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Untethered and in the open, soaring and diving in their natural environment, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, from mid-October through mid-April, you can get up close to desert birds of prey at the Raptor-Free-Flight. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, just west of Tucson, is home to one of the most spectacular and accessible avian demonstrations in the U.S. The docents' instructions are specific: DO NOT raise your arms in the air suddenly as the birds swoop down, and do not let small children sit on your shoulders during the free-flight. The raptors can fly so low that you literally feel the wind from their feathers... The photo above shows a Ferruginous Hawk. Other native birds you'll likely encounter: Peregrine Falcons, Barn Owls, Red-tailed Hawks, Great Horned Owls, Prairie Falcons, Chihuahuan Ravens, and Harris's Hawks--one of only two raptor species that hunt in family groups--think of a pack of aerial wolves... The Desert Museum, adjacent to Saguaro National Park, is one of the best zoos/botanical gardens of its kind in the world. Don't forget the sunscreen...but if you do, the restrooms are all equipped with dispensers...
Adobe streetfront: door...window...sky. Color. Much of Tucson, like most western U.S. cities, is devoted to strip-malls and parking lots, but the historic core still has blocks of 19th-century Sonoran-style row-houses. In the 1960's, acres and acres of the Barrio Viejo was razed, but fortunately not all of it. Today it's a combination of gentrification and the pleasantly decrepit--attorney's offices, student rentals and family homes share this yard-less streetscape in a bilingual neighborhood. In reading about the history of this neighborhood, I came across this description, written back in the 1930's by Dr. James Harvey Robinson of Columbia University, who was visiting Tucson for the first time: "But this cannot be the United States of America, Tucson, Arizona! This is northern Africa - Tunis! Algiers! - or even Greece, where I have seen as here, houses built flush with the sidewalks with pink, blue, green and yellow walls, flowers climbing out of hidden patios and overall, an unbelievable blue sky. And the sweet-acrid smell in the air? Burning mesquite. Lovely! And the people - charming. But all this is the Old World, not America." The Barrio Viejo is perfect for a bike-ride--you do feel as if you've left reality-TV-obsessed Gringolandia...if only for a few blocks...
Mexican-Korean fusion has arrived in the desert! Every few weeks, all the food trucks in Tucson converge in different neighborhoods for a 'food truck roundup' fiesta, and now, Mafooco (the Mexican Asian Food Company) is among them. Folks in Arizona no longer have to trek across the Sonora and Mojave deserts to Los Angeles for such delicious hybrids as kalbi (Korean short-rib) tacos, and kimchi (Korean sauerkraut with a kick of chili) quesadillas! It's Mexican 'Seoul-food' in the desert!
Just to the southwest of Tucson, on the San Xavier Reservation, sits the late XVIII-century Mission San Xavier del Bac, one of the finest examples of Spanish colonial architecture in the U.S. The combination of late Baroque and Moorish-inspired design is a beacon any time of the year, but on this winter day, the flooded fields worked some magic—panoramas of reflected landscapes are almost nonexistent in southern Arizona! The 'white dove of the desert' is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona, and it still serves as a parish church for the Tohono O'odham people.
There's more than sand in the southern Arizona desert. Come mid-winter through spring, or after the mid-summer monsoon rains, and you'll find flowing water and reflecting pools among the cacti-studded hills. On the northwest flank of the Santa Catalina mountains, just a half-hour's drive north of central Tucson, you'll find a desert oasis in Catalina State Park--a haven for hikers, trail-runners and folks on horseback. Come mid-week to avoid crowds. Saguaro silhouettes--icons of the Southwest. Head back into town after sunset for killer margaritas and enchiladas... For more information: http://azstateparks.com/Parks/CATA/index.html
Most winter visitors to Tucson come here specifically to escape the cold; sunshine and temperatures in the 60's and 70's lure the 'snowbirds.' But winter pays the occasional visit to the cactus-studded landscape. Although snow rarely falls all the way down to the desert floor, the mountains regularly turn white. On this particular January morning, I thought that the storm might clear just in time for sunrise. I ran out the door with the camera, skipping breakfast. When the clouds lifted, there was the combination of cactus, snowcapped peaks, and rainbow: perfect.
Just beyond the western edge of Tucson, you'll find these Hohokam petroglyphs in Saguaro National Park. No one knows precisely when they were carved into the rocks, but Hohokam settlements in the Sonoran desert date back almost two thousand years. We went on a short hike among the saguaro to end up on this hilltop with this pre-columbian art—not your typical suburban stroll.
Come to "El Güero Canelo" if you're in southern Arizona. It's a Tucson food tradition, where you can get the best "Sonoran/Mexican hot dogs" north of the border... But what's a Sonoran hot dog? It's a wiener wrapped in bacon(!), served atop beans in a bolillo roll, topped with tomatoes, mustard, mayo, onions and green chiles, if you get it "con todo"—with everything. (Some say these were invented in the city of Hermosillo, about a half-day's drive south of Tucson, in the mid-20th century; they're hard to find in most of the U.S.) A tamarind soda washes it down nicely, and at "El Güero Canelo" you can get all the salsa, pico de gallo, roasted jalapeños, and grilled green onions you can eat to go with it! (Tacos and burros—not "burritos"—also are available, as well as "caramelos," the Sonoran term for quesadillas-with-meat.) For more info: elguerocanelo.com
Come here and you'll find a solar-powered bookstore, a Guatemalan restaurant, pubs, galleries, cafés, and this brick wall tribute to Gregory Colbert's "Boy Reading to Elephant." (The words that come to mind when I pass this street art are "tell me a good story and I'll never forget.") Just a few blocks north of downtown, and a few blocks west of the University of Arizona, Tucson's Fourth Avenue district is a pedestrian eat-work-drink-play neighborhood with a new streetcar/trolley system. Construction is done, shops and restaurants are open, and you'll find hardly a chain along the eclectic streetscape. From college kids and downtown workers, to artists, professors, and out-of-towners, Fourth Avenue is where the Old Pueblo welcomes techies and yuppies along with the ex-hippies... And, every winter and spring, for decades now, the neighborhood hosts a Street Fair—hundreds of thousands of people come for the arts, crafts, food, and music.
Popsicles that are prickly? Well, prickly as in 'prickly pear' juice from the cactus fruit that ripens into a sweet, amethyst treat in midsummer in the deserts of the Southwest. They're called tuna in Spanish. Stop by the Farmers' Market on a Sunday morning in Tucson, and check out the cactus juice popsicles, displayed on chunks of dry ice. The challenge is to eat it before the juice melts down to your elbows.
Residents and visitors alike drive out to the western edge of Tucson on most evenings. The area averages 350 sunny days a year, so viewing the sunset is almost always a possibility. Summer evenings are predictably hot, but if the monsoon clouds are just right, you're in for a technicolor show. Gates Pass is the preferred spot. Mid-week evenings you can sometimes have the vista almost to yourself...From the middle of the city, head west on Speedway; it curves up into the Tucson Mountains after fifteen or twenty minutes. You won't miss the Pass. Cacti, mountains, and sky: some clichés just don't get old...
Call it what you will—KoMex, Mexicorean, Korexican, Asian Fusion—it's gaining a foothold in the Desert Southwest. In addition to the Tucson food truck scene, you can now get sit-down fare at Umi Star, just five minutes north of the University of Arizona. And it's more than just tacos. Tortas are the logical next step in marrying northeast Asian and south-of-the-border tastes, now that galbi (Korean beef short-rib) tacos and kimchi quesadillas are becoming mainstream in several cities around the country. Here at Umi Star, bulgogi (tender marinated beef) topped with a fried egg are at the translated heart of this Mexican sandwich standard. "Tater Todd's" (rice wrapped with red snapper, garlic aioli, then baked and served with a soy chili plum sauce) are a tasty bite, and the sushi burrito (wrapped in almost fluorescent soy-paper) is another winning invention. The small-but-airy space has a hipster-maritime feel, which is appropriate, since uni means "sea" in Japanese. And while my wife and I were enjoying our food, tastes from another island—Cuban pork—were roasting away. (And sake is half-off on Thursdays!) [NOTE: As of mid-January 2014, UmiStar has temporarily closed and is looking to relocate...more information soon...]
Just nine miles from downtown Tucson stands the 'White dove of the Desert,' the Mission San Xavier del Bac. Built in the late 1700s, it is still the parish church of the local Tohono O'odham tribe. The relatively simple, Moorish-inspired exterior shelters a surprisingly ornate Baroque interior, mostly crafted by Native American artisans when what is now southern Arizona was known as "Pimeria Alta" in the Spanish Empire. (Tucson would not formally be part of the U.S. until the mid-19th century.) My first visit here happened to be on the day after Easter (when the mission is closed to visitors), and a few of the previous day's lilies remained. Many think of 'globalization' as being a modern phenomenon, but standing under the adobe domes of this Spanish colonial structure, it's sobering to think of the influences that traveled across time and longitudes to end up in this church in the Sonoran desert: Byzantine, Spanish Islamic, Renaissance, Baroque, with touches of Native American syncretism. The 'big-box' stores and multiplex-cinema just up the highway: a different universe. To get here from Tucson, take I-19 south, get off on San Xavier Rd. at Exit 92, and head west; you can see the mission ahead of you.
Chorizo and eggs is a tasty combination, and Cup Cafe offers a fantastic version of this dish with a spicy chorizo they call 'gunpowder.' Eat it sitting inside the cafe so you can check out the varnished floors, covered with 100,000 pennies, and the chandeliers made of empty wine bottles, or take your tongue tingling breakfast outdoors to their shady patio. After breakfast, tour the rest of historic Hotel Congress and then retire somewhere shady and cool until the summer heat lessens and the downtown nightlife heats up.
Chile en nogada is a poblano chile pepper, stuffed with peccadillo (shredded meat, aromatic diced dried fruit and spices), topped with a walnut-cream sauce and pomegranate seeds. This dish from Puebla is not often found on menus of Mexican restaurants in the U.S. It's not even that common south of the border, except during the August-September season surrounding Mexican Independence Day. But if you're in downtown Tucson, you can try it at Penca. In a re-purposed space with exposed brick and hip cocktails, this restaurant is also a worthy destination for brunch or late afternoon tacos—choose from carnitas, fish, lengua, cabeza, nopales, carne asada, and more. The corn-tortillas are handmade right after you place your order. (The tortillas alone are almost worth the trip.) Mexico City is the inspiration. The food is fresh, and the scene is full of optimism; downtown Tucson is reinventing itself with a new streetcar for a live-work-play vibe. Taste and see how this desert city continues to evolve. (Penca has recently been named one of the best bars in the country, too...Start your meal here with a creative cocktail...)
No, you don't have the wrong address—this is indeed a downtown office building & parking garage. But don't be alarmed. Walk through the door, and Café Poca Cosa's stylish interior tells you immediately that this is no boring strip mall Tex-Mex joint. Neither, fortunately, is it an overly precious nouvelle-cuisine bore. It's been voted 'Best Mexican' in Tucson by locals, who know that chimichangas were born in this desert town (but you'll find no chimichanga combo-plate here). Chef-owner Suzana Davila changes the chalkboard-menu twice a day; her concentration is on fresh ingredients and innovative dishes that translate regional cuisines rather than betray tradition. National publications have sung her praises, but Ms. Davila still checks on her own customers and eats lunch in the dining room with everyone else. She's a self-taught native of Guaymas who can concoct over two dozen varieties of mole. Complex sauces, refreshing drinks (such as pineapple-basil agua fresca), and Baroque masks in red niches await you. Come for a late lunch on a weekday if you want to avoid the justifiable crowds. Have an open mind (and mouth), and discover what contemporary Mexican cooking can be. Tucson can be proud of its plentiful taco-trucks and Sonoran hotdog stands, but Poca Cosa celebrates the variety of Mexican cuisine for when you want to sit down in style. Buen provecho!
A little over a mile from where the deer roam in the saguaro-studded foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, sit down for some izakaya-style dining. Japanese "tapas" might not be a completely accurate description for this genre of shareable plates, but you get the idea. Ginza is family-owned, and a nice surprise in this corner of the desert. After an evening hike in Sabino Canyon, sit down for your choice of izakaya-plates or fresh sashimi—Tucson is only a six-hour drive from the Pacific, and a four-hour drive from the Sea of Cortez. And if you've never had a bowl of 'real' ramen (just say 'no' to maruchan), you're in for a revelation of toothsome noodles in porky broth. A few of my favorites are the sautéed shrimp with mild green chilies, the gyoza, and (for a main course) the bibimpbap-chirashi bowl. Over sushi-rice, you're served a generous sampling of fresh sashimi, tamagoyaki (slightly sweet rolled omelet), sprouts, and seaweed, with a quail egg as a garnish. Korean-inspired spicy/sweet 'bibim' sauce tops it off. Chef-owner Jun Arai's wife, Diana, is from Mexico, which explains the homemade flan on the menu. Take a hike, then take a seat. After the cactus, kampai!
Far from his native Bologna, gelato master Nazario Melchiondo crafts tastes that have found a ready home in the desert city of Tucson, Arizona. Always fresh, it's made on site, and the flavors change seasonally. One decadent way to enjoy the gelati is to order mini-scoops served in solid chocolate cups (and then pour cioccolatta calda over the gelato). Served with crushed peppermints and chocolate shavings, somehow it isn't overkill; this is definitely a case of 'nothing succeeding like excess.' The cups are strong enough to take the sweet heat—just don't scrape the insides too vigorously with your spoon. (And don't pick up the cups by their dainty handles as they tend to break off under their own delicious weight.) After finishing off the molten and frozen flavors, go ahead: take a bite out of your cup.
Archaeological evidence shows human presence around this warm-spring-fed oasis NE of Tucson going back thousands of years. The grounds were a ranch from the late 19th through the mid-20th centuries; today it's free and open to the public. Weekends you're likely to see families picnicking and piñata-breaking under the palms; mornings are a birdwatcher's paradise. It's just close enough to town to be a ready half-day escape from urban stress. I've not been along the Nile, but this is how I imagine it to look--an Arizona stand-in for Egypt...
Downpours are isolated but intense during a Tucson summer. The mid- to late-summer "monsoon" in the Desert Southwest of the U.S. can be the most uncomfortable time to visit, if you're only considering the thermometer. So often, though, the vast skies will fill with vistas of moving, cooling color—the alchemy of wind, water, and sunset... (Since there weren't any posts on this site yet for Tucson, I thought I'd go ahead and highlight the place that's become home for the past few years; geographical displacement isn't always necessary for "travel"... This view, looking to the SW over the metropolitan area, was taken from the scenic Sky Island highway going up the Santa Catalina mountain range, on the northern edge of Tucson.)
El Charro sits in a converted set of historic houses & buildings a block off Tucson's old town district—the same location where it began serving food in 1922. We had lunch here, at a big old wooden table in a warmly decorated dining room. Ask to be seated inside, or else in the garden, if the weather's amenable. It's a bit cold and dim in the front of the restaurant. I had an amazing vegetarian burrito, stuffed with roasted veggies, avocado and a green corn tamale—the others went for the excellent chimichangas, reputedly invented here (you can read the story on the menu). The special-brewed beer, an amber, was great, the salsa verde addictive, the decor a great talking point.
When you hear the phrase, "summer in southern Arizona," naturally your thoughts will tend toward heat and sunshine. Most wouldn't think of mounds of fresh produce at a farmers' market in the desert city of Tucson. But the arrival of the monsoon coincides with nature's edible bounty, even here in the desert. The nearby Santa Cruz valley is actually one of the oldest continually-farmed regions in North America, with agriculture dating back four thousand years! Heirloom beans, squash, chiles, and tomatoes are still grown. The nearby higher elevation lands near Willcox are known for their orchards and even a few vineyards. Mesquite flour is made into cookies and tortillas. Prickly pear cactus is made into jams and frozen treats. All this is available throughout the week at various farmers' markets around Tucson. The biggest one is on Sunday morning in the neo-colonial courtyards of St. Philip's Plaza. And, if you're curious, you'll get language and cooking lessons, too. On a recent Sunday morning, my wife and I asked what some curious looking greens were. The answer? Purslane, or "verdolagas" in Spanish. They grow like weeds once the monsoon rains begin, and they contain more omega-3 fatty acids (think fish oil) than any other leafy plant. In a salad, or sautéed or stewed, they're great. Who knew? Farmers' markets are always a great place to get a vibe for a city—a cross section of people and produce. And, even in the desert, it is possible to shop and eat local.
In Tucson, gelato is, understandably, becoming part of the cityscape. A handful of Italian gelato-masters have settled here, educating desert palates with tempting desserts. Here, just a few blocks from the University of Arizona, Allegro rotates its offerings in style—literally. (I mean, come on, isn't this the coolest frozen dessert display?) Flavors such as saffron and anise, or even avocado, beckon on a hot evening.
Hike into Bear Canyon on the northeastern edge of Tucson, and you'll be rewarded (most of the year) with a view of Seven Falls, gushing out of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Even though the hike in and out is around seven miles, it's mostly flat. You'll find that, as you're zigzagging across the creek on large boulders, with cliffs above the cacti all around, traffic and strip malls are a world away. When you arrive at the falls, the rushing waters are a balm for the soul. Midwinter through the middle of spring is a good time to visit this oasis; the higher-elevation snowmelt guarantees flowing water and the daytime temperatures are comfortable. Midsummer monsoon rains can also fill this canyon, and flash floods can be a sudden danger.
Sightings of these big cats in the mountains around Tucson are common enough, but getting THIS close to a mountain lion is sobering... The mountain lion habitat at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, just west of the city, includes a thick-glass window up behind one of the den areas. This cat was snoozing in the afternoon sun when suddenly she lifted and turned, looking me straight in the eye.
A destination since 1919, Tucson's Hotel Congress is home to the Cup Café—one of the best places in town from breakfast to happy hour and on into late night. Look up when in the restaurant. A couple of 'dead soldier chandeliers' will light your menu-browsing. You can get duck confit tacos to go with your local microbrew or cocktail. (Just so you know, this establishment won the 2010 World Margarita Championship.) Across the hotel lobby is the Tap Room—a true western bar that's been serving drinks continuously since the hotel first opened—one of the oldest drinking establishments in the West. Infamous 1930s bank robber John Dillinger was captured here. Today you'll find a cross-section of Tucsonans and out-of-towners, downtown business people, hipsters, night owls, musicians, university students, older couples on road-trips...
Casa Vicente is an institution in this desert city—Tucson's outpost for tapas a la española. Just south of the downtown core, a couple of blocks from the neo-Baroque façade of the Cathedral of San Agustín, this restaurant also features live music on weeknights: classical guitar, flamenco, even tango lessons. This particular evening we tried chipirones rellenos, a trio of baby calamari, skewered and stuffed with green tomatoes and spices. In a town more known for its tacos and burros (a.k.a. 'burritos' elsewhere), it's appropriate, if somewhat uncommon, to find Iberian fare. Tucson was founded in 1775 as an outpost of the Spanish empire, decades before it became Mexican, and then in the mid-19th century, it finally became part of a U.S. territory. (And, by the way, the sangría here rocks.)
Think of beverages in Arizona, and maragaritas may come to mind, but green tea? Lapsang souchong? Pu-erh? A few blocks east of the University of Arizona in Tucson, Seven Cups was recently named one of the best places in the U.S. to have authentic Chinese tea. The name of this tea shop comes from a 9th-century poem: The first cup kisses away my thirst, and my loneliness is quelled by the second. The third gives insight worthy of ancient scrolls, and the fourth exiles my troubles. My body becomes lighter with the fifth, and the sixth sends word from immortals. But the seventh—oh the seventh cup—if I drink you, a wind will hurry my wings toward the sacred island. So, when you want a break from the sun in the Sonoran Desert, step in to this unexpected find. (The 'lotus moon cake' makes a great sweet nibbly to go along with your cuppa.)
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