Local | Sizzling Gourmet

Tucson chefs reveal the spices and condiments that make their dishes sing

In celebration of all that makes Tucson’s food scene sizzle, the AJP recently asked several local chefs and restaurant owners to talk about their favorite spices or condiments.

Turmeric, which gives dishes a lovely golden color and a delicious, pungent flavor, also is good for you, says Mintu Sareen, owner of Saffron Indian Bistro. Turmeric has been scientifically proven to be an anti-inflammatory, with other antioxidant benefits, he says. Saffron Indian Bistro uses organic turmeric, imported from India, in most of its dishes, with korma and Mughlai sauces among the most popular.

At Tavolino Ristorante Italiano, Chef Massimo Tenino says his favorite spice is nutmeg. “I like to use nutmeg when I make spinach and ricotta ravioli, mashed potatoes, homemade sausage or slowly braised meats. It’s also an important spice in béchamel sauce for our home made lasagna.”


“Dill!” says Rebecca Wicker, owner of Dedicated Gluten Free. “I love the fresh flavor, and there is something about it that always reminds me of my mom.” Dill is key to several recipes at Dedicated.  Wicker’s favorite is the vegan Greek chickpea salad.

“I love to cook with balsamic vinegar. It is sweet and salty at the same time!” says Jason McCarty, general manager at Eclectic Café. “It is great as a reduction and it is the secret ingredient in our homemade blueberry jam.”

Fresh chopped garlic is one of Claire Johnson’s favorite ingredients at her eponymous café. It plays a role in most of her soups and in rubs for meats, she says. She favors elephant garlic, which is milder than ordinary garlic, and Claire’s Café uses it both fresh and roasted. She is also partial to Chinese five spice powder, creating her own special blend.

White pepper is a favorite spice for Frida Gonzales and her husband, Walter Salazar, chefs at Villa Peru. Aji amarillo, a yellow chili paste, is also a vital ingredient in many of the restaurant’s authentic Peruvian dishes.

Gourmet Girls Gluten Free Bakery/Bistro’s Mary Steiger wears many hats. As a baker, she loves the classics, vanilla and cinnamon. With a little sugar, “they bring everything to life,” she says.

As a chef on the savory side, she likes to use olive oils and flavored vinegars from Alfonso Gourmet Olive Oil and Balsamics. Pomegranate quince white balsamic vinegar is a favorite, and their espresso balsamic is fantastic, she says. “Their olive oils are so fresh,” she adds. Alfonso’s Tuscan herb-infused olive oil works in several of her recipes.

Steiger also likes to make use of the desert’s bounty. When it is prickly pear season, she harvests the fruits to use the beautiful magenta-colored juice in drinks, vinaigrette, barbecue sauce, jelly and syrup.