It's a cold rainy day on the patio at Zinman's Food Shop in the Dunbar/Spring neighborhood. Inside, tribal drum music plays lightly as the day cook, Jared, brings out a silver tray piled with a biscuits and gravy dish. A customer purchases some orchard-fresh limes and a small container of homemade baba ghanoush. The manager, Mack Hawkins, dressed in black with a gold crucifix hanging from his neck, prepares a vegetable stock that is brimming with life.
In the tight space at Zinman's there is a whirlwind of textures and flavors taking inspiration from a collection of international. What looks like just another whimsical house in a rather quiet neighborhood, what makes this new establishment stick out are the colorful flags flapping in the mid-afternoon breeze and, yes, a hand-painted sign with its name.
Owner Erik Shapiro sits behind the front counter to welcome everyone in and describe the daily specials. With a white beard and subtle energy, he delights in what he and his crew have to offer this day.
"The menu changes daily, sometimes hourly," smiles Shapiro. "In the morning, we might get some Pima club wheat, which is an O'odham heirloom grain, but if we run out then we have to adapt. Today, we have some beautiful bok choy from a nearby farm and we wanted to incorporate that into a stir fry. Everything here is fresh, everything local and sustainable and, most importantly, everything here is vegan."
When Shapiro's father passed recently, he knew that he had to make some changes in his own life, the first and main point being, his diet. After purchasing Zinman's (which originally was called Zinman's Skillet, a funky eatery that opened in 1953), Erik began making relationships with Tucson farmers, grain harvesters and citrus merchants to offer up some of the purest yet tastiest food he could produce. Combined with their own herb and vegetable garden that they tend to, Zinman's is now a contender in the ubiquitous 'farm to fork' concept.
"Or as I like to call it," Erik says, "'Earth to belly'!"
On this day, grapefruits, tangerines and oranges sit luminously proud in a cooler that were just brought in from a nearby orchard. Nestled next to the baba ghanoush are clear containers filled with tabbouleh and hummus; supple, relucent and obviously made with attentive and well-honed care, they are all extremely tasty. Beneath the counter are muffins, cookies and pastries all of which are light, chewy, sometimes nutty, sometimes fruity and surprisingly devoid of any animal product. What's best about Zinman's is that for all the fresh provisions, the fare is not going to break your wallet as much as some other high-end markets pride themselves on. Shapiro and his partner, Longjuan Wang, are not in it for the money, but rather the wellbeing of their patrons, neighbors and themselves.
"Our customers don't exactly get a free lunch, which we would love, because there is no table service or indoor seating," Erik says. "Plus, we do not accept tips. We just want you to eat, and be, healthy."
"They aren't much to look at, but that is some good eating," notes Mack, as he offers up the biscuits and gravy. What appears to be just a lump covered in some brown sauce, it quickly gives way to one of the most delicate and savory "biscuits" ladled with a rich plant based gravy that would make any southerner swoon. Having spent a good amount of time in Louisiana, Mack smiles as he hands over his signature beans and rice, made with tepary beans and brown rice provided by the San Xavier Co-Op farm. This is the dish that sends taste buds into rapture. It is spicy, it is hearty and it harkens back to true Creole pedigree while its components are Tucson.
Zinman's is a market and restaurant without borders. Obviously, there is the southwestern base and influence along with the southern route but there are also elements of African, Mediterranean and Asian connections as well that come through in their food. For breakfast, you might be treated to teff (an Ethiopian grain they also use to make their injera bread for certain dishes) citrus pancakes served with a homemade orange marmalade or if you're not that hungry you can sit and relax with a cup of tea on their porch.
As the impending rain begins to pour, Jared, Mack and Shapiro prepare for dinner service seeing as some mushrooms, tiger skin hot peppers and pecans just arrived. The small space was soon filled with scents from across the globe.