Facebook iTunes RSS Feed Twitter – @OnTheMenuLive Instagram YouTube

Introducing the McRussell

What do you get when you combine the personality of a loudmouth MC with the traditions of the Golden Arches?

The McRussell! A cocktail which will make its debut at the House Party on September 20 to benefit the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Southern Arizona.

In my Inside Tucson Business column this week, I serve up everything you need to know about this cocktail and the many local restaurants that will be contributing to this delicious evening.

Check out my story here and let me know your thoughts!


Sonoran Restaurant Week 2019

32 Restaurants. 96 courses. Ten days.


Sonoran Restaurant Week kicks off on September 6, with 32 local restaurants offering delicious and distinct three-course meals, for either $25 or $35 per person, through September 15.

In my Inside Tucson Business column this week, I caught up with two of the participating chefs to see how they’re preparing for this culinary commemorative.

Check out my story here and let me know your thoughts!


Judging the Super Bowl of Rib Competitions

You can smell the smoke the moment you land at Reno-Tahoe International Airport.

Every Labor Day weekend, the small town of Sparks, Nevada hosts what’s widely known as the Super Bowl of BBQ rib competitions. And that smoke? It gets progressively thicker as you make the five-mile trip from the airport to Victorian Square.

With a typical turnout of 500,000 people, who collectively consume more than 100 tons of spare ribs, event organizers call it the Best in the West Nugget Rib Cookoff. But Best in the West? I prefer to call it the Best of the Best, and I’ll be returning this Labor Day weekend for my 9th consecutive year as a judge.

I get a lot of questions about this event from people inside and outside of the BBQ circuit. Here’s my rundown of the judging experience.

The Judges’ Chambers:

Though the outdoor event is open to the rib-eating public, with a line-up of popular bands from around the country that perform on two event stages, the judging takes place in the quiet and secure confines of a ballroom at the Nugget Casino Resort, the event’s convener. As I learned in my first year as a judge in 2010, quiet is key. In fact, during the heavily monitored judging process, not only are judges prohibited from talking, we can’t utter any type of audible expression. This is always difficult for me as one who enjoys engaging in high-decibel dialogue, but this judicial gig is too important for me to risk being cut. We need to reserve our remarks for the media who patiently await interviews with us as we exit the chambers.

How the entries are staged in the judges’ chambers

The Judges’ Process:

There are typically 24 competition teams each year whose ribs are scored, in a double-blind format, by smaller groups of judges. This means that I personally score ribs from 12 numbered entries (to ensure judicial integrity, judges don’t know which ribs belong to which teams). The sampling and scoring process needs to be completed within 40 minutes, which includes a separate evaluation of 12 BBQ sauces. If you think that sounds like a lot of time, think again! Time passes quickly, and this high-stakes competition requires judges to be mindful and strategic with their time/consumption ratio. And speaking of consumption, you can always tell who the first-time judges are. They pick up each rib and lick the bone clean before moving to the next one. I mean why not, right? Wouldn’t you? But attempting to do this 12 times, with a likely return to retaste those entries that you preliminarily scored the highest, along with the 12 BBQ sauces that you need to sample and score separately, all inside of 40 minutes, is ill-advised. About 1-2 bites of each rib is reasonable.

The Judges’ Categories:

This little piggy says it’s game time!

The rib competition includes three scoring categories – appearance (10 points), texture (10 points), and taste (20 points). For appearance, we’re looking at each team’s full rack of ribs noting its visual appeal, smoothness of the sauce sheen if used, the appropriate representation of char across the rack if it’s fire-finished, etc. For texture, we’re scoring general tenderness and moisture levels and whether the rest of the rib meat remains on the bone after the first bite. A “fall-off-the-bone” rib, where you can pull the bone cleanly from the meat, may be a marketing play at a restaurant, but in competition BBQ it means that it’s overcooked. Taste is the most important category, and we’re looking for a great flavor balance of smoke, salt, seasonings, and, of course, the pork itself. The sauces are all judged on a separate point scale.

With some of my fellow judges following the adjudication

When our Work is Done:

After the judges turn in our score sheets (and I’m proud of my reputation of having the messiest and stickiest score sheet among all of the judges year after year) we’re free to speak, share our observations with one another, and go outside to watch the teams in action as they sell their ribs to a hungry public. This is when I fire up a cigar, grab a cold pint of local suds from Great Basin Brewing Co. or a local whiskey from The Depot Distillery, and get some rest before walking off the ribs and sauces that I spent 40 minutes consuming. This is a sound strategy. Because a few hours later, it’s the final evening of the multi-day event, where judges, sponsors, and those who purchased tables in the Rib Village are treated to a great concert, wine, beer, and…wait for it…all-you-can-eat ribs and sides. Gulp.

As enjoyable as this event is for my fellow judges and me, it’s just as rewarding for those who make the trip up to sink their teeth into the most righteous ribs they’ll ever eat. There are many reasons why this event was named “Best BBQ Festival” by USA Today, and those will be revealed the moment you arrive in Sparks, Nevada on Labor Day weekend.

Just follow the smoke.


A World Renowned Rum

What if I told you that the world’s finest rum was distilled in the small Arizona hamlet of Elgin?

Don’t take the distiller’s word for it. Pay attention to those whose palates are widely regarded as the best on the planet.

In my Inside Tucson Business column this week, I sat down with a local spirits sophisticate whose name is now trending on the global liquor scene.

Check out my story here and let me know your thoughts!


Memorial Service for Frankie Santos

The life of longtime Tucson restaurateur Francis “Frankie Cheesesteak” Santos will be celebrated on August 18 from 2:00 – 5:00 pm at the Elks Lodge 385, located at 1800 N. Oracle Road.

From the invitation:

“No one was ever a stranger to Frankie – he loved and was loved by many for his love of life and great martinis and his dedication to excellence at his namesake restaurant Frankie’s South Philly Cheesesteaks. Everyone has a Frankie story – we invite you to share yours as we gather to celebrate the life of this extraordinary man.”


Until we meet again, Frankie

RIP, Frankie Santos.

The Tucson community lost one of its most beloved members of the local food scene last week.

In my Inside Tucson Business column this week, I offer a tribute to a man whose story was best told by the life he lived.

Check out my story here.


A Taste Bud Time Warp

What is it about the early 1800s that make its culinary traditions real and relevant to us today?

How can the 1950s find context in today’s foodie lexicon?

And what about those glorious 1980s? What was happening in the food-sphere that pulled our attention away from MTV, if only for a minute?

Get ready to transport your taste buds back in time this Sunday at the Carriage House when nearly 30 local chefs come together for a collaborative dinner that will pay tribute to the culinary trends of bygone ages.

Sponsored by the Gastronomic Union of Tucson, affectionately known as GUT, the Time Warp Dinner will begin with a welcome cocktail, followed by five distinct and era-inspired moments with companion beverages.


Hors d’œuvre (1950’s)

Salmon mousse, chicharron, cucumber kimchi, salmon roe

Rumaki – brûlée pork belly, chicken liver mousse, Asian pear

Coronation chicken deviled egg

Ceviche aspic, avocado mousse, Tajin shrimp


First Course (1970’s)

Not Your Grandma’s Cheese Ball

spice whipped cream cheese + english cheddar, tomatillo + summer herb coulis,

crispy butter toasted croutons, asiago crackers


Second Course (1980’s)

Pablo Prudhombre

Blackened Sea of Cortez Cabrilla, maque choux terrine with Southwestern accent,

lemon butter sauce, rocket


Third Course (1960’s)

Mesquite Beef Cheek Bourguignon

lingerie potatoes, carrot confit, sweet onion puree,

truffle glazed mushrooms


Fourth Course (1810’s)

Sonoran Mille Feuille

mesquite puff pastry, prickly pear pastry cream quince, pomegranate gel,

candied orange, bahidaj sitol meringue


Tickets for this epic July 28 feast are $75 each and can be purchased here!


Anchovy Activism

To anchovy or not to anchovy? That is the question, and those of you who know me are well aware of where I stand on this issue.

But where do you stand?

In my Inside Tucson Business column this week, I took on this topic with a Tucson pizza pioneer who has a dedicated following of anchovy activists.

Check out my story here and let me know your thoughts!


Masterbuilt on my Side

When I purchased my first Masterbuilt smoker more than 10 years ago, little did I know that I would one day be appointed as a Masterbuilt national brand ambassador.

My interest in this company and its products came from a place of trust. It was my belief in a promise that convenience and confidence can co-exist on the BBQ smoking scene. I watched far too many people fight with fire and tussle with temperature in pursuit of perfectly smoked brisket, ribs, pork butt, chicken, and other foods. I found myself beginning to buy in to the myth that the fight would be mine to take up if I wanted to succeed. That the struggle would never cease. That surrender would be my only play.

But surrender has no place in BBQ (other than those beautiful moments when the meat ultimately surrenders to the smoke, of course) and I wasn’t about to add my voice to the false narrative that BBQ always comes with frustration, pain, and sacrifice.

That’s what drew me to the peace of mind that Masterbuilt offers. The ability to produce an exceptional BBQ experience, fueled by real wood, that yields real smoke, in a way that gives me full control over time and temp. A modern expression of an age-old practice.  So I bought a Masterbuilt Smokehouse, who I named Sally, and she’s faithfully served my family to this very day.

Convenience and confidence, and Sally, for the win.

Most of my BBQ comrades know that my loyalty to this brand has been unyielding ever since. And today, in celebration of BBQ’s tradition and spirit of bringing people together, I’m excited to share that I’ve just been appointed as one of Masterbuilt’s national brand ambassadors.

It will be my honor to represent a company, a community, and a culture that I’ve supported for more than a decade.

It’s true that I’m a regular fixture at BBQ joints across Southern Arizona and beyond. There are many pit masters whose artistry is worthy of celebration. But when I’m home, and when I want a sensational smoke, I know that I can do it and do it well.

Why? Because I have Masterbuilt on my side.


Bastille Day: Old Memories, New Traditions

Thirty-seven years ago this week, I was preparing for my Bastille Day performance at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

This memorable moment in the City of Lights was part of America’s Youth in Concert, an orchestra, band, and choir comprised of high school students from across the United States that toured Europe during the summer of 1982. I was a percussionist. I practiced for months before my audition. And when the notification came that I had made it, I realized that I would soon be performing in Carnegie Hall, in London and other European cities, and, yes, steps away from the altar inside the Notre Dame Cathedral. In Paris. On Bastille Day.

About to board the buses for our Bastille Day concert.

This stop on our 11-city tour was my introduction to French cuisine, culture, and, truth be told, Champagne. That we were all in our teens didn’t seem to stop us as we sipped alongside the local celebrants later that evening at the base of the Eiffel Tower.

As I boarded the bus the next morning en route to concerts in Florence and Rome, my memories of croissants, baguettes, Camembert, and Brie went right along with me.

Thankfully there’s a way to celebrate the traditions of Bastille Day in Tucson, and Coralie Satta, who hails from Marseille, has everything covered at Ghini’s French Caffe.

This Friday and Saturday from 3:00 – 8:00 pm, her Le Jour de la Bastille will feature a special three-course menu with delicious options to choose from. Some of the dishes that caught my eye include the Soupe A L’oignon, Boeuf Bourguignon, and the Bleu Blanc Rouge Shortcake. Ghini’s will also feature $6 French Mimosas all weekend long. You can make reservations by calling 326-9095.

Coralie and me! Yes, I kept my yearbooks.

It seems fitting that my first experience with French culture was during high school. That’s because Coralie Satta and I went to high school together!

While the record isn’t clear, it’s entirely possible that we may have sipped some Champagne together as teens nearly four decades ago. Sorry, mom.

A votre sante!