Thursday, January 31, 2013

Tucson's Streetcar Project

“There’s always that perception that the project is never going to happen. A lot of people say, ‘Show me. I don’t believe it.’ They don’t believe it until they see streets torn up.”

But the "flying dirt and emerging orange cones in March (of 2012)" signalled the reality of official start of construction noted by Carlos de Leon, the Regional Transportation Authority’s (RTA) director of transit services. The RTA co-manages the streetcar project with the city of Tucson.

This project funds the implementation of a modern streetcar system. The 3.9-mile route extends from the Mercado District to the University of Arizona and travels through downtown Tucson and along 4th Avenue.

As I walked along Congress Street, I saw stages of the work being done along this main artery of the city.

In the half hour or so that I spent along the three-block span, I saw different groups working on different types of projects. It was similar to listening to different musicians in an orchestra produce an enjoyable work of art.

In her article* on the streetcar project, Johanna Willett, a University of Arizona journalism student, made the following observations about the construction process:

“'The biggest challenge is not the project, but the public perception of the project,” said Britton Dornquast, the program manager for MainStreet Business Assistance. “A lot of people avoid an area when they see cones.'

"'For businesses along the streetcar route, imminent construction will bring a headache that can threaten to overshadow the excitement of increased traffic.'

“'We’re going to try and make construction fun rather than an obstacle,” said John Sedwick the executive director of the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association. “We’re going to draw people down here with contests and take pictures of the construction as it happens.'”

Although this phase of the streetcar project is not yet completed, future plans reach as far as 2040.


Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Hey! There’s the falafel!

I was not to be denied.

After finding what many consider the best Mediterranean restaurant in Tucson—Zayna—had been replaced by a UPS store, I went home and double checked. Yes, there had been such a restaurant, but it had
subsequently moved to a different location (shown on the right on the rainy day we stopped by). Why didn’t I notice this the first time around? Lack of due diligence on my part, I guess.

The first thing that you notice when you enter this small (thirty-two seats) café is the amazing smells coming from the kitchen. Intermingled with the olfactory presence of garlic was the smell of the exotic and often unidentified (at least by me) spices used in Mediterranean cooking.

There isn’t much that I can say about the décor. Other than the walls painted in bright reds and yellows, the red ceiling,

and the posters of Middle Eastern scenes (all with a somewhat greenish tint),

the only attempt at decoration was a rug or tapestry hung by the cash register and the spackle-painted back wall.

Since my forays into Mediterranean restaurants usually result in my eating a meat-free meal, I consider this healthy dining. And so does Chloe Levinson at, when she writes: “…When you eat too much at Zayna, you feel contented, buoyant and ready to sleep while your body derives the multitude of nutrients out of lentils, green beans, garlic, parsley and chickpeas. The food at Zayna is delicious, and it is the type of place where ‘too much of a good thing’ is still a good thing…. Parsley, the primary ingredient in tabbouleh, contains huge amounts of vitamin C and iron (the body needs vitamin C in order to digest iron, so parsley is a win-win, nutritionally speaking). It also aids in digestion, along with many of the other ingredients found in Mediterranean food, such as green beans and garlic. Lentils provide iron, protein and B vitamins. The only nutritional-negative to this cuisine is in the pita, if one eats too much of it.” While neither of us overate on this occasion, neither did either leave feeling calorie deprived.

Chuck stuck with his Mediterranean go-to meal, the gyro sandwich with a side of Zayna’s fries. His plate contained three variations from
the norm. First, the beautifully seasoned gyro meat was all beef rather than the more familiar beef and lamb combination. Second, instead of tzatziki which at times contains more cucumber than he would like, Zayna uses a garlic yogurt sauce. And the Zayna fries were certainly not your standard French fry. These were lightly fried half-moons of thin sliced potato with special “Syrian” (whatever that is) seasoning and lightly dressed with lemon and garlic.

One of the reasons that I enjoy Mediterranean restaurants is that I have the chance to order an assortment of small plates. I started with the falafel—vegetarian patties of chick peas with cilantro, onion, and sesame seeds.
“The origin of falafel is unknown and controversial. A common theory is that the dish originated in Egypt, possibly eaten by Copts as a replacement for meat during Lent. As Alexandria is a port city, it was possible to export the dish and name to other areas in the Middle East…. Falafel grew to become a common form of street food or fast food in the Middle East. The croquettes are regularly eaten as part of meze (Ed. Note: an assortment of small dishes). During Ramadan, falafel balls are sometimes eaten as part of the iftar, the meal that breaks the daily fast after sunset. Falafel became so popular that McDonald's now serves a ‘McFalafel’ in some countries” (

While these weren’t as highly seasoned as my favorite falafel from Lebanon’s Café in New Orleans, they had a moist almost creamy interior texture, while having an amazingly crisp exterior. These came with a small cup of the garlic yogurt sauce that was on Chuck’s gyro.

Next I ordered the za’tar pita which is sometimes referred to as Mediterranean pizza.
To again quote ChIoe Levinson: “If you have never tried za’tar pita, the fragrant, velvety fusion of thyme, sesame seeds and olive oil will send you to the moon.” Very good, but again not as good as that served at Lebanon’s Café.

My third item was a side order of long-cooked string beans that had been seasoned with caramelized onions (that gave a sweet note to the beans), garlic, and olive oil.
And, if you haven’t heard enough from Chloe, she says: “A strict foodie may prefer their green beans a little less well-cooked than they are served at Zayna, but these beans are so delicious that the quantity consumed will likely balance the nutritional loss of them being overcooked.”

No, I didn’t eat all of this. One falafel and two pieces of za’tar pita came home with me and were consumed for breakfast. In that way, I could again enjoy a 4.0 Addie meal.

To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Cactus Forest Drive

In yesterday's entry, our photographs showed scenes encountered on roughly half of the eight-mile Cactus Forest Drive through a portion of the Saguaro National Park.

Today we complete the course, photographically.
"The saguaro has been described as the monarch of the Sonoran Desert, as a prickly horror, as the supreme symbol of the American Southwest, and as a plant with personality. It is renowned for the variety of odd, all-too-human shapes it assumes, shapes that inspire wild and fanciful imaginings.

"Giant saguaro cacti, unique to the Sonoran Desert, sometimes reach a height of 50 feet in this cactus forest, which covers the valley floor, rising into the Rincon and West Tucson mountains. Since 1933 this extraordinary giant cactus has been protected within Saguaro National Park. In lushness and variety of life the Sonoran Desert far surpasses all other North American deserts" (

The area was established as Saguaro National Monument on March 1, 1933, and later became a national park on October 14, 1994. It protects the saguaro cactus which is native to the region.
We continue to be intrigued by the desert, primarily because of its contrast to the scenery of the Mid-Atlantic states.

We also enjoy the challenge of finding splashes of color in the rather monotone nature of the desert in mid-winter.

At other times it was the shape and form of the cactus that caught our attention. The hooks on this fishhook barrel cactus are one example.
Near the completion of the drive, we passed by the Javelina Rocks and found some saguaro cacti thriving in some unusual places.

The Rincon Mountains and the Sonoran Desert present a stunning contrast to the city of Tucson, and a setting that will only increase in beauty in the spring.

Monday, January 28, 2013

A City in Mid Desert

Saguaro National Park has been described as a "Wilderness with a City at its Center."
Two park districts bookend the city of Tucson, and we recently visited Saguaro East--the Rincon Mountain District.
After a stop at the Visitor Center, we traveled the eight-mile Cactus Forest Drive. The drive was one-way with numerous, but very narrow, pullovers.
The day was overcast, and those weather conditions in mid-winter did not bode well for finding colorful displays in the desert.

So, our search for color shifted from vistas to small areas of interest. The Rincon Mountains provided the background for this prickly pear cactus and
this staghorn cholla.

"The most conspicuous adaptation of the cactus family to the harsh conditions of the desert is found in the spines, which are modified leaves. In addition to protecting the plant from hungry or thirsty animals, spines provide shade during hot summer days and warmth on cold winter nights. Spines also help prevent water loss due to dry winds.

"On cholla cacti (left and below), which are often called jumping cactus, the spines also play a major role in reproduction. Cholla are segmented cacti. The plants are made up of many segments, which are loosely attached to the preceding segment. Additionally, each spine is covered with a thin sheath, which separates from the spine quite easily. When an animal accidentally brushes against the cactus, the sharp spines stick into its skin and the segment breaks off the parent plant. Eventually, the spines slip from their sheaths and the segment falls to the ground. If soil conditions are right, the segment may take root and grow into a new plant (

In our search for color, we had to be content with the smallest of displays, such as this plant below

and the soon-to-be-flowering fishook barrel cactus.

"If you take a close look at either a saguaro or a barrel cactus, you will notice a series of distinct accordion-like pleats on the outside of the plant. These pleats allow the plant to expand while it is absorbing rainwater, and to shrink when using its stores of water. Without the pleats, damage would certainly occur to the plant’s skin. Even so, a saguaro may take in more water than its pleats will allow.

"When this happens, the skin splits into an open wound. If this split does not heal quickly, bacteria may get into the warm, moist tissue of the plant and possibly kill the plant. As with most plants, cacti make their food through a process called photosynthesis. Unlike most plants that only take in carbon dioxide (CO2) during the day, cacti utilize a complex form of CO2 fixation known as Crassulacean Acid Metabolism, or CAM.

"This method of taking in CO2 reduces the amount of water lost to the atmosphere because the stomata (pores) are open only at night when temperatures are lower and humidities are higher. The plant changes the CO2 into four-carbon compounds, which are largely malic acid, and stores it overnight. The following day, with sunlight as its energy source, the plant completes its cycle of photosynthesis.

"As a result of CAM, the liquids within many cacti are very acidic. Contrary to popular myth, you are not able to get potable water from a saguaro" (

The relationship between the saguaro and "nurse plants" was very interesting. Seeds of the saguaro are eaten by a rodent under a palo verde or mesquite tree (for protection from predators). The seeds of the saguaro fruit must go through the digestive tract of an animal to break down the outer coating of the seed in order for germination to be possible. When the rodent later expels the seed, usually in the same area, and conditions such as temperature and rainfall are right, the seed can then begin the process of forming a living plant.
After germination, the "nurse plant" then begins the process of protecting the saguaro from direct sunlight, hard winds and fierce rains during the summer monsoon storms, and from being trampled by large animals like cattle and horses.

Unfortunately for the nurse plant, as the saguaro grows larger, it needs more and more water and nutrients, and over the decades the nurse plant does not get enough water to live.