Aw Shucks: Kingfisher celebrates 25 years of fresh seafood and innovative dishes

By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski

Kingfisher’s Jim Murphy acknowledges the restaurant is having a big year. The Tucson mainstay is celebrating its 25th anniversary and Kingfisher’s longevity is apparent. He and his Kingfisher partner, Jeff Azersky, are seeing repeat customers’ children coming through the door.

“It’s nice to see kids we met who were 10, now 15 years later or 20 years later,” Murphy says.

“They’re college graduates or professionals or they’re married. It’s nice to see the rotation of people come through. Unfortunately, at 25 years, we’re also losing quite a few guests. The diner who was 40 or 50 when we opened, they’re getting older and that’s unfortunate. It happens in any business that’s been open for 25 years, though.”

Kingfisher was founded by four food guys in the early 1990s. Murphy, Azersky, Tim Ivankovich and John Burke decided Tucson needed a seafood restaurant. On September 1, 1993, their dream became a reality as Kingfisher opened in the space formerly occupied by the Iron Mask. Burke changed occupations and Ivankovich passed away four years ago.

Kingfisher thrived through rough economic times. Most nights find a packed dining room and people stacked up waiting for seats in the bar.

A large part of its success is never compromising on quality with most seafood offerings flown in daily. Each dish is impeccably fresh with the menu ever evolving according to the season and availability. Every local oyster lover knows that Kingfisher is the place for the best, freshest and most interesting assortment in the Southwest.

“We’re pretty particular about what we buy and what we serve and how it’s served,” he says. “I think a lot of that shines through to our guests and they understand that. We try to keep it consistent.

“Food is a big relationship issue. I don’t catch the fish, so I have to trust the person I’m buying from. We nurture relationships with guests and who we’re buying from.”

Kingfisher is well known for its oysters (market price) and the macadamia nut-crusted Hawaiian fish with lemongrass butter sauce, Texmati rice, sautéed spinach and fried sweet potato chips ($25).

“The fish is sautéed first and then it’s coated with crushed macadamia nuts and breadcrumbs,” he says. “It’s then sautéed in butter and finished in the oven.

“It’s one of the five items that’s been on every menu, which changes three to four times a year.”

Other entrees include pan-seared Scottish salmon (saffron broth, wilted spinach, fingerling potatoes, grape tomato-shallot basil relish and garlic-chive aioli, $26); Kingfisher burger ($15); and the roast chicken pot pie (carrot, fennel, green beans, peas, fingerling potatoes, spinach, mushrooms, chicken veloute’, fresh herbs in a puff pastry cap, $21).

The restaurant is just as dynamic as the food choices. Built in the 1950s, the building was used as a warehouse space and a tire store.

“If you look at the bricks, they have an odd pattern,” he says. “We were told later it’s the pattern of a Welsh bricklayer. Any bricklayer by trade would recognize the random pattern.

“It’s a great building. When we got in here, there were no windows, no skylights. It looked like a dungeon. We cut in all the windows and the skylight to open it up.”

Accordion doors to the private dining room have been replaced with a glass entryway. Stained glass artwork sits above the door.

“All of the art in here has a local aspect to it,” Murphy says.

The many works range from glass “rock” sculptures by Tom Philabaum to paintings by Jim Waid that capture the Southwest desert’s heat and light. Acrylics are by the late Nancy Tokar Miller, and photos by William Lesch render the big skies of the West in black and white. Lewis Framing Studio shuffles the artwork.

“Nancy Tokar Miller lived right down the street,” Murphy says. “The bar has some interesting stuff. There are a couple photos in here of kingfishers in Tanzania.

“The chairs are from the Iron Mask. They were in here when we bought it, so we kept them. They’re pretty iconic in Tucson.”

Food was a natural career choice for Murphy, a graduate of Brophy Prep in Phoenix. He is one of three siblings who are trained professional chefs. Prior to Phoenix, the Murphys lived in Washington, D.C., next door to a French family headed by the executive chef at Sans Souci.

“Either mom was a great cook and she taught us a lot, or she was not so good,” he says with a laugh.

“In reality, she was a fantastic cook. In our house, if we wanted to cook dinner, we had to write what we were going to serve, prepare a shopping list, purchase the ingredients and prepare it.”

His mother was progressive in her food choices.

“We were eating John Dorian avocados and sprouts, things that weren’t mainstream,” he says. “We had liver once a month. We had roast lamb. It opened our minds to food.”

Kingfisher’s future is solid, Murphy says.

“We’re not going anyway,” he says with a smile. “I still have kids in college. Jeff has kids going to college. We’re still in our 50s and we still have a vibrant clientele.”