Tucson chef Wendy Garcia is having a week.
“I really wanted to be on that list so before I opened the link, my heart started pumping," she said Wednesday morning just before the lunch crowd started trickling into Tumerico at 2526 E. Sixth St. "I was like, 'Oh yes, we made it!'”
On Tucson's west side, Barista del Barrio chef/owner Flavia Briones was trying to wrap her head around news that she, too, had made the cut for the Southwest regional James Beard Award.
"I have no idea what it is," she confessed as her daughter Ariana took orders from a constant stream of midmorning customers at the family's 7-year-old burrito and coffee shop at 1002 N. Grande Ave., just south of West Speedway.
When she was told that the James Beard Award is considered the Academy Award of the foodiverse, she seemed genuinely stunned.
"That's crazy," she said. "I'm in shock."
Garcia and Briones are among 20 chefs from Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Oklahoma named as James Beard Award Southwest semifinalists. The James Beard Foundation, which oversees the annual award, honors regional chefs alongside its national awards for best chef, restaurant, baker and bar.
Garcia said that having her restaurant named this week as the country's top place to eat in 2024 by Yelp was a great honor, but winning a James Beard Award would be the ultimate achievement for her and her Tumerico crew.
"Last year, I wasn't expecting it at all so I was maybe a lot like Flavia; I couldn't believe it," Garcia said. This year, "I really want to go to Chicago in June. It would be an honor to just be there even as one of the finalists. … After the table at the farmers market selling tamales and now having three locations and getting all these awards lately, it’s a dream come true."
The James Beard nomination is the latest in a handful of national honors for Barista del Barrio, which Briones and her son, Sergio, opened in 2017 in the small trailer next door. Ariana joined the restaurant not long into the venture after word spread of the small coffee and burrito stand's grilled burritos filled with eggs, potato, beans and meat, and its inventive coffee concoctions, including their signature Mexican chocolate and horchessso created with horchata.
In 2019, Insider magazine said Barista del Barrio made the best burrito in Arizona. Last May, the restaurant landed No. 28 on Yelp's “Top 100 Places to Eat in the Southwest 2023."
Briones said all of the attention over the years has been heartwarming if not a bit crazy. When she opened the restaurant, the single mother of two was setting out to fulfill a dream of owning her own business and sharing the recipes she experienced from her mom and aunt's kitchens.
She had no business experience or cooking experience; she had worked mostly for the state so that she could get benefits for her children.
When her kids were older, she decided it was time to take the plunge.
"We knew nothing about anything except what I liked and what I wanted to bring to the community," she recalled Wednesday as news of her James Beard nomination began sinking in a bit. "It's kind of a miracle."
Briones and Garcia are among six Arizona chefs on the Southwest list, which also includes New Mexico, Nevada and Oklahoma. Finalists will be announced in April followed in June by the awards ceremonies in Chicago.
Barrio Bread's Don Guerra was Tucson's last James Beard Award winner. He took home top baker in 2022, four years after El Guero Canelo’s Daniel Contreras won in the American Classics category in 2018.