4 Tucsonans were named semifinalists of the 2020 James Beard Awards Wednesday morning. Local grain wizard and baker Don Guerra of Barrio Bread, legendary Mexican restaurant Mi Nidito, furniture maker turned grain-to-glass whiskey-maker Stephen Paul of Whiskey del Bac, and the irrepressibly-creative taco and salsa queen Chef Maria Mazon of BOCA Tacos y Tequila were announced as semifinalists.
They are all among 20 semifinalists in their respective fields, those categories will be trimmed to five finalists each on Wednesday, March 25, 2020, at a press conference in Philadelphia. The winners of the Beards will be announced at a ceremony in Chicago on Monday, May 4.
Since 2009, operated first out of owner/baker Don Guerra’s garage, Barrio Bread has been dedicated to local grains, wild yeast cultures, long fermentation, hearth baking, and Tucson’s food economy. Turning out incredible loaves out of his small Broadway Village space, Guerra is also an educator and incubator, helping other local bakers to incorporate local grains into their products, whether that’s Iraqi naan or flour tortillas.
The story of how Stephen Paul came to start an award-winning distillery starts with furniture. Paul owned a furniture company working in the medium of mesquite and one night over glasses of scotch, Stephen’s wife, Elaine, asked if it was possible to smoke barley, the first step in making whiskey, with the scraps of his woodworking labor. That snowflake of an idea became an avalanche, and before too long, a local favorite was getting written up in the New York Times. Whiskey del Bac tastes like the Sonoran Desert, with an undercurrent of mesquite smoke anchoring a delicious single-malt whiskey, made grain-to-glass, a real rarity in modern distilling.
This May, Chef Maria will celebrate her tenth year of owning BOCA, an accomplishment for any restaurant, but especially for one owned by a woman of color. Born in Tucson, raised in Mexico, Mazon is always looking for an opportunity to explore the boundaries of flavor, whether that’s making a chipotle curry for a vegan cauliflower taco or seeing what happens when you age habanero salsa in a used whiskey barrel. Yes, you can get some carne asada tacos and a margarita at BOCA, but look a little further the menu and see a (self-trained) culinary wizard at work.
There’s frequently a line out the door when you stop by Mi Nidito on South Fourth Avenue in Tucson, and there’s a good reason – they’ve expanded several times since they opened in 1952, but the family-run spot is one of the places Tucsonans think of when Mexican food comes to mind. Serving classic Sonoran dishes at superbly reasonable prices, they’ve served presidents and rock stars, but every guest feels not just a satisfied stomach when dining there, but also the Lopez family’s expert hospitality.
“It’s an honor to help tell the stories of these culinary businesses at Visit Tucson,” said Dan Gibson, senior director of communications at Visit Tucson. “It’s obviously incredible to see Tucsonans celebrated this way, but it’s also perfect that these businesses reflect what’s so amazing about eating and drinking here – our borderlands culture shines through in the mesquite at Whiskey del Bac, the Sonoran white wheat at Barrio Bread, the family traditions at Mi Nidito and the blurring of the line between Sonora and Southern Arizona cuisine at BOCA.”