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, John Martinez of Tito and Pep, Tyler Fenton of BATA, and Devon Sanner of Zio Peppe 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, African, 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).
Discover America's Best Mexican Food
With its proximity to the Mexican border (about an hour’s drive), Tucson is home to the best Mexican food in America. Embark on an adventure of incredible food and a wide array of dining options from fine to funky. You won’t find better Mexican food north of the border. Here, dining options are seemingly as numbered as the stars in the sky, and no matter which restaurant you select, your taste buds will thank you.
Hungry for tacos? Try El Taco Rustico, 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 Rollies Mexican Patio, 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 (condensed milk) drizzled on top of shaved ice. Craving a pastry? Indulge at La Estrella Bakery, a traditional Mexican panaderia (bakery) 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 El Charro Café, run by 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, and the 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 refining the chocolate from its original form as a cacao bean, but creating the bon-bons, chocolate bars, and other delicious creations 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. In 2023, he opened Monsoon Chocolate Café + Market in Tucson’s midtown area, converting their original location on 22nd Street into a gift shop and factory where guests can get a behind-the-scenes look on a factory tour.
Founders of local seasoning purveyor, Desert Provisions, Amanda Horton and Alex Bradspies, are passionate about sharing the great flavors of the desert southwest with the world, showcasing flavors that have fed the people in this region for over four-thousand years. Spice up any dish with their Wild Chiltepins, the “mother of all chile peppers,” or make something savory with their Sonoran Sea Salt, harvested from the Sea of Cortez, bearing traces of its journey through the Grand Canyon. With community in mind, Desert Provisions have recently partnered with local makers like Whiskey Del Bac to create their Whiskey Salt, and Sand-Reckoner Vineyards on their Red Wine Salt.
When you think of agave spirits, chances are your mind immediately goes to tequila or mezcal. PARCH founders Rodolfo Aldana and Ila Byrne are creating a buzz with their first-of-its-kind, non-alcoholic agave cocktails, that replace alcohol with active adaptogens. Their recipe uses Blue Weber Agave from Jalisco, Mexico infused with a blend of active adaptogens that include the likes of Ashwagandha, American Ginseng, and GABA to create refreshing, tasty, and complex non-alcoholic cocktails. In 2023, their hard work earned them a spot in PepsiCo’s Greenhouse Accelerator Program: Juntos Crecemos Edition, designed to provide support and mentorship to Hispanic small businesses.
Despite the lack of cold, wet forests in Tucson, Kris Savage and John De Lorenzo have found a sustainable way to bring locally grown mushrooms to the desert. The two founded Desert Pearl Mushrooms in 2018 in their backyard using agroponics and have since expanded to a warehouse facility that produces 500 pounds of mushrooms a week for local restaurants and retailers. Desert Pearl Mushrooms partner with local favorites like BATA, Agustin Kitchen, Maynards Market, 5 Points Market & Restaurant, and more. The two now provide fresh mushrooms for restaurants and farmers markets around Tucson, while selling their dried and powdered mushrooms and mushroom tinctures online.
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 Borderlands Brewing Co., 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, the Willcox and Sonoita/Elgin regions – only about 1.5 hours and 1 hour away from downtown, respectively. 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.
Want something a bit stronger? Look for mesquite-smoked Whiskey del Bac behind the bar at Tucson’s best restaurants and lounges – or better yet, visit their distillery for a tour. 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, barbata, 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 April, 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.
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 Tucson’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.