Making the Most of Tucson, Arizona

US/Mexico border in Nogales, AZ

US/Mexico border in Nogales, AZ

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The first time I saw the sky in the southwest, I was stunned. Buildings and trees hug the earth, and the light is clear and bright, so the sky is broader and bigger. The earth is tan or red in places, and the cacti, mesquite trees, and scrub brush only add to the otherworldly look of the place. Tucson is a small, affordable, and manageable city in the Sonoran desert, whose population increases in September because of the arrival of students (about 50,000 young people) and soon after, the snow birds from the east coast (about 20,000 seniors). Roughly half of the people in this progressive and arty town are Chicano, so it also has a good Mexican vibe.

We ventured south to Nogales, Arizona as part of the conference. The border fence cuts Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora (Mexico) in half. We learned about water issues and militarization in the border region. Starting salary for a border patrol guard is $50,000, so it definitely seems like a way out for people who would otherwise be stuck in retail or food service jobs.

We stayed an extra day after a conference to do some sightseeing, and a local activist and friend suggested Pasqua Yaqui pride. The tribe fought long and hard against conquest and became known as fierce warriors. Shockingly, the Pasqua Yaqui were only legally recognized by the US government about thirty years ago, so the attendant advantages of tribal recognition (land, financial resources, access), are relatively recent. Pride day included lots of traditional dancing and music, food, vendors, resource tables, and a souped up car show on the reservation. It was a lovely celebration of solidarity, tradition, fun, and a sobering reminder of our nation’s history.

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There is no shortage of delicous Sonoran food in Tucson. One evening, we went to La Indita, a casual, family run place which serves indigenous Tohono O’Odham and traditional Mexican food. The homestyle guacamole, the Tohono O’Odham style beef with red chile, and calabacitas were delicious. The flan was very sweet and perfectly creamy, not curdled and overbaked like so many places do. Another evening, Cafe Poca Cosa, with its rotating selection of Mexican dishes in an upscale setting, truly dazzled. We shared the plato poca cosa after noting the portion sizes at an adjacent table. On that night, the sampler included a rich chicken mole, a layered creamy broccoli dish, and a spicy beef dish. There were rich beans and pillowy corn tortillas on the side.

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Another evening, we had a margarita at a local favorite on Congress. And, in true city as small town fashion, we ran into our host at Cafe Passe, a good coffee shop with a huge outdoor patio in the back, on the popular 4th Avenue. Around the block is a mural to a young Mexican American who was gunned down by border patrol.

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And of course, I loaded up on southwestern staples at Native Seed/SEARCH. This store sells seeds and food products. It’s a bit on the pricy side, so some locals balk at the idea of shopping here, but living on the east coast, I can’t easily access many of these items. I stocked up on prickly pear cactus candy, mormon tea (for allergies), blue posole, bolita beans (hands down makes the best refried beans), corn snacks, and Ga’ivsa, cracked roasted Pima corn. Chiltepins were sold out, likely due to an article in the current issue of Edible Baja Arizona. All the more reason to return soon.

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East Bay: A Kind of Homecoming

Within minutes of arriving in Temescal, Oakland, I ran into two people: one I hadn’t met before but she knew my girlfriend, and the other was avoiding me since getting fired from a job I had suggested she apply for. All confirming the idea that the East Bay is a sort of Brooklyn West, and that people self-select certain neighborhoods and communities.

I had an iced coffee at Arbor Cafe, a nice spot with vertical bike racks lining one of the walls. Unfortunately, I saw a roach crawl across the counter as I reached for my drink. The cashier and I gave each other a blank stare, neither of us confirming what we had both just witnessed.

I had dinner with a new friend at her apartment just off Lake Merritt. Devika remembered that I love beans, and we had black beans, purple cabbage and potatoes cooked with garam masala and coriander, a pickled garlic spread, and yogurt on injera. She told me hilarious stories about crashing weddings in her native India.

I stayed with fun Airbnb hosts in a spacious room in North Berkeley, walking distance from the Berkeley Rose Garden, restaurants and shops, and the Berkeley campus. I’ve been to Berkeley a few times since graduating and moving away, but this was the first time I’ve had a full extra day to walk around and reminisce.

I was all set to splurge at Chez Panisse, an inspiration to my career in countless ways and the (often uncredited) force behind the farm to table movement in the US. But an electrical fire in March left it temporarily closed. And I was dismayed to learn that Cafe Fanny, another Alice Waters’ venture and home to some of the best pastries I’ve ever had, had closed last year. So, I relied instead on some fresh, affordable standbys from my college days. First, Cancun for a tasty nopales en asada burrito and their amazing salsa bar (the pumpkin seed remains my favorite). I also went to Long Life Veggie House for their incredible lunch special: tea, a cup of hot and sour soup, a spring roll, kung pao veggie ham with perfectly cooked zucchini and brown rice for $5 before tip. This is a family owned restaurant where you’d often see a table of women seated snapping green beans and chatting. This time, a waiter’s toddler son was running around with a huge grin and a pinwheel.

I sampled cheeses, strawberries, oranges, dried nectarines, radishes, and purple asparagus at the Berkeley Farmers Market. If I wasn’t flying out that evening, I would have purchased some of the delicious and crisp Bavarian lettuce. I had a refreshing Blue Bottle New Orleans style iced coffee and bought some fresh corn tortillas that were made that morning– hard to find in New York.

Then I wandered through the campus, through the grove of eucalyptus and redwood trees along Strawberry Creek, and basked in happy memories. Go Bears!

eucalyptus trees on the UC Berkeley campus

eucalyptus trees on the UC Berkeley campus

Sproul Plaza, UC Berkeley

Sproul Plaza, UC Berkeley

Before heading out, I stopped by another Berkeley institution, the Cheese Board, a worker-owned cooperative pizzeria, cheese shop, and bakery. I had a nice chat with the woman who helped me, and she recommended local cheeses that I might not be able to find in NYC: the potent Point Reyes blue, St. George (modeled after a Portuguese style), and Cowabunga from Bohemian Creamery, with caramelized cheese in the middle.

at the Cheese Board Collective, Berkeley, CA

at the Cheese Board Collective, Berkeley, CA

There are plenty of other places I’d visit if I had more time, but I’m glad to know that the East Bay still makes my heart sing.