African Cuisine, Gallery of the Sun, Catalina State Park and a Bit of Nostalgia

In an area where Mexican food dominates, I would not have thought one of the best meals we would have in Tucson would be African. Before going out for some sightseeing one day, we were trying to figure out a restaurant in the direction we were heading. Tucson is very big and distances from one part of the city to another can mean a 30 to 40 minute drive in any direction. While researching, Mark noted there was a restaurant specializing in West African food from the country of Benin. Since our son Matt and daughter-in-law Emma served as volunteer nurses on the Mercy Ship (hospital) in Benin we knew we had to give this place a try. We texted them and asked what dishes they would recommend and it was fun to reminisce. They even gave us a few phrases to try out with the owner.

Ismael cooking fufu

We arrived to Alafiya Restaurant, finding the small space to be empty other than the very friendly owner. Having an empty restaurant turned out to be a good thing, because we were able to talk to him about Matt and Emma’s experiences in his country and show him some photos. Eating here was like having a meal cooked at the home of a friend. The restaurant is casual and homey with native clothing, masks and other decorations displayed on the walls. The owner Ismael had a number of pots cooking on a simple stovetop next to the counter so we were able to see some of the action going on. We had hoped for peanut stew with chicken, but it was not available. Ismael suggested goat soup and tilapia so we went with his suggestions. I watched as he cooked fufu into a soft dough, a staple made from cassava flour and placed it into the soup.

West African Goat Soup

The goat soup had a delicious broth and the tilapia fish served whole with a side of couscous was very tasty and tender. We finished off with fried plantains. I have to say that after having several disappointing Mexican meals in Tucson this West African meal was a real pleasure.

One of the places I was looking forward to during our Tucson stay was a repeat visit to Gallery of the Sun. It had been years since I was last here and bought a print to have framed for our house. The Gallery features the art of Ted DeGrazia, a famous southwestern artist. This is more than a gallery as this was once his home, chapel and now gravesite all set on a 10 acre historic site. When he and his wife began building here in the 1950’s, this was a remote area in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains. At the time, they had no electricity, water or services. Things have changed considerably as Tucson has grown and spread out. Homes and businesses are now scattered around these hills, but the magic of this gallery and property still remains.

When I think of DeGrazia’s work I think of the faceless Indian children he often painted. Growing up in Arizona, he developed a lifelong appreciation of native cultures and many of his paintings and sculptures reflect that. But wandering the different gallery rooms, I noted the many genres he enjoyed painting such as the stations of the cross and the journeys of explorer Cabeza de Vaca and the missionary Father Kino. He enjoyed painting roadrunners (symbol of the desert), bullfights, horses, cacti and angels. Even the gallery itself is a work of art. Using traditional adobe bricks made on site, he built it so his paintings “would feel good inside.” My favorite was the unusual flooring in one section. It was made from cholla cactus embedded in the adobe.

On May 12, 1976, DeGrazia made a big protest against the Internal Revenue Service when he created a bonfire in the Superstition Mountains near Phoenix and burned 100 of his paintings, watercolors, pastels and sketches valued around $250,000. They were burned because his heirs could not have them without paying taxes on their market value.

DeGrazia built this lovely adobe chapel, noting that he was not a church going man but was religious. It was the first building constructed on the property. The ceiling is open to the sky and his frescoes dominate the walls.

Inner doorway to chapel interior

DeGrazia’s first home here with several rooms remains and is very rustic and atmospheric. It looks like it has not been renovated in any way but left as it was when he and his wife moved out and into newer quarters on the property.

DeGrazia home – living area and doorway to bedroom

After this enjoyable visit, we headed to the other side of town to see our former home we bought in 1982. This was the first house we ever purchased and we lived here for just a few years before moving to California. We have been back to see the outside a few times since we left, but it had been a long time since we last saw it. I found the front yard to be so different from when we lived here. For those that remember from a previous blog article, I talked about how much I liked saguaro cactus and even planted one in our front yard. Well, I noted with a little sadness that the saguaro was gone. We had some good times in that house, ah…..memories.

Our former home in Tucson

We finished our day at Catalina State Park, a popular and very beautiful place to explore outside of Tucson. The park opened in 1983 when we were still living here, but I don’t recall us visiting it before we moved away. Mark can remember hiking in the Catalina Mountains when he was a teenager and there were no established trails. After being dropped off by his parents, he and a friend took off into the hills for a few nights of backpacking.

The park features camping, picnicking, miles of trails to explore in the foothills and mountains of the Catalinas, streams, meadows and many saguaros. We decided to do a little hiking on one of the trails. During our trek we came upon wildflowers such as the field of lupine in the photo below.

The trail followed a stream much of the way with hillsides dotted with saguaros.

There were several fun little stream crossings so we got to do some rock hopping.

The trail switchbacked up for some closer views of the mountains.

We talked to one lady, a former Californian who was out for a walk. She said since she lived nearby, she came often to walk here after work. She said she missed her former home, but this was one perk of living in the Tucson area. I would love to be able to visit this park often and explore all the different trails and areas. Tucson has some great places to hike and this is certainly one of its gems.

In the next blog I explore the historic town of Tombstone, Arizona.

4 thoughts on “African Cuisine, Gallery of the Sun, Catalina State Park and a Bit of Nostalgia”

  1. I am living vicariously through your blog. Feel live part of me is still in Tucson. Are you till there or on your way back to California? Spring is just coming here. Magnolias blooming, grass turning green and tulips popping out of ground. Stay well.

    1. Great to hear from you Ilona! I appreciate your comment! We are currently in Kansas and continuing to head East. We won’t be back in California until some time in November. We are heading to Ohio for warbler migration on Lake Erie and then plan to visit all of the Midwest states. I am glad you are enjoying spring weather. It sounds beautiful, I just love tulips.

  2. Yes was so excited to read this post! Definitely a surprise to find West African cuisine. I love these kinds of places, everything cooked with love. Such a great travel day to see native american art, eat West African food and see beautiful desert landscapes. I’m motivated to find a west African place near me to try

    1. Yes, Matt, that African restaurant was a great find and we enjoyed sharing it with you and Emma. I hope we find others in our travels! You should find one in the L.A. area and we can visit together when we come your way.

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