Main Gate Culinary Challenge brings out summer crowd, area's best food

Cyrus Norcross | The Daily Wildcat

 An attendee bites into her Buffalo Fries with original hot sauce served by The Buffalo Spot. The Buffalo Spot opened in May on University Boulevard. This is the Buffalo Spot's first attendance of the 2nd Annual Main Gate Square Culinary Challenge.  

The Marriott Tucson University Park grand ballroom was packed to capacity Saturday, July 21, as hordes of people sampled the best food and drink University Boulevard has to offer.

The second annual Main Gate Culinary Challenge drew nearly 1,500 attendees and more than 15 vendors from various culinary backgrounds.

Cathrine Jackson bites into a slice of Supreme Pizza served by Frog & Firkin during the second annual Main Gate Culinary Challenege. The event was held at the Marriott Tucson University Park Hotel.

According to Jonathan Graham, the general manager for Frog & Firkin, the event served to showcase his establishment and others in the Main Gate District during the traditional slow time for Tucson-area eateries: summer. 

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“University [Boulevard] has so much more to offer,” Graham said. “Especially during the three summer months and a month during the winter, it’s really a good thing and it’s good exposure for our stuff.”

Other vendors echoed Graham’s sentiments about needed summer exposure. Camilla Quist, owner of Jimmy’s Pita and Poke, said attendees told her the event was attractive because they didn’t have to fight for parking space with students and people working at the UA.

Frog and Firkin serve BBQ chicken wings and pizza to attendees. The restaurant is styled after a British pub, offering food and craft beer on University Boulevard near the UA.

Quist, whose establishment originally served only pitas but rebranded to add the increasingly popular fish-based dish called poke, also credited the event with exposing her restaurant to Tucsonans who might not frequent the area.

“It just adds awareness,” she said. “People now know we are there. Sometimes people don’t like to come down to the university for this and that, so it is just nice to get outside Tucsonans coming into the event.”

For Catherine Jackson and her husband, who live in Oro Valley, that was exactly the appeal of the culinary challenge. Jackson said she heard about the event through her husband’s connections at work downtown.

“The draw? It’s definitely summer,” she said. “We have older kids, so we like to go do things at night and feel young around the college kids.”

Jackson said the event allowed her to try food from restaurants she wouldn’t have time to visit during the rest of the year.

“It’s fun to try something new,” she said. “I just had a great piece of pizza and wings from Frog & Firkin, so it gives us the chance to try things without having to commit to a whole night.”

While food and drink were the main draw for the evening, other University Boulevard shops got in on the action. Emily Brown, owner of Posner’s Art Store, was on hand with her daughters to help children at the event with crafts like making bookmarks and finger painting.

For the Browns, the event was more than just brand exposure. It served to build connections between area merchants.

“We get to see each other more, because normally we are all working in our businesses, a little wave is all you get,” she said. “This way we get a chance to visit a little, to see who has something new on the menu.”

Graham also appreciated the sense of community the event fostered, and not just among the merchants.

UA Students, Gerry Sun and Iris Li, bite into their BBQ chicken from the Frog and Firkin. Both college students enjoyed all the free food at the 2nd Annual Main Square Culinary Challenge at the Marriott Tucson University Park Hotel.

“I want to make it a place for everybody,” he said. “Which is why I love events like this, because we are reaching thousands of people without having to do much; it’s already here.”

The event was a collaboration between the Marshall Foundation and Adam Lehrman, founder of local food-industry blog Tucson Foodie. It featured music from Spanish-folk outfit The Nathanial Burnside Trio and offered two separate awards: one voted on by judges and another voted on by attendees.

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The judges, local food-writers including Andi Berlin of This Is Tucson and Tucson Weekly’s Mark Whittaker, tried dishes from each participating vendor. At the end of the night, Lehrman announced the winner: Frog & Firkin.

Jimmy's Pita and Poke serve miniture pita warps to attendees. Jimmy's Pita and Poke are located on University near the University of Arizona.

For students who might just be coming back to Tucson from summer vacation, or who might be in for their first semester at the University of Arizona, Jackson offered up advice.

“Siphon a little of mom and dad’s money and come and try some of the local places,” she said. “Maybe ask for some gift cards from the grandparents; that’s what our boys do. It will give them 

a little more diversity than eating on campus.”

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