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Why Tucson Is Arizona’s Best Food City

By Andi Berlin

01.14.20

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JPS Seafood specializes in fresh fish from the Gulf of California.

Courtesy of Visit Tucson/Tucson Foodie

JPS Seafood specializes in fresh fish from the Gulf of California.

The Old Pueblo outdoes its neighbors with Sonoran specialties, locally owned restaurants, a dedication to native ingredients, and some great beer and Chinese food.

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Arizona has much more going for it than the five Cs: chimichangas, cheese crisps, carne asada, chorizo, and chips and salsa. You can go to any city in this sprawling, saguaro-flecked state and find something interesting to eat. 

The metropolis of Phoenix attracts eclectic restaurants from every part of the world. Up north on historic Route 66, Flagstaff excels at kitschy diners and a devotion to local products. According to tucson.com, even Yuma has one of the best bean burritos in the United States. But the one place that rises above them all is Tucson. 

Phoenix’s little sister to the south actually has 4,000 years of farming and agricultural heritage. People have been eating in this desert landscape for a very, very long time—a fact that helped Tucson become the first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in the United States in 2015. (That, and the ranch fries at Eegee’s of course.) Read on for five more reasons why Tucson is the best food city in Arizona.   

You can find authentic Sonoran food 

If you want to taste the fresh flour tortillas and smoky carne asada that put Sonora on the map, Tucson is the best place to be outside of Mexico. Just an hour’s drive north of the border, the city has a distinctly Sonoran flair that’s reflected in its neighborhood restaurants.

South 12th Avenue is a historically Chicano neighborhood on Tucson’s south side that’s been transformed by a recent surge of Sonoran immigrants. Create your own food tour by driving south down the street, stopping for mesquite-grilled costillas de res (beef ribs) at Tacos Apson, massive bacon-wrapped burritos at Percheron Mexican Grill, and a heady bowl of stingray soup at JPS Seafood. (Because of its many cattle ranches, Sonora is often thought of as a land state, but it actually has hundreds of miles of coastline.)

The James Beard Award–winning El Güero Canelo is one of Tucson’s best spots to try a Sonoran hot dog.

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From there, you don’t have to drive very far to try Tucson’s quirkiest specialty, the Sonoran hot dog. Recipes vary, but typically consist of a hot dog wrapped in bacon and topped with pinto beans, onions, mayo, mustard, avocado, and green salsa. In 2018, South 12th Avenue mainstay El Güero Canelo won a James Beard Award for its dogs, which are inspired by those found in Sonora’s capital of Hermosillo, but locals flock to a little cart called Ruiz Hot Dogs on 22nd Street, across from the 100-year-old Santa Cruz Catholic Church. 

Most restaurants are locally owned

While the Phoenix area ballooned to its current size with a little help from suburban chain restaurants, Tucson has remained comparatively small by staying true to its roots. You won’t see a Buca di Beppo anywhere near the city limits, but you will find plenty of family-owned Italian joints that have survived for several generations. Caruso’s on Fourth Avenue, for example, has been going strong since 1938 and still uses the same copper pot to make its signature red sauce.

Hotel Congress is a popular spot for brunch, dinner, and everything in between.

Walk through the underpass from Fourth Avenue and you’ll be in downtown Tucson, currently in the midst of a dining renaissance following the completion of the Sun Link streetcar. Chef-driven restaurants and trendy coffee shops line the main drag of Congress Street, anchored by the century-old Hotel Congress and its brunch hot spot, Cup Café (don’t miss the legendary baked eggs). For dinner, head to Reilly Craft Pizza & Drink, which is housed in an old funeral home of the same name. The restaurant has a beer garden out back and a speakeasy-style cocktail bar called Tough Luck Club downstairs.

Menus are full of native ingredients

Hit the Heirloom Farmers’ Market in Rillito Park and shop for local ingredients like these peppers from Robbs Family Farm.

The farmers’ market game is strong in Tucson. You can visit a different one nearly every day of the week, but the most popular is the Sunday morning Heirloom Farmers’ Market in Rillito Park, a former horse-racing track that was converted into a permanent market with space for more than 80 small businesses. Merchants include your usual organic farms but also food vendors like Country Harvest Pantry, which sells heirloom beans that have been a staple of Arizona cuisine for thousands of years.

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To build upon the city’s recent UNESCO designation, a nonprofit organization called the Tucson City of Gastronomy is working to create a special certification process for restaurants committed to native foods. The stamp of approval will debut sometime in 2020, but spots like Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails have been highlighting indigenous ingredients for years. Even its Dr. Pepper pork belly biscuits are made with local mesquite bean flour.

The craft beer scene is thriving

Even brewery-packed Flagstaff can’t hold a candle to Tucson’s beer scene. This midsize metropolitan area of 1 million people has close to two dozen breweries, not to mention legions of craft beer bars and restaurants with stellar suds. The Phoenix area may take home more beer awards at the end of the day, but Tucson wins for walkability—a prime component of beer drinking.

Try sour beers in unique flavors at Crooked Tooth Brewing Co.

The downtown/Fourth Avenue area alone has nine different breweries. If you like hazy IPAs, head to Pueblo Vida for some of the best in the state. The small brewery gained a large reputation with minimal distribution, partially due to its sophisticated can art by local studio Saywells Design Co. If you’re into sours, try Crooked Tooth Brewing Co., which has a whole selection of Sonoran sours in flavors like Key lime pie and hibiscus.

There’s excellent Chinese food

Noodleholics is a favorite for its house-made noodles and soups.

A year ago, Chinese food would not have made this list, but 2019 saw an explosion of regional Chinese restaurants in southern Arizona. The trend started last year with the opening of Noodleholics in a midtown Tucson strip mall. At the counter-service spot, adventurous diners can find rice noodle soups from Guilin, China, as well as springy wheat-flour noodles, which are made fresh in house.

Since Noodleholics got going, Tucson has also gained several new spots for hot pot, including Fish Wok, where servers will boil a whole fish at your table and let you pick through the bones yourself. The city even has Chef Wang, a northern Chinese restaurant with more than 150 dishes on the menu and a fermented cabbage bar; Fatman Kitchen, which makes its own biang biang noodles; and Jewel’s Noodle Kitchen, where you can indulge in Chinese meat pies. With this richness of variety, it doesn’t even matter that Tucson has a Shake Shack. 

>>Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Travel Guide to Arizona

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