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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.