyard. Food is graciously served in the wood-paneled dining room.
The kitchen overlooks the dining room and, when he gets a second, Felix peeks past the large marble counter and the fresh oysters on ice to see how dining service is going. When he sees patrons enjoying what he and his staff have created, he’s happy.
“It makes all the work worthwhile,” Felix said. “When I’m working long shifts, long hours, long days, when I’m not spending the holiday with my family, but then I put out great food and people call me out to the table, and say, ‘Thank you, this is the best meal we’ve ever had,’ it just makes it worthwhile.”
On the regular dinner menu find halibut crudo, lacquered duck breast or littleneck clams. There is also lunch service and a weekend brunch menu. It’s sophisticated food, but what does Felix like to eat at home?
“You know what?” he said. “As a chef we work so hard, such long days, sometimes you get home you’re happy just to eat a bowl of cereal.”
Scott credits his team with the success of the place.
“I tend to give credit to the people who are actually performing it,” he said. “I may be here helping direct it but these are the guys that are putting it together every day.”
Reiser said it’s a joy to work with eateries like these during Sonoran Restaurant Week. He wants everyone to be proud of, and enjoy, Tucson’s food traditions and newcomers.
“The Tucson food scene is really exploding,” Reiser said. “A lot of new restaurants are really elevating the whole scene, and we’re increasingly a destination, a gastronomy and culinary destination.”
Meanwhile, at Blue Finch Bakery, Nikki is getting orders ready to go out to customers who have texted their arrival times. That’s how it works at Blue Finch. On Sunday, the website opens to orders and, because it’s a cottage bakery, Scott only makes so much. Best to remember to order on Sunday, because by Wednesday most of their goodies are sold out.
The Martleys don’t do it for the money; they give a portion of their weekly earnings to nonprofits. It’s something else; the same thing that makes all restaurant workers do it.
“You’re bringing a group of people together over food,” Scott said. “Meeting new people, you often do it over food, and I love being a part of that connection with so many people.”