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The Dish on Tucson's Food Scene

Updated: Jan 21, 2019

Author: Cipora Cohon

Tucson, Arizona. A “blue dot in a red state,” and the home of the world-renowned Sonoran hot dog. Aside from heatstroke, they’re all most people know about Tucson. Two restaurants battle it out for top dog, BK Tacos and el Güero Canelo. Featuring a football-shaped bun packed with a dog wrapped and cooked in bacon, pinto beans, onions, salsa verde, mustard and mayonnaise, this single hot dog might be the most complicated dish in Tucson, and was even featured on Travel Channel’s Man VS Food.

Situated about 75 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, Tucson is an oft-overlooked food hub. Although the city itself is not particularly large, the metropolitan area holds just over a million people. This, with the downtown University of Arizona, creates high demand for good food.

Once a completely open desert spotted with Native American tribes like the Navajo, Tucson has become a bustling American city. Native American tribes of the Navajo, Pima and Tohono O’odham shaped the land and built their own cultures and foods before the conquest by Spaniards. Its long Mexican heritage, which mixed with and pushed away the Native tribes, adds a second level of complexity to the area’s food. One of the only American cities in the Sonoran desert, Tucson experiences a wealth of unique flora and fauna. Throughout its sweltering seasons, Tucson’s rich history has only added to its fusion-based cuisine.

Native American influence in cuisine comes through in many ways, but the use and influence of cactus is the most obvious. Natives originally used the Saguaro fruit, which they knocked down by stick. Due to the Saguaro’s protected status, the Prickly Pear has taken its place in local cuisine. This cactus’s fruit is sold as jelly and juice, and is a popular floral taste for all desert dwellers. When visiting Tucson, it is both easy and essential to pick up a bottle of cactus fruit syrup, thinner than maple and just as rich and inviting. Its striking magenta seems mismatched from the fruit’s light and floral flavor. Like most of the desert, the cactus’ harsh exterior makes way for delicate beauty and unexpected subtlety.

In true Wild West spirit of using everything available, the cactus pads are sometimes grilled, sometimes roasted and often served as a special treat. These “nopalitos” (as they are called in Spanish) have the texture of a bell pepper but a slightly citrus tang and moist interior, making for a gorgeous accompaniment to any dish.

Cactus is the only edible plant unique to Tucson. Palo verde (“green stick” in Spanish) and Mesquite trees lend their scents to fires for wood-roasted cuisine, and Mesquite pods, crushed into a powder, make an excellent flour for breads and tortillas (influenced again by the local tribes’ food habits). Local wildflower honey takes on a distinct and refreshing taste. Agave syrups flavor baked goods, drinks and much more.

Weekly farmers’ markets take advantage of these natural treats as well, marketing the best and most local, and restaurants and bars often advertise these flavors. Tucson claims to have the best 23 miles of Mexican food in the nation, from El Charro’s in-house carne seca to Tumerico’s vegan/veggie menu, and the city has been named a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy, the first in the United States. Many of these restaurants, like Tumerico, change their menus based on seasonal ingredients, but all have their staples. A recent trip to Tumerico yielded brunch “nopalitos,” grilled and covered in a slightly spicy sauce, accompanied by scrambled eggs, home fries and their signature salad. This new spot has quickly become a must-visit in Tucson’s food and culture scene, as Guy Fieri of the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, would say.

Café Poca Cosa, a high-end restaurant that changes its chalkboarded menu twice daily, is largely inspired by the chef and owner’s Mexican heritage and background, and it always uses local ingredients. Tropical fruits like coconut and pineapple often appear in dishes, and the molés are abundant. The steep price tag is dwarfed by the portions provided, making this local dining experience a treat.

Nico’s Taco Shop is a local fast food restaurant that serves Mexican just the way many want it: fast, cheap and delicious. American-known favorites like burritos and enchiladas make their way onto the menu, but so do lesser-known dishes like tortas and machaca. And the fun doesn’t stop there. The further south you go, the more abundant the mariachis and raspado places become.

Raspados, Mexican shaved ice, come in many fruit flavors, covered in vanilla ice cream or Chamoy, with or without Tajín, and are mostly ordered in Spanish. Flavorings like Chamoy and Tajín—a sauce made from pickled fruit and a chili-salt condiment—make the savory-spicy-sweet combinations special for everyone.

A large Asian population led to the opening of two international supermarkets, Lee Lee’s International and the 22nd Street Market. Although the latter has since closed, Lee Lee’s sells everything from fresh lychees to every kind of tofu imaginable to za’atar seasoning. A heated debate comes in the form of where to get the best phở in town, whether it’s Miss Saigon, Dao’s Tai Pan’s or Ha Long Bay. Either way, this wealth of good Asian food is only growing as Tucson’s first Korean Barbecue place opened July fifth.

Eegees’s drinks confuse tourists and delight locals. This local chain is over forty years old, and garners much attention. A cross between an Italian ice and a slushy, the fruit-based drinks have three typical flavors: lemon, strawberry and piña colada, as well as a rotating flavor of the month. Perfect on a sweaty day, of which Tucson has many, this drink causes controversy over which flavor of the month is the best.

March is always Lucky Lime, which soothes even the driest throat, but the recent Prickly Pear, the flavor of January 2018, comes as a close second for this local. The drinks come in all sizes, from an eight-ounce kids’ to a 50-serving party pak, and is a favorite for kids’ birthday parties. Their crinkle-cut french fries hedge the line between crispy and chewy, and make for a great snack dipped in an Eegee or their house-made ranch. This is such a popular choice that the company made it a special; ranch-covered fries with imitation bacon bits sell like mad. Their sandwiches, while nothing world-changing, are consistent and tasty.

Local chains have polarized consumers for years. Some argue that Beyond Bread’s Everything Reuben is the best in the country, while traditionalists prefer Rudy’s Reuben, scorning the Everything’s pretzel bun and everything bagel toppings. Either way, most locals agree that Beyond Bread’s sandwiches and house-made breads take the cake.

The food scene downtown is vibrant and lively, much like the university it borders. Cheap eats like The Fix’s mac and cheese come face-to-face with on-tap tea spots and row after row of brunch places. Prep and Pastry, one of the more expensive spots, racks up more than an hour’s wait on a typical weekend, and quickly sells out their fresh pastries. Prickly pear makes an appearance on its menu in a Prickly Pear Tea sweetened with agave or honey. Café Baja, across the street from Prep and Pastry, specializes in Mexican-fusion benedicts and serves up something it calls the Roadrunner 3.0, with grilled jalapeno popper tamale cakes, a New Mexican red chile sauce, hollandaise, an avocado tomatillo arbol chile sauce and chimichurri.

Traditional French cuisine comes on the scene at Maynard’s, which uses its location beside the old train tracks to transport diners to Paris, and delights with its truffle fries. Hub Restaurant serves formidable American dishes, but is best known for its ice creamery across the street.

A close competitor, just down the block but with several locations across town, is the Screamery, which changes flavors with the seasons, and serves such delicacies as honeycomb ice cream. Traditional Spanish tapas get a Mexican infusion at Casa Vicente, a family-run place with no end to the food or the festivities. A Tucson Foodie article recently suggested 43 downtown restaurants, and they have barely brushed the surface.

Whether it is cheap, fast Mexican food at 2 a.m. or an elaborate, five-course meal at Maynard’s, there is no lack of fresh and delicious food in this Southwestern town.

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