If your vacation plans call for a trip to Austin, Texas, you’ll find a few familiar restaurants among the bustling dining landscape.
An outpost of Culinary Dropout, the original Sam Fox restaurant in Tucson, as well as a pair of Flower Child restaurants, Fox’s takes on a fast-casual healthy venue that the massive Cheesecake Factory acquired in 2019 as part of a stunning $440 million deal that included Fox’s Farm House with an Italian feel in Northern Italy.
The Texas city of just over a million residents also includes Northern Italy, which was created in Tucson in 2003 and is home to former Tucson restaurant Kevin Fink, Emer & Ray’s new American cereal-obsessed eatery.
People also read…
Fink, who ran the kitchen at Zona 78 for several years before moving to Texas in 2015, won the James Beard Award for Best Texas Chef in 2020 for Emmer & Rye, where Fink employs heritage Arizona beans like White Sonora Wheat in his dishes.
Whether you’re planning a trip to the beaches of San Diego or a long weekend getaway in the Phoenix area, you’ll find restaurants with Tucson fingerprints.
Cold step into a hot area
Nothing says Tucson quite like Eegee, home of its namesake iced fruit drinks, submarine sandwiches and fries dunked in what many will swear in their last breath is the best ranch sauce in the known universe.
The chain, with about 30 restaurants in the greater Tucson area and one location in Casa Grande, is now bringing Tucson flair and vitality to Phoenix.
Last year, Eegee’s opened five locations in the Phoenix area, two of them just last week, bringing the chain to 35.
It’s a return to the Phoenix market for the company, which was born in Tucson as a food truck in 1971 and quickly became a tradition here before attempting to expand into the Valley in the 1980s. The company stayed in Phoenix for less than a decade before falling back into familiar territory.
But when the investment firm 39 North bought the Tucson Chain in 2019, the company’s founders and new owners said the goal was to give the Phoenix market another chance and grow the brand statewide and beyond.
“There is really no product like it,” said new CEO Jason Vaughn. “It’s really unique. All the other brands come to Tucson and Arizona and my idea is why not take this brand[to other states].”
Vaughn, a 30-year-old industry expert who took the top position last month, said Eegee will add up to seven more locations in the Phoenix area next year and two in southern Arizona — one in Sahuarita and one in West Ajo Way off Interstate 10 — Before it set its sights, probably toward New Mexico and Texas.
Vaughn, whose career has included executive positions at Yum Brands and Wendy’s, said the concept could expand from there. He was CEO of Frisch’s Big Boy Restaurants in Cincinnati for five years before signing with Eegee’s.
Vaughn said he has received requests from people across the country to open up in their hometown, which he said were likely coming from University of Arizona graduates or people with Tucson connections.
Sunnyside arrives and sushi in Scottsdale
Scottsdale, the East Valley’s Hollywood Hills with its upscale resorts, fine restaurants, gleaming boutiques and prestigious art galleries, is home to two Tucson-born restaurants – impeccable breakfast/brunch provider and pastry and sushi star Ubon Sushi + Bar + Ramen.
Prep & Pastry moved to the Scottsdale Market in late 2019, the same year the six-year-old main restaurant moved to Campbell to its larger digs at 2660 N. Campbell Ave. The Scottsdale restaurant opened months before the pandemic and it took people a while to discover the restaurant known for its innovative mix of sweet and savory breakfast fare, chief owner Nathan Aries said. It’s noted from the Phoenix New Times, which called Prep & Pastry the best brunch spot in the valley in 2021, so the restaurant really takes off.
“Things are going really well,” Ares said last week. “We have become more than an essential component.”
Prep & Pastry is exploring opening a second valley location, this one in Gilbert.
In addition to Prep & Pastry, Ares and Associates also own Flora’s Market Run, which they opened in Old Rincon Market at 2513 E. Sixth St. in April 2021; Augustus Rhodes bakery inside Floras; And the upscale Al-Tilal restaurant, Commoner & Co. , 6960 E. Sunrise Drive.
7-year-old Obon was at 350 E. The location is in The Grove at McCormick Ranch. Obon was one of the first tenants of the shopping center.
In March, Obon launched a new sushi/ramen concept, the upscale Obon Bisutoro at Biltmore Fashion Park in Phoenix.
Pizza and beach
A veteran businessman once told Italian-born Tucson restaurateur Massimo Tennino that “if you can make it in Tucson, you can make it anywhere.”
“I think there’s some truth to that,” said Tenino, owner of upscale Tavolino Italiano restaurant at 2890 e Skyline Drive. “If you’re doing well in Tucson, you’ll do well in other states.”
For nearly 20 years, Tenino has been serving fresh pasta and traditional Italian dishes from spaghetti to lasagna and a rack of Milanese veal to braised beef short ribs to diners who don’t mind waiting 20-30 minutes for a table. .
The restaurant also has a wood-fired pizza oven, where Tinino created simple, unassuming pies in the tradition of his native Italy.
In 2014, Tenino opened Tavolino’s sister restaurant Isola Pizza Bar, a wood-fired pizzeria, in the bustling Little Italy district of downtown San Diego.
“I wanted to do a simple and fun concept here in San Diego. It’s a bit more casual,” Tinino said of Isola, named after his grandmother who instilled in him a passion for cooking and food. “I wanted to do something different in San Diego. I wanted to do a concept where almost everything is cooked in a wood-fired oven.”
The restaurant has mostly received four- and five-star reviews from Yelp, and Isola’s business manager responds to every one of them—whether the review is positive or negative.
In 2017, Tinino expanded Isola’s footprint when he opened a second location in San Diego’s posh La Jolla neighborhood.
Mexican street food in New York
Rochester, New York, is located in the western part of the state, just over 2,300 miles from Tucson.
But in downtown Rochester – home to Xerox, Eastman Kodak and the prestigious Eastman Music School – Marana’s Joe Zolnierowski IV introduces Western New Yorkers to Tucson at his 4-year-old Old Pueblo Grill.
No, it’s not about Tucson’s long-closed Old Pueblo Grille, nor is it an OPG copycat, although the only people skeptical of Zolnierowski on this point usually have Tucson connections.
Zolnierowski’s Old Pueblo Grill is a haven for all things Tucson, from a colorful Día de los Muertos mural that captures one wall alongside images of cacti and the Tucson skyline and a menu of street tacos inspired by the childhood and teenage memories of a Marana High School graduate.
“I took a bit of who I am a chef and the majority are the things I used to eat at 2 a.m. scattered all over Tucson, from El Guero Canelo to Nikos,” Zolnierovsky said. “It’s basically things that I grew up with and really enjoyed eating and I tried to bring it here and try to be as honest as possible about it.”
Zolnierowski said the dishes are as close to real Tucson Mexican fare as he can get that he doesn’t have access to some of the original ingredients. Early on he tried importing tortillas from La Estrella Bakery in Tucson, but the cost of shipping and the time it took to get to New York were a deal breaker. He said he imports chile sauce and spices from the Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Company in Tumacori.
In the fall, Zolnierowski hopes to open a second OPG location in the Rochester area. This restaurant will feature a mural of a view of downtown Tucson.
“Every location I wish I could do is bring back my own memories,” the 40-year-old said, adding that the restaurant receives a lot of travelers from Tucson and Phoenix.
Contact reporter Catalina E. Burch at email@example.com. On Twitter @Starburch