THE CUP IS located within Hotel Congress, one of Tucson's few remaining historic downtown structures. Built in 1919 using the era's typical brick and mortar design, the pillared front lobby, Mexican tile floors and heavy wood accents give the place a period feel.
Lunch at The Cup draws the suit and tie crowd, while dinner summons everyone from theatre goers decked out in their best uptown finery to a hip, young crowd headed for the thumping drone of music in adjacent Club Congress. It's testimony to Hotel Congress' overriding eclecticism that no one here looks out of place.
Everyone appreciates atmosphere, but given the price of eating out these days, ambiance only counts for so much. Fortunately, The Cup's eclecticism extends equally to its menu, which reflects not only new takes on classic American diner fare, but delves into Mexican, Italian, Indian and Thai dishes as well.
The Cup serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night fare. Each meal has a separate menu, with some dishes crossing over from one to the next.
Breakfast features a full selection of buckwheat flapjacks and egg creations, the most eye-opening of which is the Eggs in Hell, two eggs sunny-side up, dusted with fiery cayenne pepper and served with devilish strips of green chile, pinto beans, homemade salsa and a soft flour tortilla. If this doesn't fire you up for the day ahead, you'd better check to make sure you still have a pulse.
The Foo-Foo Flapjacks -- luscious, blueberry-studded buckwheat pancakes given a royal treatment of whipped cream and warm maple syrup -- will bring out the kid in any staid adult. Toasty and firm, they're a sweet alternative to the usual eggs and potatoes. For the full effect, order The Cup's rich hot chocolate instead of coffee...with additional whipped cream, of course.
Coffeecakes, muffins and scones, all baked on the premises, round out the morning's lighter approaches. An endless supply of dark, rich coffee (locally roasted and blended at downtown's Wilde Rose) is perfect at any time of day.
Homemade soups here, which change daily, are an epicurean delight. A curried vegetable was pure heaven: a successful balance between zesty, sweet and mellow, with a velvety golden broth swirling around tender chunks of broccoli, onion, carrot, potato and bell pepper. Served with choice of baguette or warm flour tortilla, it's a meal unto itself.
An assortment of salads accent both the lunch and dinner menus, with offerings ranging from the standard leafy greens and assorted vegetables to more exotic ahi tuna and Thai vegetable possibilities. On a recent visit, the Thai salad caught my fancy, perhaps because it brought to mind the dinner menu's tantalizing chicken satays -- an item that never fails to please.
In spite of its promising description, however, the salad did not live up to our expectations. Tender-crisp carrots, bell peppers and green onion spears sautéed in a garlic-soy marinade are served over a bed of lettuce and glass noodles. A tangy lime, cilantro and peanut dressing is served on the side. However, the vegetables were too oily and the dressing too plain for my tastes.
We had greater success with the rice and bean burro, a simple dish made excellent by a delicious Spanish rice concoction and beans that retain a buttery taste and texture. A soft flour tortilla and a generous dollop of fresh salsa further enhance the humble dish, making this one of the most satisfying, healthful and reasonably priced meals you'll find.
Although for this review I focused only on breakfast and lunch, dinner at The Cup should not be overlooked. Special offerings like fresh fish on Fridays, and Tuesday tacos, keep things lively and fun; and the regular menu offers a solid selection of appetizing choices. The three-cheese lasagna, layered with garlicky tomato sauce, thin-sliced zucchini, and plenty of ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan cheese, is hearty but divine. If you prefer a light bite, an appetizer -- perhaps a chicken satay with peanut sauce, or a tasty toasted bruschetta -- with a glass of wine is always pleasing. Or try your luck with one of The Cup's mischievously named cocktails, like "Love You, Mean It."
But where The Cup's red-neon light truly shines is with dessert. A glass case displays the day's offerings of fruit pies, layered cakes, tarts and cream pies. The pie crust is invariably light and flaky, with fruit fillings sweetened with a light touch of sugar and baked tender. The pecan pie is satisfyingly toasty with a sweet caramel ribbon; and the double-chocolate pudding, served in a coffee mug and topped with cinnamon-dusted whipped cream, is a decadent sensation -- sinfully dark and dense. The chocolate cakes are similarly out of this world. If you're in search of a solid bet for dessert and coffee, you'll find ample rewards here.
Service is always friendly, but less reliable for those on a schedule. If you're trying to make a curtain time, alerting your server ahead of time is strongly advised...and still no guarantee on busy nights.
The Cup is a local treasure: a restaurant with character, a menu that spans the globe, and a dazzling assortment of pastries. The pace is casual, and the café itself small and quirky. It's one in a million.
The Cup Café in the Hotel Congress. 311 E. Congress St. 798-1618. Open daily 7 a.m. to 1 a.m., serving breakfast, lunch, dinner and late dinner meals. Full bar. V, MC, AMEX. No personal checks. Menu items: $1.50-$12.95.