When I was assigned this review, I realized that in the two-plus decades that I've called Tucson home, I've never once been at the Blue Willow for anything other than lunch or breakfast. Maybe it just never occurred to me, or maybe it's because the longtime Campbell Avenue restaurant is ingrained in my mind as Tucson's consummate breakfast joint.
But they also do a damn fine casual dinner.
Ted and I arrived early on a weekend morning for the breakfast part of this review—a necessary evil (the early part, not the breakfast part) if you don't want to be stuck waiting for a table. Blue Willow is definitely a gem, but it's not hidden. Unless you're there within 15 or 20 minutes of opening (8 a.m. on weekends), there's no telling how long it might take to get a table. However, there are plenty of shiny, funny, beautiful and kitschy things to peruse in the gift shop while waiting.
Blue Willow's patio is one of the defining features of the restaurant, and since outdoor dining is possible in Tucson nearly year-round, it's really the only option as far as I'm concerned. It's a fully enclosed oasis, complete with lush green plants, fountains, a retractable shade and a cooling system. The ambiance is casual both indoors and out, and the service is friendly, although not always prompt.
The menu at Blue Willow leans slightly toward the healthier side—you won't find biscuits and gravy or other greasy-spoon breakfast standards here. There's also a variety of gluten-free and vegan or vegetarian options on the breakfast menu (dinner entrées are easily modified to accommodate such needs as well).
For breakfast, Ted and I both stuck with the house specials, though there is a wide selection of omelets that looked equally tempting. I ordered the Eggs Benedict Blue Willow ($8.95) and Ted had the Blue Willow Special ($8.95), along with orange juice ($2.50 small/$4.50 large) and coffee ($2.25, with refills). We were among the first customers that morning and the staff seemed to be off to a slow start. Our server checked on us when we first arrived, and when we were still deciding, but then didn't return for another 10 minutes. The entrées were slow to arrive once we had ordered, but they were delicious.
My eggs Benedict—with a whole-wheat English muffin, grilled ham and perfectly soft-poached eggs—was smothered in a mild cheese sauce. The breakfast potatoes were studded with crispy green onion slices and were very tasty. Ted's entrée was a take on migas, with chicken, green chiles, tomatoes, cheddar cheese and salsa mixed with scrambled eggs and chopped corn tortillas, and served with a hefty dollop of sour cream. It had a lovely bite to it, but wasn't too spicy, and the side of beans was also quite tasty.
Blue Willow was less crowded and much quieter during our weeknight dinner visit, but the food was just as tasty. Service was friendly and relatively prompt, but the entrées took a long time to arrive, even after we had finished our appetizer and salads. We started with the salmon cakes—three large cakes with a crispy, lightly breaded exterior and served with sesame-chili mayo as well as a tzatziki-style cucumber yogurt sauce. The salmon cakes were flavorful and well seasoned, and both sauces complemented them well. My preference was the yogurt sauce, while Ted liked the mayonnaise, which had a good deal of spiciness.
Entrées come with a soup or salad, and we both chose salad, though I upgraded to a Caesar for $5.95 extra, and I was happy that I did. The Caesar salad was one of the best I've had in a long time, with the perfect ratio of ingredients to the dressing, which was lemony, tangy and tasted homemade.
The dinner menu isn't huge but it has a reasonable selection of entrées, pasta dishes, and sandwiches. Most of the choices are seafood, chicken or vegetarian. I decided on the grilled wild Mexican jumbo shrimp ($16.95), served with white jasmine rice, citrus salsa and a sautéed vegetable medley that included squash, carrots and broccoli. The portion was generous, with six very large shrimp, a mound of rice and lots of veggies. The rice was slightly overcooked but the vegetables had a nice crunch to them. The shrimp was prepared well, though it could have used a little more of the citrus salsa.
Ted ordered the grilled sirloin brochette ($15.95), also served over rice, with a side of chimichurri sauce and the sautéed vegetable medley. The skewered beef was tender and was served medium-well. The chimichurri sauce was excellent—tangy with a slight hint of heat. It was so tasty that I ended up using about half of it on my shrimp dish. Blue Willow also has a great dessert selection (many featuring chocolate). We opted for the pie of the day, which was apple ($4.95 a slice; $6.50 a la mode). The crust was tender and flaky, and the pie wasn't too sweet.
All in all, this Tucson staple lives up to its reputation, especially for breakfast—and it definitely shouldn't be overlooked among the many dinner options along Campbell Avenue.