This article originally appeared on Tucson Foodie in January 2017. No brand partner was involved in the creation of this content and no one featured in this article has paid for inclusion. Our non-food Brand Partners are assigned articles at random. Translation: while we've assigned Copenhagen as a brand partner for this piece, it is not sponsored content.
Tucson food is tough to define. It's more diverse than just Mexican food. It's more than Sonoran food. The culinary scene also includes cuisine from Japan to Bosnia to Ethiopia.
It wouldn't do Tucson food justice to explain it in semantic terms.
There are restaurants that Tucsonans miss the most when they move away, like eegee's, then there are restaurants that tourists want to eat at, such as southwestern steakhouses a la Silver Saddle. More recently, Tucson food has progressed by getting in touch with its roots and using local or even indigenous ingredients.
If you're visiting Tucson or just need ideas on where to take guests, here's our list of 88 distinctly Tucson restaurants. We've limited it to five establishments per category, even when there are more than five outstanding picks. Many top-notch joints didn't make the list simply because they don't quite exhibit the Tucson identity as well as the picks.
These bacon-wrapped hot dogs are topped with pinto beans, chopped tomatoes and onions, mayonnaise, and salsa verde. The slightly-sweeter buns are obtained from Mexican bakeries. For chipilones style such as at Ruiz Hot-Dogs, the buns are toasted with butter and garlic if you wish. Most dogueros, or hot dog stands, include an accompanying grilled chile güero that can be brined or stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon. Though the variations are endless, the streetside carts and trucks offer the most authentic experience. And Sonoran dogs are rarely more than $3.
Taco trucks aren't on literally every corner, but Tucson's tacos per capita is pretty darn high compared to the rest of the country. BOCA Tacos y Tequila offers a variety of new salsas every single day, while Taqueria Pico De Gallo's thick corn tortillas stand up to the sauciest fillings. The intensely fragrant mesquite charcoal pit at Tacos Apson provides the perfect char on the chunks of carne asada.
Although burritos are supposed to be little versions of burros, they're usually large enough to be a meal. Anita Street Market has huge fluffy tortillas that are the canvas for their legendary red chile and chorizo breakfast burros. El Charro Café, the nation's oldest Mexican restaurant in continuous operation by the same family, features their signature roof-dried beef in the Carne Seca Burro. For more comprehensive burrito coverage, check out our burrito bucket lists.
A michelada is a beer cocktail with beer, lime, salt, and regionally varying ingredients such as a Clamato base, Maggi sauce, chamoy, Tajín, and hot sauce. It’s a unique refreshment that’s greater than the sum of its parts, much like the beloved Sonoran dog. Like the Bloody Mary, it's known as a hangover cure. The Neighborhood won the 2016 Tucson Michelada Challenge with their spin involving muddled cucumbers.
Mariscos is Spanish for seafood. While the middle of the desert isn't an expected source for seafood, Tucson offers tasty seafood dishes inspired by the cuisine of the coastal regions of Mexico. The agasajo at Mariscos Chihuahua features raw shrimp, cooked shrimp, octopus, and scallops (when in season) in a tomato sauce with red onion and jalapeño. Visit El Berraco for a hip submarine vibe and start with an order of the toritos, which feature Caribbean peppers wrapped in bacon and stuffed with your choice of shrimp or swordfish.
Tamales are a labor of love, but thankfully you can skip the labor with Tucson's wide selection of tamales. The green corn tamales at Lerua's Fine Mexican Foods features white corn ground in-house with a stone mill, providing outstanding corn flavor. Alton Brown favorite Tucson Tamale Company has something for everyone with over 40 flavors available. For more comprehensive tamal coverage, check out our list of tamales.
Raspados are like the snow cone of the southwest. Although they're typically served on the sweet side with fruit, fruit juice, ice cream, and lechera (sweetened condensed milk), sour variations exist with ingredients such as chamoy, lime juice, and saladitos. Sonoran Delights offers a wide variety of raspados alongside other Mexican street food classics such as elotes and tostilocos. For additional raspados picks, check out our full list.
At its essence, huevos rancheros is fried eggs with lightly fried tortillas and a tomato-and-chile-based salsa. However, variations are countless. The Coronet hybridizes it with another Mexican classic via its Chilaquiles Divorciados, which features a green salsa on one side and a spicy red salsa on the other side. Theresa's Mosaic Cafe was featured on Food Network's Throwdown! with Bobby Flay.
While Tucson has countless signature breakfast restaurants, the Tucson flair really comes out in brunch dishes. The Wildcat Pupusa at Baja Cafe features two pupusas stuffed with a blend of cheeses and topped with smoked habanero chicken sausage, caramelized onions, bell peppers, poached eggs, tomatillo sauce and New Mexican red chili sauce, pico de gallo, and queso fresco. Prep & Pastry offers a wide variety of mimosas with their signature dishes, while 5 Points Market & Restaurant excels at highlighting local produce.
While "Tucson-style IPAs" aren't a thing yet, the microbrew scene is still growing rapidly. Dragoon and Pueblo Vida are favorites among hopheads for the Dragoon IPA and Northwest IPA respectively, while dark beer devotees come to Borderlands for the Noche Dulce Vanilla Porter (the German Chocolate Cake variation is not to be missed when it's available). Visit Iron John's for more experimental flavors.
If you want a quick bite on the way to the airport or just want something affordable, Tucson has a selection of local fast food. The bacon ranch fries and eegee's drink at eegee's are two of Tucson's most beloved non-Mexican delights. The Taco Shop Co. is a life saver when you need a chorizo breakfast burrito at 2 a.m. Lucky Wishbone has a timeless jingle to remind you that they're good for chicken, shrimp, and steak fingers too.
Fresh and warm out of the fryer, frybread is a crispy, chewy delight. Enjoy it sweet with powdered sugar and honey or savory with red chile beef a la the "Indian Taco." The Tanque Verde Swap Meet is also an open air market, while the Tohono Chul Garden Bistro is in a stunning botanical garden, so you can walk off the calories.
Downtown has such a high concentration of quality restaurants, so it's hard to go wrong. At the west end of the Sun Link trail in the Mercado San Agustin, Agustin Kitchen offers comforting but classy dishes such as the braised wild boar shank with Hayden Mills polenta, smoked Galician cheese, local vegetables, and a green salad with candied blood orange rind and grapefruit suprêmes. DOWNTOWN Kitchen + Cocktails features the global cuisine of James Beard Award-winning chef Janos Wilder with dishes such as seared duck breast with mole negro, pomegranate, posole broth, onions, local greens, avocado, and lime coulis.
Hotel restaurants can be hit-or-miss. On the mesmerizing end of the spectrum, it provides an environment where chefs can experiment with fantastic adventurous cuisine. You can also drink responsibly with the convenience of a hotel room to walk back to. For a picture-perfect Tucson experience, go hiking or horseback riding in the sunset surrounded by saguaros at Tanque Verde Ranch and work up an appetite for a multi-course, wine-paired chef's table dinner. Go ziplining at Miraval Arizona Resort & Spa and enjoy an intimate chef's table dinner within the kitchen with ingredients such as honey from the resident onsite apiary and wild mushrooms foraged from nearby Mount Lemmon. PY Steakhouse features the creative modern cuisine of three-time Iron Chef Tucson winner Ryan Clark with dishes such as E & R crispy pig's face and fried Brussels sprouts with koji-fermented emmer and spiced butterscotch.
Southern Arizona wines and cocktails are mighty fine. Good Oak Bar specializes in local and regional whiskeys and agave-based spirits alongside Arizona beers and wines. Scott & Co. boasts a menu 47 cocktails deep, while the Tough Luck Club features tongue-in-cheek cocktails with ingredients such as tobacco tincture and mulled wine syrup. OBON creates playful cocktails with extravagant visuals featuring Japanese and pop culture inspiration. R Bar rocks a modern vibe with cocktails that please even the pickiest bartenders.
While locals usually don't have the luxury of eating steak daily, tourists often come to the southwest expecting the Wild Wild West and a beefy steak. Thankfully, we have no shortages of steakhouses providing a distinct Tucson flavor with mesquite smoke. Jonathan's Cork captures the southwestern vibe well with Native American art and DeGrazia prints. Silver Saddle Steakhouse also offers a southwestern feel along with some stylish neon signs.
Although raspados are the signature cold treat of Tucson, the ice cream and gelato is too tasty to be ignored. Frost Gelato started in Tucson before becoming a gelato giant with locations as far as Kuwait. In contrast, Isabella's Ice Cream uses a Ford Model T design truck with solar panels on top to freeze ice cream. The honeycomb ice cream at The Screamery is worth dreaming about.
A few stars that don't quite fit into any of the categories above. Don Guerra at Barrio Bread makes world-class bread with locally grown grains. Birrieria Guadalajara features some of the best Mexican soups and stews. La Estrella Bakery is one of the best sources for pan dulces, or Mexican sweet pastries.
It's inevitable that we're missing some places, so please share your favorite joints with a distinctive Tucson flavor in the comments.
Jackie Tran is a Tucson-based food writer, photographer, culinary educator, and owner-chef of the food truck Tran's Fats. Although he...