Put simply, Tucson is a land of nourishment. Its tradition of incorporating local flavors into its culinary scene helped the area earn the distinction of being a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy, one of only two such cities in the U.S. And its rich history and incredible scenery make for a fascinating and serene setting. The miles and miles of gorgeous neutral browns and pinks that make up the Sonoran Desert’s southwestern landscape, the surrounding mountain ranges, and of course awe-inspiring saguaro cacti, invite you to breathe deeply and feel your body relax.
Combining ancient Native American cultures with Mexican culinary influences (Tucson sits 60 miles from the Mexico border), the same heady cultural mix behind the southwestern city’s UNESCO designation in 2017 extends into the renowned local wellness offerings too. Health enthusiasts flock to the region for its spas, including the world-famous Canyon Ranch and the Oprah-approved Miraval Arizona Resort & Spa, both known for their delectable, locally sourced cuisine. The fresh air, calming desert environment, and thousands of years of Indigenous healing traditions add up to a place seemingly designed for total rejuvenation. And it all starts with the food.
Local treats and makers
When first hitting Tucson’s vibrant eateries, you’ll quickly become familiar with some of the local delicacies including two of its most quintessential. Prickly pear pops up in everything from margaritas to chimichurri sauce drizzled over meat dishes. Its cactus paddles can even be served on their own, stuffed with cheese and some egg, or grilled with lemon.
Carne seca (translation: “dried meat”) is another Tucson specialty, often dried in the sun in a simple cage right outside the restaurant’s walls. Since Tucson is most well-known for its Sonoran Desert location, you might not know it has its own thriving artisanal producers who make several different local brews, wines, olive oils, traditional breads, flour, and cheeses in the area.
Delectable downtown dining
The city of Tucson harnesses the landscape’s healing powers for its food in a variety of ways across its many different neighborhoods. Downtown Tucson has one of the buzziest food hubs currently, thanks to diners drawn by its “desert to dish” ethos.
The legendary El Charro Café (which also has locations in Oro Valley, Ventana, and even the Tucson airport), founded in 1922, remains the country’s oldest Mexican restaurant in continuous operation by the same family. Plus, it’s credited with inventing the southwest staple, the chimichanga. And that’s not all. Ranch-to-table dishes at the café’s eco-friendly sister restaurant Charro Steak & del Rey cover the gamut from mouthwatering (and sustainable) seafood to hormone- and antibiotic-free cuts of chicken and beef.
For patio dining downtown—year-round weather for eating alfresco includes temps that are often in the upper 60s and low 70s, even in the height of winter—try LaCo, which offers an abundance of gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan offerings (think quinoa bowls with jackfruit and elote, aka Mexican street corn) for lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch.
Mexican and Indigenous cuisine
Mexican food is so popular in Tucson (some neighborhoods have populations that are more than 75 percent Mexican) that an unofficial “Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food” adventure has become renowned for its tour of favorite eateries. Spots include Tucson’s Seis Kitchen, whose homemade tortillas and salsa can’t be beat, and 5 Points Market & Restaurant in South Tucson, which partners with local farms (many of them organic) and artisans for its brunch, lunch, coffee, and dessert. Pro tip: 12th Avenue is an excellent starting point.
For a more Indigenous flair, try downtown’s La Indita, which offers Mexican–Native American fare, including its signature popover fry bread topped with beans, beef, and red chili, in the style of the Sonoran Desert’s Tohono O’Odham Native American people. In South Tucson, head straight to Café Santa Rosa, known for its red or green chili popovers. The southwestern treasure is also quite the breakfast joint, with no less than eight combination plate options that come with a homemade tortilla or popover—plus breakfast burros and weekend-only red or white menudo (a Mexican delicacy made with tripe in a chili broth).
Speaking of breakfast, Tucson is teeming with options. Baja Café serves up southwestern favorites such as huevos rancheros topped with sauces made from the region’s famous Hatch green chilis. Nearby, Nook, a lighter option in a sea of rich southwestern dishes, offers treats such as its famous Nourish Bowl, made with falafel, avocado, and a hard-boiled egg. It’s one more reason why you’ll be well-fed with incredible flavor from morning to night in Tucson.