Discover a culinary oasis nestled in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, where the ingredients are locally sourced and the chefs are artisans in their own right.
Baja Arizona looks—and tastes—like nowhere else in North America, with a rich culinary heritage that spans 4,000 years and a border that encompasses distinct Mexican and Native traditions in both food and drink. Given the region’s rich history, it’s easy to see why Tucson was the first locale in the United States to be designated as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy.
From its bustling restaurants helmed by a new guard of Southwestern chefs to its community gardens that celebrate and carry on the region’s traditional agricultural practices, Tucson’s culinary culture must be experienced to be understood. Dine on salads of pickled cholla cactus; sip a cocktail infused with prickly pear; try what just might be the country’s best taco. Go beyond the beaten path and explore one of the most dynamic dining scenes in the Southwest.
With locally driven restaurants, up-and-coming chefs and artisans, and a grounding in regional cuisine, Tucson has made its mark as a foodie destination. Here’s how to dine your way through the Old Pueblo.
A Winning Breakfast. The huevos rancheros at Teresa’s Mosaic Café won Best of Tucson honors four years in a row, before Tucson Weekly finally retired the category. Here’s your chance to sample a dish so renowned that Food Network star Bobby Flay came to town to challenge restaurant owner Teresa Matias and her son, David, on an episode of Throwdown.
Ice, Ice, Baby. Cool down with a refreshing raspado shaved-ice treat from Sonoran Delights. The Mangoyada is topped with diced mango, lime juice and pickled fruit syrup, plus tart tamarind candies.
Market Days. Five days a week, there’s a farmer's market somewhere in town, where vendors offer sustainably ranched meats, organic produce, locally roasted coffee and even gluten-free energy bars. If you can hit St. Philip’s Plaza on a weekend, you’ll browse some of the area’s best merchants in one of Tucson's most scenic plazas.
Parish the Thought. The signature cocktail at the UNESCO Creative Cities Network Conference reception honoring Tucson was created by bartenders at Southern fusion gastropub The Parish, who used local ingredients and flavors in a beverage inspired by Tucson’s refreshing raspados treats. The cocktail list’s inventiveness extends to the dinner menu, too—executive chef Travis Peters and his team recently took home the 2017 Iron Chef Tucson award.
View Finder. Immerse yourself in Sonoran Desert splendor with brunch at Tohono Chul park, which has been named one of the world's 10 best botanical gardens by Travel + Leisure magazine.
Pan for Gold. Sample the pan dulces baked goods at La Estrella Bakery, where the trays of Mexican pastries and cookies will tempt any sweet tooth.
Be Co-Operative. Browse the shelves at Food Conspiracy Co-op, for a great assortment of locally made produce and packaged goods. You'll find aisle after aisle of Tucson-area treasures in this member-owned store that's been around since 1971: tamales from Tucson Tamale Company; dried cholla buds from San Xavier Co-Op Farm; mesquite honey from Sun Apiaries; mole spice blends from Mano y Metate; and bottled organic lemonade and limeade from Patagonia Orchards, to name just a few.
Hot Dog! You've got multiple authentic lunch options at El Güero Canelo: The bacon-wrapped Sonoran hot dog, a Tucson staple, comes loaded with pinto beans, chopped tomatoes, onions, mayo and salsa verde, while carne asada tacos are filled with marinated, grilled beef also strongly associated with the Sonoran region.
Taste History. El Charro Café is the nation's oldest Mexican restaurant in continuous operation, and claims to be the place where the chimichanga was invented. Whether or not the tale es verdad, the fried burro has become a tasty part of Tucson history.
The Cowboy Way. Saddle up early at Tanque Verde Ranch and hit the horse trail for a 21⁄2-hour Breakfast Ride. After you work up an appetite during your journey through desert hills to the ranch's old homestead, you'll enjoy a freshly prepared ranch-style meal—blueberry pancakes, eggs, bacon, biscuits and more—before heading back to home base.
Go to Seeds. The nonprofit Native Seeds bank houses seeds for about 1,900 different types of seeds for traditional crops used by native cultures to grow food and clothing materials. Inside the seed lending library, users can "check out" seeds to grow staples like corn, beans and squash, or dyestuffs like amaranth and sunflowers, then harvest a new generation of the seed to be returned to the library.
A Spirited Event. From 4 to 7 p.m. each Friday, Three Wells Distilling hosts a cocktail hour where visitors can sample its locally crafted prickly pear spirits and agave spirits (only such liquors made in Mexico can be called "tequilas"). Or, schedule a Build-A-Gin session with friends, selecting botanicals and going through all the stages of bottling before leaving with a bottle of your own creation.
International Flair. James Beard Award-winning chef Janos Wilder, who created the menu at Tucson's UNESCO reception, explores regional and international cuisine alike at his Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails restaurant. That leads to an adventurous, ever-changing menu where, say, a pan-roasted chicken breast with habanero pepita pesto can share the roster with labneh-stuffed lamb and bulghur kibbeh.
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