If you've lived in Tucson for any amount of time and have yet to make it to the historic Hotel Congress for a drink, a bite to eat or a show, don't count yourself a true resident until you've done so. Yes, parking (still) sucks downtown, but that is no excuse to miss out on one of the gems of our fair burg.
The Cup Café is nestled in the lobby of Hotel Congress, and it's on a short list of places that I've been sending out-of-towners to eat for years. So when I was assigned this review, I was excited about the opportunity to take a fresh look at the restaurant. The Cup serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and all-day dessert, and has a build-your-own Bloody Mary bar on Sundays that features all the usual fixin's and more, including goodies like goat cheese, salsa and pickles.
On both visits, the service was friendly and attentive, though drinks from the bar took quite a while to arrive at our table on both occasions. We had to wait about 25 minutes for a table at both our weekday dinner visit and our weekend breakfast/lunch visit, so reservations are highly recommended (especially during busy times, like the gem shows). And don't try to call ahead and put your name on a waiting list—they don't have one unless you're there in-person.
Food at the Cup is tasty, well-presented, and unpretentious. The chimichurri squid ($9) and tomato bruschetta ($8) along with a few cocktails—the signature martini ($11) and the train stopper ($9)—started off the meal right, although I asked for my martini dirty and there wasn't a hint of olive juice to be found in it. The smoked chili aioli on the fried squid packed a deliciously spicy punch, and the tomato bruschetta was the perfect balance of sweetness and tanginess, featuring deliciously ripe tomatoes, lots of garlic and red onion, balsamic vinegar and basil—a standard flavor combination, but executed with precision.
Entrée choices are heavy on seafood, fish and vegetables in this particular iteration of the Cup's menu, but there are still plenty of delicious choices. The pan-roasted salmon ($21) with soft polenta and braised greens dotted with sweet oranges and pecans was excellent. The fish was cooked to perfection, with a nice crispy skin, and the saltiness of the polenta was balanced by the bitterness of the greens and sweetness of the oranges and pecans. The pork chop ($18) was equally well prepared, but the flavors weren't quite as exciting. The apples, gingersnap cookie sauce and pork blended together nicely, but without any real standout flavor. The garlic mashed potatoes, however, were heavenly garlicky goodness.
I've always been a breakfast lover, and the Cup has historically had one of the best breakfast spreads in Tucson. It was even featured on that horrible Rachael Ray $40 A Day Food Network show about 10 years ago (but I won't hold that against the lovely folks at the Cup ...). Anyway, the breakfast menu is good. Really, really good. I had a hell of a time choosing between the cast-iron baked eggs ($10) and the Braveheart breakfast sandwich ($11). I went with the eggs, but I'll be back to try the sandwich, which features smoked beef brisket on sourdough toast with grilled tomatoes, sautéed spinach, Gruyere cheese, poached eggs and sausage gravy. I'll just tell myself that the eggs were a healthier choice, however unlikely a story that is. Two perfectly runny poached eggs come out in a piping hot cast-iron pan, smothered in big chunks of salty ham, soft sautéed leeks, Gruyere and a whole bunch of cream. Messy, but absolutely fantastic. The potatoes that come with the breakfast entrees are addictive, salty, crispy potato bombs.
Ted isn't much of a breakfast guy, so we went after 11 a.m. so he could order from the lunch menu (breakfast is available until 4 p.m.). The Cup keeps it light at lunch, offering a nice selection of soups, salads and sandwiches (some of the choices are available during dinner as well). Ted decided on the Cherise sandwich ($12) and a Dave's Electric beer from Bisbee ($4.50 a pint or $5.25 for 20 ounces). The Cup has a nice selection of local brews, both on tap and in the bottle. The Cherise was sloppy and delightful. Smoked brisket, slaw with peppers, pickled onions and jack cheese are slathered with chimichurri and chipotle mayo, all stacked between two slices of marble rye, which could barely keep the contents together. The brisket was excellent, with just the right amount of smokiness, and the chimichurri, pickled onions and slaw cut through the fattiness of the brisket, cheese and mayo.
With all of the new downtown construction, new restaurants and the changing downtown scene, it's nice to see that a Tucson classic is adapting, alive and thriving, and maybe even better than ever. I do miss the Thompson Automatics from the old menu, though.