Kelzi Bartholomaei discovered Mother Hubbard's Cafe 30 years ago the same way most people did: cheap breakfast. For under a buck - coffee not included - diners could get two eggs, hash browns and toast.
But since she bought the eatery in 2010, the early-bird breakfast special - $4.50 including coffee - has become the least interesting thing on the menu.
Folks now come to the small diner in the center of the Grant-Stone Shopping Center for Bartholomaei's savory green-corn waffles served on a bed of roasted green chiles, or an omelet fat with lightly sautéed spinach and mushrooms, bacon, red onion and farmer's cheese. For the truly adventurous: the vegetarian Rojos omelet with nopale cactus, roasted green chiles, red chiles and seasonal squash.
In three short years, the classic Tucson greasy spoon that once celebrated its canned corned-beef-hash-and-eggs plate has established a reputation for scratch-made Native American comfort food that verges on fine dining.
Bartholomaei has infused her menu with the type of fresh fare she learned how to make from her grandmother, who taught her the traditional dishes she'd learned in Mexico.
Rave reviews online include this posting from John M. on Yelp: "I was thinking frybread and mutton stew, but that's not what you'll find. Instead, the menu is mostly a gourmet take on traditional American diner fare with a lot of flavors borrowed from pre-Columbian Mexico. What this translates to is eggs, waffles, and so on, but made with unusual ingredients like blue corn, buckwheat, green chiles, agave nectar, etc. You'll also find more cosmopolitan items like eggs Benedict made with eggplant and pesto."
Last Thursday morning, a dozen diners filled a few tables in the cramped dining room, where Day of the Dead artwork by renowned Southwest artist Teresa Villegas grace walls painted in bright yellow and terra cotta red. As one table of diners left another table filled.
Server Lori Coker glided around the dining room refilling mugs with coffee from Café Aqui, a micro-roasting company based in South Tucson.
She greeted every diner with an invitation to "sit where you want."
In the kitchen, head cook Brett Rucker had just enough room to turn around.
He flipped an omelet on the flattop, then turned around to dress it with chopped scallions and cremé fraiche stored in a minifridge on the other side.
One of eight full-time employees, he's been at the restaurant a year. He said he loves the challenge of the sizable menu and making nearly everything - from the waffle batter to the hollandaise sauce on the eggs Benedict - to order from scratch.
It didn't used to be that way under Mother Hubbard's previous owners.
Bartholomaei bought the restaurant from Cal Fisher, who was owner No. 5 or 6, she said. He told her he was turning 70. No one in his family had made it to 70, and he surely did not want to spend life after 70 slinging hash browns and flipping eggs.
The timing was perfect; Bartholomaei had stepped away from a 30-year career in landscape architecture to spend more time with her family and was looking for a way to return to cooking.
"I'm not the kind of person who can just sit around," she said.
She had applied for a couple of cooking jobs without success. And then came along the idea of buying Mother Hubbard's.
"I was actually kind of excited about it. I thought, well, if I can't get hired, I will just buy my job," she said.
Bartholomaei had never set out to become a cook, much less own a restaurant.
She grew up in Detroit, where her family had immigrated from Mexico to work on the assembly lines.
"I grew up in the heydays of Motown and the auto industry," said Bartholomaei, whose long, gray hair hints that she is north of 50.
She also grew up in the kitchen with her grandmother, who made everything from scratch using ingredients picked or bought that day.
Bartholomaei carries that tradition with her into the crowded produce aisles of El Super on Tucson's south side on Wednesdays, when the market rolls back prices on fresh vegetables and fruit.
By the time she got there last week, shoppers crammed four to five deep into the tight aisles.
She grabbed a cart and joined the throng, inching her way toward a bin overflowing with bright red apples. Half the apples she bagged were for Mother Hubbard's; the others were headed to the Tucson Girls Chorus summer music camp with her daughter, Olivia, who turns 14 next week.
"I make two meals for the girls (music camp)," she explained.
Bartholomaei had worked as a short-order cook as a teenager, but aspired to a future in the fine arts.
She sang in music theater and dreamed of creating glass art after seeing works by pioneering glass artist Harvey Littleton at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
"Detroit has the largest public art museum," she explained. "It was the first city to institute public art education."
There was a hitch to her plans: Bartholomaei was dyslexic and couldn't read.
"I tried college, but I flunked out," she said, sorting through the pile of jicamas until she found one she liked.
She used her fallback plan and worked in restaurants for four years until a friend urged her to reconsider college. It was the mid-1970s and affirmative action in college admissions allowed applicants' racial and ethnic backgrounds to be taken into account to promote campus diversity, she said.
She applied to the University of Wisconsin's glass art program then spent the next four years working around her disability.
"Any time there was anything to do with reading, I would look at the pictures, memorize the lectures and put two and two together and figure it out," she said. "Sometimes I would have friends read for me. And I would ask the professor if I could do something other than a report."
Along the way, she became fascinated with landscape architecture. She learned she could get a double major by adding one semester to her college career.
But again, there was a hitch: While her arts teachers allowed her to skip the reports, the architecture department didn't. She ultimately finished that degree several years later after teaching herself to read.
Bartholomaei supported herself through college by cooking in restaurants throughout Madison, Wis. Her last job was at a French restaurant.
She said she passed up a chance to cook in New York to pursue a career in landscape architecture and spent 28 years in the field, designing water features -think cascading fountains, ponds and the like - throughout the U.S., Asia and Europe.
She made Arizona her home base, settling in Phoenix in the early 1980s and moving to Tucson in 1993 with Tucson glass artist Debra May. The couple married in Mexico 17 years ago, Bartholomaei said.
She left the field seven years ago to spend more time with her and May's daughter.
"I didn't want to be away from home when she was singing in the Girls Chorus or registering for high school," she said as she wheeled her cart filled with bags of produce to the checkout.
A couple of more stops at Tucson farmers markets and produce vendors, including a small south-side stand for fresh corn, and it was back to the restaurant.
While innovative chefs draw a buzz by opening eateries in Tucson's downtown and the Foothills, Bartholomaei has quietly and steadily transformed Mother Hubbard's from its diner-dive reputation into one of the area's most inventive kitchens.
It's tucked in the The Grant-Stone Shopping Center, which is anchored by the Grantstone Asian Supermarket. The area has seen better days. Road construction snarls the corner; drivers navigate traffic cones to maneuver their way into the parking lot.
"I was naive enough to think that 15 minutes after I started cooking my own dishes everybody would come," Bartholomaei said recently, sitting at a table in the back of the restaurant where a chalkboard is filled with the day's scratch-made offerings.
"It really has taken these last two years to build up the momentum to get past the legacy that Mother Hubbard's had."
She waited nine months to roll out her own menu.
"What I'm trying to do is use the foods that are indigenous to the New World, and I'm blending that with the native techniques," she explained.
That means using a variety of chiles - jalapeño, habaneros, anaheims, ghost, scotch bonnets, ancho and chipotle among them - and interesting spice combinations such as the concoction she blends into the chorizo to give it more of a Portuguese-style sweetness and the Thai pickling spices she uses to brine her house-made corned beef.
"If you're looking for a New York-style corned beef in the Jewish-Poland tradition, that's not our corned beef," she said.
That corned beef was the first creation she rolled out, offering it alongside the canned variety that longtime regulars revered.
"They hated it," she said of the initial reaction. "When you go to a diner there are certain foods that just resonate."
She kept the canned version on the menu until just a few months ago.
With every new introduction - including replacing the frozen chicken-fried steak with her freshly made version - she faced a mini-revolt from die-hard Mother Hubbard's fans. Some of them left and never returned.
That has opened the door for new faces who appreciate what Bartholomaei is trying to do.
These days, more diners order specialty waffles over the ubiquitous buttermilk - about 200 orders a week compared with 50. And more people are spending the extra buck for agave nectar instead of table syrup.
The restaurant also is mostly gluten-free, adhering to the Native American traditions that aside from flour tortillas and some pastries rely very little on wheat.
Retired Tucson teacher Gary Svenson had not been to Mother Hubbard's in years when he stopped by for breakfast last Thursday.
"I came here the first time with a girlfriend 40 years ago," he said after finishing a vegetarian omelet. "It was just eggs and toast back then. It was good, but this is much better."
"Tucson is a fringe area. It's not quite Mexican; it's not quite American," he added, calling Mother Hubbard's a perfect fit for Tucson. "We need more places like this."
Bartholomaei is rolling out a more streamlined menu this month. Aside from the early-bird special that first brought her through the doors, she has erased all memory of the Mother Hubbard's that came before her.
"Every day is a new day," she said. "I get to make it up as I go along."
If you go
Mother Hubbard's Cafe
14 W. Grant Road, at North Stone Avenue.
• Hours: 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays.
• Details: 623-7976 or motherhubbardscafe.com
Did you know?
Mother Hubbard's Cafe opened in 1973 and became a neighborhood institution famous for its early-bird breakfast special of two eggs with hash browns and toast for 79 cents - a price that stayed that low through the early 1990s, when it was raised to just under $2. The price has gone up recently to just more than $4 when you add a cup of coffee.
Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4642.