Local Flavor: the best places to eat and drink in Tucson, Arizona


Located in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, the vivacious little city of Tucson, Arizona, has a unique culinary scene that represents a confluence of cultures.

Despite its ecological classification, the Sonoran Desert is anything but a barren wasteland – it’s actually one of the most biologically diverse deserts in the world and the only maritime desert in North America (the Sea of Cortez/Gulf of California greatly influences weather patterns here). Life – plant and animal – is abundant, and Indigenous people in the area have utilized the bounty in their foodways for thousands of years. In fact, Tucson is home to several recognized “heritage crops” that have sustained people for millennia: amaranth greens, prickly pear fruits, mesquite pods, wolfberries, the list goes on. 

Today, Tucson’s food scene reflects Indigenous, Mexican, European, African and Chinese influences, and it’s this multifaceted background that contributed to the city’s title as a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy (currently the only one in the US). So, eating in Tucson is more than a luxury – it’s a journey defined by tradition, innovation, collaboration and resourcefulness, whether you’re indulging in a simple, perfectly balanced taco or a complex high art tasting menu. 

Here’s my list of Tucson favorites that illuminate all the things that make this region a gastronomical treasure. 

Seis Kitchen serves up incredible breakfasts, we recommend a plate of chilequiles © Bailey Freeman / Lonely Planet

Breakfast

If you wake up famished, make a beeline for Seis Kitchen (I love the atmospheric location at Mercado San Augustín) and dive headlong into an enormous plate of their utterly magnificent chilaquiles. The thick, house-made tortilla chips bring it all together. And no matter the hour, don’t skip the guac – ‘tis legendary. 

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 Order a piece of cake to go with your cup of joe, you won’t regret it © Hotel Congress

Coffee

If you ask a Tucsonian where to go for coffee, they’ll tell you to go to the Cup Cafe at the historic Hotel Congress (the notorious gangster John Dillenger was apprehended here in 1934, apparently uttering “Well, I’ll be damned!” upon his capture). Fascinating history aside, this cafe delivers loads of personality along with a dang fine cup of bean water. Those in the know will tell you to opt for a piece of cake from their daily selection of baked goods – and I can tell you from experience, the carrot cake and coffee make for the perfect pair. 

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Lunch in Tucson is all about the tacos – head to Taqueria Pico de Gallo for traditional tacos with homemade tortillas © Bailey Freeman / Lonely Planet

Lunch

When it’s time for lunch, it’s time for tacos. There is no shortage of taco shops in Tucson, each one with devoted clientele, and their styles run the gamut – traditional barbacoa, birria, international fusion and more. Since we are in the Sonoran Desert and fish is a thing, we can’t skip Taqueria Pico de Gallo, which specializes in crispy fish tacos on homemade tortillas. Add a little spritz of lime and enjoy the excellent interplay of tart and savory.

If you’re wanting to try something a bit more contemporary, Rollies is a must-visit. The cheery little pink-and-blue taco joint serves up some of the most prized birria tacos in Tucson, as well as decadent open-faced enchiladas, rolled tacos (hence the name) and even birria ramen. Our recommendation? Have everyone order a different option – then divide and conquer.

Note: In Tucson, tacos are served on Sonoran flour tortillas, end stop. It’s a controversial move for corn-tortilla die-hards, but do as the locals do, friends. 

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Ayla Kapahi, the head brewer of Borderlands Brewery – she uses local ingredients to make the perfect pint © Bailey Freeman / Lonely Planet

Happy Hour

Nothing is better than sipping a drink on a patio as the desert sun starts to set – the sky turns into cotton candy, and everything cools off about 20 degrees, putting happy hour in Tucson in a class of its own. 

Beer drinkers should head over to Borderlands Brewing, a women-run brewery that has taken the beer scene by storm with its creative suds and its community-oriented business model. Borderlands regularly does cross-border collaborations with women brewers in Mexico, and back at home, they use local ingredients like heirloom corn grown by the local Tohono O’odham Nation. Their beers are essentially Tucson in a glass – Imperial Churro Cream Ale, Prickly Pear Wheat and La Miche chile beer have all made appearances on the taps. 

If you’re more of a cocktail person, we love the Red Light Lounge tucked away in the Downtown Clifton, an independent hotel run by the effervescent Tucsonan Moniqua Lane. The patio here is cozy, and the drinks are complex and flavorful; even if you ask for something simple, the bartenders will make sure it’s the best version you’ve ever had.

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Head to BATA if you’re interested in the experimental fusion of Japanese cooking with Tucson flavors © Bailey Freeman / Lonely Planet

Dinner

Tucson really struts its stuff at dinnertime, so no matter your vibe, you’ll be eating well. To start, James Beard Semifinalist Tito & Pep run by lifelong Tucsonan John Martinez delivers deliciously modern takes on Sonoran classics – the sea bass crudo offers zingy balance to the menu’s richer fare, like the magnificent grilled octopus and the Sea of Cortez shrimp with masa dumplings. 

If you want a taste of a true local classic, dive into a steak from Charro Steak & Del Rey, a family institution that’s been running since 1922 – pair it with a smoky mezcal and you’ll be in carnivore heaven. Those looking for a more experimental experience shouldn’t miss BATA, a high-end spot that marries Japanese cooking techniques with Tucson flavors to create delicate creations like beef tartare with embered oak aioli and a Sonoran flour tortilla, and the poached halibut with salsa verde and smoked butter sabayon.

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Check out the truffles at Monsoon Chocolate for flavor combinations like Blue Corn Atole White Chocolate © Bailey Freeman, Lonely Planet

Sweet Treats

If you want a sweet treat that’s more than a sugar rush, make your way to Monsoon Chocolate. This chocolaterie specializes in working with local flavors, an endeavor that has culminated in their exquisite Desert Series, chocolate bars dedicated to ingredients like blue corn, mesquite, sea salt and more. My personal favorite is the Blue Corn Atole White Chocolate, an inspired tribute to the Mexican masa-based drink; I’m not even a huge fan of white chocolate, but this bar delivers a delicately creamy – almost floral – tasting experience unlike anything I’ve ever tried before.

Don’t miss out on Monsoon’s large variety of bonbons either – the Chiltepín bonbon lights up your mouth with the spice of Tucson’s favorite chile. Other flavors include the cocoa nib horchata and mezcal caramel – what more could your sweet tooth ask for?

Explore more of Tucson’s culinary scene with a visit to Mission Garden.



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