Must Try: 11 Amazing Ethnic Dishes From All Over Tucson

Last modified on July 5th, 2018 at 11:13 am

Hummus With Lamb at Shish Kebab House (Credit: Mark Navarro)

Tucson is home to a unique cuisine. The traditional native and Spanish influenced Mexican fare permeates much of our daily eating with cilantro, salsa, tortillas, beans, agave or avocado found in just about any meal.

But, Tucson is also home to a variety of ethnic cuisines that represent cultures and histories from every continent, near and far. We set out to find some of the best ethnic food the city has to offer. And find it, we did. This list is by no means exhaustive, nor is it ranked.

Next time your palate yearns for something slightly more exotic, consider these delicious gems…

Neo Malaysian Kitchen & Sushi

6133 E. Broadway Blvd.
Shrimp Lemak at Neo Malaysian Kitchen in Tucson (Credit: Mark Navarro)

Shrimp Lemak at Neo Malaysian Kitchen in Tucson (Credit: Mark Navarro)

Hearken to the east side, where the land of Penang beckons. Try our favorite dish, the Lemak. Close your eyes and awaken your senses to the infusion of toasted garlic, turmeric, lemongrass and coconut milk. Similar to a curry, yet mild, this traditional Malaysian dish is a true gem and tops our list of favorites. An aromatically tantalizing broth served over rice with vegetables in vegetarian, meat, and seafood varieties, we opted for the Shrimp Lemak, and asked for it spicy.

Bangkok Café

2511 E. Speedway Blvd.
Kang Masaman at Bangkok Cafe in Tucson (Credit: Mark Navarro)

Kang Masaman at Bangkok Cafe in Tucson (Credit: Mark Navarro)

A ferry down the Chao Praya River couldn’t get you closer to authentic central Thai cuisine. The Kang Masaman satiates the palate. This simple yet smooth, brown curry spiced to your taste with rich peanut undertones is unique among curries. Served over rice, our favorite is with the chicken.

Miss Saigon

47 N. 6th Ave., 1072 N. Campbell, 4650 E. Ina
Bun Tom Nuong at Miss Saigon in Tucson (Credit: Mark Navarro)

Bun Tom Nuong at Miss Saigon in Tucson (Credit: Mark Navarro)

Take a break from pho and try the Bun Tom Nuong at one of Tucson’s best Vietnamese restaurants. A cold vermicelli noodle dish with shrimp, lettuce, cucumber, bean sprouts, peanuts, and a lemon garlic sauce is a deliciously cool culinary reprieve on a hot Tucson day. Available with or without meat.

Polish Cottage

4520 E. Broadway Blvd.
Mixed Plate at Polish Cottage (Credit: Mark Navarro)

Mixed Plate at Polish Cottage (Credit: Mark Navarro)

How lucky we are to call the Polish Cottage one of Tucson’s own. Next time you yearn for eastern European food, drive over and try this authentic Polish cuisine. Our pick: their homemade Pierogies – just like Nana used to make. We visited for lunch and opted for the 6-piece mixed plate, with vegetarian potato and cheese, sauerkraut and mushrooms, and sweet farmer’s cheese and sour cream varieties. Simply scrumptious.

Zayna Mediterranean

4122 E. Speedway Blvd.
Gyro Plate at Zayna Mediterranean (Credit: Mark Navarro)

Gyro Plate at Zayna Mediterranean (Credit: Mark Navarro)

Let the Middle East allure with Zayna’s Syrian flair. We ordered a traditional Gyro Plate, but simple it was not. Their grilled beef gyro marinated in onion, garlic, spearmint and salt melts in your mouth. Paired with salad, saffron rice, and yogurt, this dish is supple, simple and unbelievably satisfying.

Shish Kebab House of Tucson

5855 E. Broadway Blvd.
Hummus With Lamb at Shish Kebab House (Credit: Mark Navarro)

Hummus With Lamb at Shish Kebab House (Credit: Mark Navarro)

Get your fill of Jordanian inspired cuisine at the Shish Kebab House. Their smooth, tasty hummus is infused with the perfect mix of olive oil, lemon and tahini – truly some of the best in Tucson. The Hummus with Meat is exquisite; covered with sautéed onions and pine nuts, we are fans of the Hummus with Lamb.

Saffron Indian Bistro

7607 N. Oracle Rd.
Korma With Lamb at Saffron Indian Bistro (Credit: Mark Navarro)

Korma With Lamb at Saffron Indian Bistro (Credit: Mark Navarro)

The Star of India – a national treasure and unique gem embedded in the roof of the Taj Mahal – illuminates it in the full moon light. Tucson’s version? Saffron’s Korma with Lamb, sure to light up the palate. A rich, pureed yellow cream sauce made of onion and nut and infused with mild spices, adorns perfectly cooked lamb. Served with saffron rice, each bite invites you to return for more and perfectly delights- day or night.

Zemam’s & Zemam’s Too!

2731 E. Broadway Blvd., 119 E. Speedway Blvd.
Doro Wat with Hard Boiled Egg at Zemam's (Credit: Mark Navarro)

Doro Wat with Hard Boiled Egg at Zemam’s (Credit: Mark Navarro)

East African Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisines come alive. Hailing from the castle region of Gondar, and the cradle of human civilization, Tucson’s first African restaurant wows you in simple flair. Doro Wat, the traditional chicken dish served to guests and on special occasions, is always a treat. Slowly cooked in a rich, spicy berbere sauce, and served with a hardboiled egg, you can’t help but feel like a special guest in this home. Choices also abound for vegetarians and those with a mild palate. Be prepared to eat the Ethiopian way –by using your hands to tear pieces of injera (traditional bread) to take the food from a communal plate.

Café Desta

758 S. Stone
Individual Combo at Cafe Desta (Credit: Mark Navarro)

Individual Combo at Cafe Desta (Credit: Mark Navarro)

Enticing with aromas of Cardamom and Coriander is Tucson’s other Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurant, Café Desta. We couldn’t decide whether to order a vegetarian or meat dish, so we chose the Individual Combo and ordered both. The savory Alicha Sega, tender beef cooked in a turmeric infused onion herb sauce, was delightful. Accompanied with Kik (peas) and Fosolia (a green bean dish), this dish was more than bountiful – even for two. Plan to eat the traditional way, with your hands and injera. Lots of vegan options available.

Cee Dee Jamaican Kitchen

5305 E. Speedway Blvd
Curry Goat at CeeDee Jamaican Kitchen (Credit: Mark Navarro)

Curry Goat at CeeDee Jamaican Kitchen (Credit: Mark Navarro)

Find the Rasta in you as you soak up Caribbean cuisine at one of Tucson’s finest island hot spots. Get your fill of Jerk Chicken or Curry Shrimp any day, or be more adventurous and try a traditional goat or oxtail dish. We opted for the amazing Curry Goat. The tender meat and complex green curry was delightfully addicting. Served with rice, steamed vegetables and plantains, this dish truly satisfies the soul.

Don Pedro’s Peruvian Bistro

3386 S. 6th Ave.
Cebiche at Don Pedro's Peruvian Bistro (Credit: Mark Navarro)

Cebiche at Don Pedro’s Peruvian Bistro (Credit: Mark Navarro)

Head to the south side and experience a taste of what South America has to offer. Heavenly seafood dishes abound on this menu, making it difficult to choose just one dish. We started with the celestial Cebiche. The most gourmet cebiche we’ve tasted so far, its fresh flounder cooked in lime juice and Peruvian spices, garnished with salsa criolla, Peruvian corn and glazed sweet potatoes, melts in your mouth. We were wowed by its elegance, and then enamored with the Aguadito De Choritos. Move over chicken soup; this savory, cilantro-based mussel soup with peas, carrots and Peruvian corn is the perfect yet decadent comfort food. Food so amazing that Machu Picchu just got bumped to the top of my bucket list.

Jennifer Tersigni is a well-traveled foodie and yogi. She is also founder and Lead Consultant of Raise the Bar Consulting in Tucson, Arizona.
  • Nadia Larsen

    my favorite has always been and will always be Polish Cottage!!!!

    • Equineluvr

      UGH! That is the BLANDEST, most TASTELESS food in town.

  • Eric

    Tucson is really surprising when it comes to excellent ethnic food. Dim Sum at China Phoenix, or something really untypical on the US-Japanese restaurant menu like the okonomiyaki or O-nigiri at Yoshimatsu are other things to add to this list.

  • Adam

    I’d suggest the tonkatsu ramen at Ikkyu for this list. I went on a mini-mission last time I was in San Francisco to eat as much ramen as possible and I’d take Ikkyu’s tonkatsu over anything I had. Hiro and Lori are Tucson treasures.

    Also the chicken shawarma at Falafel King on Campbell is crazy good, my favorite shawarma in town.

    Great to see Saffron on the list, worth mentioning that you can get the same lamb Korma at Kebabeque on University, though the presentation is a bit more utilitarian. I’d also recommend the aloo prantha as a side. Such tasty potato in flat bread.

    Don Pedro’s is on my list now. I want to eat that cebiche. And I will. I will eat that.

    • Ikkyu’s ramen is pretty darn tasty. Not as tasty as the pork belly ramen I had at Lucky Belly in O’ahu, but tasty nonetheless. Haven’t had Falafel King yet, but did have Chicken Shwarma recently at Shish Kebab House and at Zayna and both are delicious. Saffron and Kebabeque are great, as is Sher E Punjab, as well (no relation). DOn Pedro’s is well worth the visit – check out their Lomo Saltado, too.

  • Jeff Bilkanich

    I’ve been to 10 of these restaurants & they ranged from ‘good’ to “excellent”…

  • Heather

    It’s certainly true that we have an abundance of surprising ethnic options. Nice list, Jennifer, thanks for putting this up!

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