Tucson isn't exactly rife with island flavors, and as soon as you mention Caribbean food around here, the most common reaction is, "Oh, jerk chicken?" And yes, while jerk chicken is one of the Caribbean's most famous dishes, the many flavors of the islands are much more expansive and delicate than just that.
Enter Saint House Rum Bar—a bit misnamed, if you ask me, because while they do have an extensive and varied rum selection, as well as a rum-centric cocktail list that runs the gamut from ordinary to exquisite, it's not really a bar. There's a bar to sit at, but mostly it's a somewhat upscale sit-down restaurant. Perhaps that would explain the complete lack of other patrons in the place on both of my visits, because it sure as hell couldn't have been chalked up to anything else. The food, the service—and especially the rum—were outstanding during both a lunch and a dinner visit.
Saint House is Travis Reese and Nicole Flowers' latest downtown Tucson venture (they also have Scott & Co. and 47 Scott) and the execution is impeccable, adding to the restaurateurs' growing reputation as consummate professionals. The Saint House menu is the same for both lunch and dinner, and while it mostly features Caribbean dishes, it also borrows some flavors from elsewhere in the rum-producing world, including Mexico, Florida and Brazil.
On both visits, the food and the service were impeccable—the only complaint I had was that the mixed drinks take a while to make it to the table. However, when they did arrive, they were delicious. I'm not generally a rum drinker, as I prefer my drinks to not be sweet, but the Rhum Clement Agricole daiquiri ($8) and the mojito ($8) were both delicious and refreshing without being too sweet. And our server did a great job of recommending a not-too-sweet after-dinner sipping rum from Saint House's own rum guide, which taught me all kinds of interesting tidbits about rum from around the world while waiting for food and drinks.
Appetizers at Saint House are quick, shareable and fantastic. The taro chips with banana ketchup ($2) or guacamole ($7) are a sweetly savory departure from the standard tortilla chip, and the banana ketchup has a nice curry tang to balance its sweetness. The spicy-sticky calamari ($11) was some of the best calamari I've had in Tucson in a long time—a generous pile of both rings and tentacles was fried to perfection, tender and not overbattered, and the sauce finished with a nice spicy heat. The Mexican-style spicy shrimp ceviche ($6, or a trio of ceviches for $16) was a close second to the calamari. Served with taro chips, it was tasty although not especially unique.
Though the appetizers were delightful, the entreés at Saint House really shine. In a town full of taco joints, it was a bit unexpected to have some of the most flavorful tacos I've experienced in quite some time at a Caribbean restaurant. The Brazilian steakhouse tacos ($12) consisted of a heaping plate of three flour tortillas stuffed with rich, smoky beef. It came with spicy chimichurri and the plate was dotted with crunchy fried potatoes, caramelized onions and cotija. It also came with Spanish rice and a salad with avocado. The fried potatoes gave the tacos an unusual textural element, and the flavor profile was deeply beefy and very complex.
The Ropa Vieja ($20) and Stew del Mar ($18) were also scrumptious. The Ropa Vieja was a dense slow-cooked piece of beef short rib with mashed sweet potatoes, peppers, and onions, and was tender and delectable. The Stew del Mar was a mélange of mussels, scallops, shrimp and fish in a coconut curry sauce. The curry was light enough that it didn't overwhelm the delicate fish, and none of the seafood was overcooked.
Saint House also features a nice selection of lunch-friendly salads and sandwiches (also available at dinner), and the Cubano ($12) didn't fail to deliver. Stacked high with juicy, shredded slow-cooked pork, ham, melted Swiss cheese, plenty of pickle slices and a stone-ground mustard with a nice punch, it was dense and filling, though a little heavy on the bread for me.
There is no standing dessert menu at Saint House, but rather a rotating nightly selection at the pastry chef's whim. On the evening we visited, the selection was heavy on coconut and banana flavors, but I opted for a chocolate soufflélike concoction with banana ice cream ($6), which was stunning, though very rich.
Reese and Flowers have crafted another well-executed, unique Tucson downtown destination, and I hope to see more patrons the next time I'm in. After all, I still have to try the jerk chicken.