Tucson: UNESCO City of Gastronomy
Chef, Farmers and Purveyors Tell Southern Arizona City’s Fare Story
How did Tucson end up as a UNESCO designated City of Gastronomy? What’s happening to prompt Food & Wine to name Tucson one of “America’s Next Great Food Cities”? Or for National Geographic Food to ponder whether Tucson is “the best city in for Mexican food in the US”? Or for Bravo’s Top Chef to select Tucson as the finale location of the Season 19 episodes?
Tucson is having a moment and the only way to experience that moment - built upon the foundation of thousands of years of agricultural history - is to come here and taste (and taste and taste) for yourself.
UNESCO City of Gastronomy
In December 2015, Tucson snagged the United States’ first UNESCO World City of Gastronomy title, joining cities in Brazil, China, Sweden and elsewhere.
Southern Arizona looks—and tastes—like nowhere else in North America, with a rich culinary heritage that spans 5,000 years and a border that encompasses distinct Mexican and Native traditions in both food and drink. Tucson’s culinary scene has long had a loyal local following, but now the secret is out and we’re attracting national and international travelers to our tables.
Farmers and ranchers are the backbone of our agricultural legacy; chefs and mixologists continue the tradition, tweaking recipes using indigenous ingredients such as chiltepins, cholla buds, prickly pear syrup, mesquite flour, tepary beans, and White Sonoran wheat in creative concoctions.
How can you experience what UNESCO chose to honor? Chefs like Maria Mazon of Boca Tacos y Tequila, John Martinez of Tito and Pep, Carlotta Flores of El Charro Café and Scott Girod of Anello are using local ingredients in bold and interesting ways, reflecting the biodiversity of the Sonoran Desert.
Want to take it to the next level? Visit Mission Garden, nicknamed the birthplace of Tucson, where the ancient Hohokam Indians channeled the Santa Cruz riverbed to grow indigenous crops some 5,000 years ago. Today, this living agricultural museum showcases the influences each culture, including The Hohokam, Tohono O’odham, Spanish, Mexican, and Chinese, had on Tucson’s evolving culinary scene. Or shop Native Seeds/SEARCH’s online retail shop to buy seeds, spice blends and more so you can incorporate a taste of the Sonoran Desert into your at-home cooking (plus, you help fund their cataloging and preserving of seeds native to our area).
The Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food
What is The Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food? It’s an adventure of incredible food and a wide array of dining options, from fine to funky. It’s a line drawn in the sand of the Sonoran Desert (although we should add, the desert here is much greener than you think): you won’t find better Mexican food anywhere north of the border. Within the 23 miles, the dining options are seemingly as numbered as the stars in the sky, and no matter which restaurant you select, your tastebuds will thank you.
Hungry for tacos? Try Taqueria Pico de Gallo, offering staples like carne asada and chicken, plus more exotic flavors such as lengua (tongue) on crispy flour or thick and hearty corn handmade tortillas. Not to be overlooked – Tacos Apson – which initially only served their signature carne asada taco, but as their popularity grew, so too did their menu to include mouthwatering barbacoa, al pastor and fish tacos. Never tried a birria taco? You can remedy that at Rollie’s, where tacos made from chunks of chuck roast stew and Oaxacan cheese offer the perfect combination of salty and savory.
El Guero Canelo has taken an American tradition, the hotdog, and transformed it into something that is arguably even more delicious – the Sonoran dog. Winner of the 2018 James Beard Foundation’s Americas Classic award, El Guero Canelo’s Sonoran dog is a bacon-wrapped hotdog that’s topped with pinto beans, onions, tomatoes and your choice of mayonnaise, mustard and even jalapeno salsa in a fluffy bolillo bun.
For dessert, enjoy a raspado from Oasis Fruit Cones. The antithesis to Tucson’s hot summer weather, this sweet treat features a healthy dose of fresh fruit toppings and an option of ice cream or lechera (evaporated milk) drizzled on top of shaved iced. Craving a pastry? Indulge at La Estrella Bakery, a traditional Mexican panadería that’s best known for their donuts, which were recently heralded as the most delectable in Arizona by Food & Wine Magazine.
A Dynasty Grows
Did you know the oldest family-run continuously operating Mexican restaurant in the United States is in downtown Tucson? It’s the aforementioned El Charro Café, run by female Chef Carlotta Flores, and in 2022 the restaurant celebrated its 100-year anniversary. Founded by Flores’ great aunt, Monica Flin, Flores honors her aunt’s culinary traditions in her menu as well as the historic building the restaurant occupies. El Charro is the birthplace of the chimichanga, which we’d suggest you order with the restaurant’s famed carne seca (dried beef). Just as Flin would have done 100 years ago, Flores dries the carne in a cage on the roof of the restaurant for an optimal flavor punch.
While Flin’s journey as a restauranter was one of constant struggle (she used to take patron’s orders, then run down the street to purchase ingredients at the local Chinese grocer before returning to prepare food), Flores has taken her great aunt’s founding principles and her own business acumen to expand El Charro into a restaurant dynasty. Today, Flores is the matriarch behind the casual eatery Pub 1922, the celebrated steak and seafood Charro Steak and Del Rey, the plant-focused Charro Vida, the casual sandwich shop Barrio Charro (in conjunction with the 2022 James Beard Outstanding Baker recipient Don Guerra), and the brand new The Monica. The latter is named after Flin and features favorite family recipes as well as those curated by community members.
Purveyors that Pack a Punch
It’s not just Tucson’s restaurants that are shining a light on the culinary traditions of the Southwest. It’s also the purveyors, who are honing their craft with superlative ingredients and flavors exclusively found in and around Tucson.
Tucson-based Don Guerra, the 2022 James Beard Award’s Outstanding Baker winner, is considered one of the founding fathers of the so-called “grain train” movement, baking his breads with heritage grains that date back to the 17th century when Spanish missionaries first brought them to the area. While more commonplace now, this idea was completely revolutionary when Guerra founded his business, Barrio Bread, out of his garage in 2009. Since then, the demand for his products has grown tremendously and in 2016, he opened a storefront (noticeably the same dimensions as his garage) and began to partner with various restaurants to sell his heritage grain creations. Today, he’s translating his hard-earned success into that of others by mentoring Tucson refugees to establish their own food businesses.
Monsoon Chocolate Founder and CEO Adam Scott Krantz, a longtime Tucsonan, is turning the heads of chocolate lovers the world over. One of only two chocolatiers in Arizona, Krantz distinguishes himself by not only making chocolate, but manufacturing it himself. He’s committed to using only transparently-sourced cacao and processing it minimally when crafting chocolate morsels that feature Sonoran Desert ingredients, including chiltepin pepper, prickly pear caramel and Sonoran sea salt. In 2020-2021, his painstaking efforts led to Monsoon Chocolate winning the top honor at the International Chocolate Awards.
Ever sipped on a refreshing prickly pear margarita? There’s a good chance the syrup came from Cheri’s Desert Harvest, run by Native Tucsonan Cheri Romanoski. The one-time teacher and history buff used her knowledge of the Sonoran Desert’s indigenous plant life to kickstart her company nearly four decades ago. Today her thriving business features food products ranging from mesquite bean jelly candy to cactus marmalade.
Get Yourself a Drink
Feeling thirsty? There’s never been a better time to explore Tucson’s beer, wine and cocktail culture.
Tucson’s craft beer scene is among the nation’s most up-and-coming and promising, with more than 20 places making hyper-local product and even more to come. Find out why Tucson beers are making headlines at Barrio Brewing, Dragoon Brewing Co., 1912, Dillinger Brewing Company and Pueblo Vida. Want to sample a few local beers in one place? Try Tap & Bottle or Tucson Hop Shop, both of which feature a row of rotating taps showcasing the best of Tucson’s brews and something worth trying from around the world.
Arizona’s flourishing wine scene is on display in Tucson. Tasting rooms and wine collectives source their product from two primary wine regions in the state, one of which – the Sonoita/Willcox region – is only about 1.5 hours from downtown. Sip and savor the terroir of the Grand Canyon State without ever having to leave Tucson at Sand Reckoner Tasting Room, Flying Leap Vineyards Tasting Room and the Arizona Wine Collective. For an even more elevated experience, stay at the brand new The Citizen Hotel, which boasts a full wine program in conjunction with Sand Reckoner Cellars (located in the basement of the hotel). Guests are invited to join a daily wine toast and enjoy discounted tours of the cellar and barrel tastings.
Want something a bit stronger? Look for mesquite-smoked Whiskey del Bac from Hamilton Distillers behind the bar at Tucson’s best restaurants and lounges – or better yet, visit their distillery for a tour. Also, a quick tip: Tucson’s cocktail culture goes far beyond the margarita (although we have those too). The bartenders at downtown spots like Tough Luck Club, Club Congress, Owl’s Club and Good Oak Bar and elsewhere are serving drinks every bit as creative (and delicious) as those slid across the bar in NY, LA or SF – minus the big city price attached.
Tucson offers great opportunities to eat year-round, but if you need that extra push, consider coming for one of our savory culinary events.
Agave Heritage Festival
This multi-day festival celebrates the art, science, and cultural traditions behind producing agave-based spirits and products. Taking place each May, the fiesta extols the indigenous agave plant with a tradeshow, seminars, workshops, demonstrations, and tastings of tequilas, mezcals, sotols, and bacanoras at Hotel Congress and several other Tucson indoor and outdoor venues. Programs and guest speakers hail from both sides of the United States-Mexico border.
Pueblos del Maiz
In conjunction with three other designated food heritage cities in Mexico and the United States, Tucson hosts the first weekend of a month-long celebration of maiz: a food whose cultural and culinary impact spans physical and cultural boundaries. The festivities are in May each year and include offerings by regional food vendors, chef demonstrations, live music and entertainment, educational panels, and movie screenings. Pueblos del Maiz continues in the weeks following the Tucson celebration in San Antonio, as well as Merida and Puebla, Mexico.
Ha: San Bak Saguaro Festival
Each June, work side-by-side with local members of the Tohono O’odham Tribal Nation to harvest and process the fruits of the saguaro cactus while learning about the plant’s cultural, historical, and spiritual significance to the people who have made the desert their home for centuries. The event includes presentations, hands-on activities, and (harvest permitting) a jar of Saguaro Syrup to take home with you.
Tucson Meet Yourself
Founded in 1974, Tucson Meet Yourself takes place in October each year and is an annual celebration of the living traditional arts of Southern Arizona’s and Northern Mexico’s diverse ethnic and folk communities. The free, three-day event, fondly called Tucson Eat Yourself by locals, features hundreds of artisans, home cooks, dancers, musicians and special exhibits that celebrate and honor beauty in all its diverse, informal, and everyday forms.
Tamal & Heritage Fest
Celebrate the rich tastes, smells, and variations of tamales from the Southwest and Mexico, and discover the culinary tradition of making tamales for Christmas at the annual Tamal & Heritage Fest at Casino Del Sol Resort each December. Concerts by mariachi bands and performances by Mexican folk-dancers amp up this borderland celebration.