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.
In December 2015, Tucson snagged the United States’ first UNESCO City of Gastronomy title, joining cities in Brazil, China, Colombia, Japan, Lebanon, and Sweden.
As the hub of Baja Arizona (officially
, Southern Arizona), the Tucson area looks—and tastes—like nowhere else in North America. The rich culinary heritage of this international border region spans 4,000 years and encompasses distinct Mexican and Native American agricultural traditions that are reflected in everyday food and drink. Once a secret shared by locals, Tucson's unique culinary scene is attracting ever more national and international travelers to its dining tables.
Video: Arizona Expedition Episode 3: Emily's Food Tour, Tucson
Farmers, foragers, and ranchers are the backbones of Tucson's agricultural legacy; chefs and mixologists continue the tradition, tweaking recipes using indigenous ingredients -- such as chiltepin, cholla bud, prickly-pear syrup, mesquite flour, tepary bean, and white Sonora wheat -- in creative concoctions.
Ready to experience why Tucson deserves this prestigious designation? Here are a few of our favorite places to explore Baja Arizona’s borderland cuisine.
946 W. Mission Lane
Archaeological excavations at the foot of Sentinel Peak (popularly known as “A” Mountain) revealed the Santa Cruz River floodplain is one of the longest continually cultivated areas in North America. A re-creation of the Spanish colonial walled garden built by Father Eusebio Francisco Kino in the 17th century, Mission Garden is nurtured by volunteers of the nonprofit Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace. Located just west of downtown near the site of the former San Agustin Mission, it features an heirloom fruit tree orchard and vegetable gardens with crops grown here for thousands of years. Trace its history from the Early Ancestral period, through Native, Spanish, Mexican, Chinese, and Territorial Anglo-American periods. In addition to the flora and fauna, you're sure to have winged company: birds and butterflies. See the website for tours, classes, workshops, and events.
3061 N. Campbell Ave.
Native Seeds/SEARCH is agricultural gold. Co-founded in 1983 by author, educator and ethnobiologist Gary Paul Nabhan, Native Seeds/SEARCH safeguards an extensive collection of open-pollinated, non-GMO, desert-adapted seeds from throughout the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico, many of which are found nowhere else on earth. You can visit the Seed Bank and purchase seeds for your home garden from the knowledgeable, friendly staff. The retail store stocks an amazing selection of regional cookbooks, along with locally sourced beans, moles, salsas, and teas, and artisan crafts including baskets, kitchen utensils, mugs, and t-shirts. There are often demonstrations—a recent one featured Mata Ortiz potters—workshops, special events and plant sales.
8100 Oidak Wog
When making a pilgrimage to the splendid “White Dove of the Desert,” or Mission San Xavier del Bac, don’t miss the farm store at the San Xavier Co-op Farm. Situated on the Tohono O’odham Nation, the farm has sustained itself for generations using a sophisticated irrigation system pulling from the Santa Cruz River. Herbicide- and pesticide-free hay and feed are staple crops, as are dried beans and corn, in addition to fresh seasonal produce like summer and winter squash. The mesquite cookie mix, roasted green chile rub, honey, and pickled veggie jars—think cabbage and okra—made by tribal members make great gifts. Look for farm tours and seasonal workshops on topics like beekeeping and wild harvesting.
196 N. Court Ave.
Sample Tucson’s rich food heritage on a walking tour of key cultural sites within the city’s historic core. “The Presidio District Experience: A Progressive Food Heritage and History Tour” focuses on foods grown by the Tohono O’Odham and foods brought here by the Spanish, which can still be found on Tucson menus. Ethnobotanist Martha Burgess leads the tour, which features tastings of heritage foods such as mesquite flour, tepary bean, prickly-pear fruit, citrus, agave, and carne seca. Stops include Presidio Museum including Three Wells Distilling, El Charro Café, La Cocina Restaurant, and Café A La C’Art. Tours fill quickly and pre-registration is required. Tour dates and information are available on the district's website.
4210 N. Campbell Ave.
A collaboration between the Pima County Cooperative Extension and the University of Arizona, with support from local businesses, nonprofits, and schools, Tucson Village Farm has been recognized by former First Lady Michelle Obama for its successful efforts to connect young people (starting at the tender age of two) to the land, teaching them to grow and prepare healthy food. In 2010, it was a dirt lot; now it serves more than 20,000 youth and adults annually with year-round instructional programs and immersive, play-in-the-dirt summer farm camps. The farm regularly offers a pick-your-own produce market, public tours, and events.
100 S. Avenida del Convento at Mercado San Agustín
Thursdays 3 pm - 6 pm (Oct. - Apr.)
Thursdays 4 pm - 7 pm (May - Sep.)
The Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona operates this market whose mission is to provide greater access to fresh, healthy local food to under-served citizens in the region. It also connects farmers and artisanal food producers with residents and visitors every Thursday afternoon year-round. Named by Farmers’ Almanac as one of the nation’s 10-best farmers markets, it’s held in Mercado San Agustin, a great place to grab a coffee—or glass of wine—and hang out. In addition to just-picked produce and organic meat, vendors offer freshly baked tortillas, jarred salsas, and roasted chiles. Live music and frequent cooking demos add to the fun.
855 N. Melrose Ave.
Manzo Elementary School students—preschoolers through fifth graders—grow fresh fruits and vegetables in gardens at the “greenest elementary school on the planet,” according to the Center for Green Schools. The school has a garden and ecology program that is integrated into the curriculum of every classroom in the school. University of Arizona interns worked with students and staff to construct a desert biome garden, desert tortoise habitat, vegetable garden, a small heritage fruit tree orchard, a school wide composting program, aquaponics system, and active and passive rainwater harvesting systems. School and garden tours are available upon request.