With restaurants replacing storefronts and new types of cuisine being introduced at a rapid pace, it's only natural to for visitors - and some locals - to seek a guide to navigate the crowded waters of downtown Tucson's food scene.
For many tourists and newcomers unfamiliar with our growing city, Tucson Food Tours serves as that resource.
Owners Brad and Maria Lawrence bring over 18 years of combined food and beverage industry experience to the table, with stints at establishments such as NoRTH, The Abbey, City Limits, and Wildflower.
Though the route is only about two miles with six or seven total stops, each tour lasts about four hours. This gives guests the opportunity to order drinks, enjoy the food, and soak in their surroundings as Brad points out architectural highlights and shares the illustrious history of different landmarks along the way.
The group is capped at 11-12 people total to keep the experience intimate for the guests and convenient for the venues. With a boost from Brad, a gregarious and outgoing guide, keeping the group small also promotes a feeling of camaraderie during the course of the tour.
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Each tour begins at a location near Congress Street & Toole Avenue. In our case, we begin in the Hotel Congress courtyard with a brief history lesson of the nearby train depot, John Dillinger's arrest, and the hotel itself.
The group is a surprising mix of tourists from as far as Chile and as close as Casa Grande. There are even a few locals that live outside of downtown looking to learn more about the area to come prepared next time to navigate the streets, parking, and their meal options.
A quick walk through the lobby and west on Congress brings us to the first stop, Sparkroot, where we are treated to coffee, jam and goat cheese toast.
After Sparkroot, Brad continues west on Congress. We learn about FORS architecture + interiors, tucked away behind a misleading storefront, and the myriad of new shops and restaurants that have opened in the last few years.
Our next stop is Empire Pizza & Pub. We file back to the hidden bar and are quickly provided with an extra-large cheese pizza. It has become apparent that the provided food "samples" could easily turn into a full meal at each stop. I think back to my second serving of toast at Sparkroot and vow to start saving room.
This vow is immediately challenged at our next stop, Reilly Craft Pizza + Drink. Once seated, a large bowl of parmesan and herb crusted bread is brought to the table, followed by a fresh, seasonal Burrata plate.
That is, of course, not the end. Space is made for bowls of Reilly's immensely popular fried Brussels sprouts. A fun fact provided by Brad: this dish outsells their next highest seller by nearly three times. Yes, Brussels sprouts.
While outside, Brad gives us a rundown of Reilly's history as funeral home turned restaurant, beer garden and speakeasy, and an introduction to a few of their neighbors, like Cafe Poca Cosa.
After dropping in at Pie Bird Bakery and Cafe for homemade granola bars and sweet caramel and coconut smothered goods, it's through the old Courthouse and past the Tucson Museum of Art.
Four stops in, the longer walk is a welcome break. Plus, even those with a vested interest in Tucson and its history may learn something new during Brad's overview of the small neighborhoods and notable landmarks.
The cultural immersion continues as we make our way through the Presidio to La Cocina and the Old Town Artisan Shops. Though highly regarded amongst locals for their live entertainment, spacious patio and margaritas, it's unlikely that any tourist would stumble upon this hidden gem.
The Quinoa bowl with braised spinach, roasted vegetables, and Thai peanut sauce provides a much-needed dose of colorful vegetables after a steady stream of cheese-smothered and chocolate-dipped samples.
The next stop is a tour "must," with its deeply-rooted Tucson origins and famous cuisine served locally since 1922 - tamales at El Charro.
Upon Brad's suggestion, nearly everyone orders a margarita to enjoy with the endless chips and salsa starter. Not quite necessary at our sixth restaurant of the afternoon, but who are we to turn down salsa?
El Charro makes for an ideal location to linger with a lively, colorful atmosphere and a rich historical context.
When the last of the margaritas are gone and the tamales plate is scraped clean, it's time to loop around Toole Avenue, fit in a few more fast facts and make our way to the final destination.
At The Hub Restaurant & Ice Creamery, we are treated to house-made pastrami and corned beef, served with a healthy warning about the horseradish mustard. Samples of the famous ice cream are offered, but everyone seems to agree that there is no longer room for any additional food.
The tour ends with full stomachs, high spirits, and tired feet. After all, it's four and a half hours well-spent with delicious food, friendly company and a knowledgeable guide.
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Whether you're visiting Tucson from afar or have lived here all your life, Tucson Food Tours provides a refreshing perspective of the "new" downtown, what it has to offer, and how its history and culture still fit in that expanding frame.
For more information, visit foodtourstucson.com.