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The John Wayne Burger at Saguaro Corners.

Tucson was every bit the Wild West to me when I moved here in the late 1970s, a big change for a kid who spent his formative years just outside the Capital Beltway in suburban Washington, D.C.

The only experience I had with western culture as a child of the Mid-Atlantic was my occasional visit to our neighborhood Roy Rogers Family Restaurant. But hopping onto that saddle-draped stool, putting on that paper cowboy hat, and getting greasy over a tray of Pappy Parker’s Fried Chicken was a big deal to this lil’ wrangler who always looked forward to his next trail ride with Roy.

A few years after saying happy trails to Pappy Parker, I found myself living in Arizona and marching in the Tucson Rodeo Parade. I was in the Sahuaro High School Band and wore polished white shoes. Those were the days before horses donned diapers on the parade route, which meant that my shoes were no longer white by the time we reached the eighth measure of Rawhide. But it was Rodeo Week. And I loved it.

It’s that time once again, and Tucson will welcome the 95th La Fiesta de los Vaqueros later this week. That’s the rodeo for you city slickers. It’s also the season for restoring my Tony Lama boots to active duty, if only for a week or so, and taking my taste buds on a tour of some local dishes that proudly preserve the traditions of the Old West.

At Saguaro Corners, the John Wayne Burger means more to its maker than just a nod to the Duke.

“This burger is everything that symbolizes the Wild West,” said C.J. Hamm, co-owner and executive chef at Saguaro Corners, 3750 S. Old Spanish Trail. “This is beef cooked over an open flame, yella’ cheddar cheese, thick bacon, sweet and spicy barbecue sauce, and tumbleweed onions. It’s big, loud, a little messy, and rough and tumble. If this burger could drink, it would be whiskey neat only!”

The Branding Iron at McGraw’s Cantina is another example of the prairie-palate connection. 

This sandwich starts with slow-roasted tri-tip which is finished on a flattop with onions, cherry bell and pepperoncini peppers, and a Mexican menonita cheese, all stuffed inside a hoagie roll and topped with a chipotle mayonnaise. 

“This is hot and spicy cowboy fare,” said Justin Stewart, general manager and chef at McGraw’s Cantina, 4110 S. Houghton Road. “We’re a meat-heavy place that sees a lot of ranchers up here, so why not name a dish after a tool that identifies heads of cattle?”

With dishes like Ranch House Meatloaf, Cattle Boss Pot Roast, and Wild Bill Chicken Pasta, you don’t need to remind the people at Hifalutin Rapid-Fire Western Grill to get into the rodeo spirit. They clearly embrace it all year long, especially when washing them vittles down with a round of Salty Coyotes.

There’s also the Gunslinger’s Porterhouse at Cattletown Steakhouse, the Life’s Too Short for Tough Ribs at Pinnacle Peak, the Round-Up Platter at the Silver Saddle Steakhouse, the Cactus Cooler at the Copper Rock Craft Eatery, the Wrangler Thirst-Quenching Margarita at the Tanque Verde Ranch’s Dog House Saloon, and many more.

With so many options to choose from, I’m confident that the hungry and thirsty cowboys and cowgirls who’ll ride into town this week will feel quite at home on our range – though you can bet your bottom dollar that their horses don’t wear diapers. 

Contact Matt Russell, whose day job is CEO of Russell Public Communications, at mrussell@russellpublic.com. Russell is also the publisher of OnTheMenuLive.com as well as the host of the Friday Weekend Watch segment on the “Buckmaster Show” on KVOI 1030 AM.