Tucson doesn't have snowy cabins this time of year, but we still get to enjoy comforting autumn and winter dishes.
Warmth can come from not only spice and temperature, but starchy and fatty foods as well. Think soups, stews, and short ribs.
Seafood also benefits from the cold weather. Fish prepare for the cold by fattening up, while the cold weather also reduces the risk in transporting seafood to warmer areas such as Tucson.
Below and in alphabetical order (Editor's Note: Agustin Kitchen sure lucks out in these lists) are our 2017 picks for essential Tucson restaurants that embrace cold-weather ingredients and induce a satisfying hibernation.
Knives aren't needed for most of Agustin Kitchen's newest menu. The Rocky Mountain Elk Short Ribs rest atop roasted spaghetti squash, kale, Hayden Mills polenta, stone fruit jus, and crispy shallots. The sweetness from the dried stone fruit balance well with the savory elk jus for fantastic polenta.
Pork belly isn't overrated, but not so rare these days. For a rarer porky alternative, order the Kurobuta Pork Jowl. The combination of smoking and braising provides an unrivaled umami with intense succulence. The accompanying white beans, kale & radicchio, apple & candied ginger salad, and beet beurre rouge provide a medley of sweet, sour, and bitter elements to balance the potent dish.
Last but not least, the Braised Lamb Shank is slow-roasted and served on brown buttered almond couscous, kale, arugula, grapefruit suprêmes, and pamplemousse soubise sauce. The brown butter amplifies the richness and nuttiness, while the grapefruit contrasts with bitter acidity.
For more information, call (520) 398-5382 or visit agustinkitchen.com.
When it comes to hot Mexican soups, Birrieria Guadalajara is queen. The ladies in their kitchen stir giant pots of Birria, Pozole, Menudo, Caldo de Queso, Albondigas, and Cocido. The soups are beautiful in their simplicity and as comforting as it gets.
For more information, call (520) 624-8020.
Chef and owner Maria Mazon offers daily seasonal salsas worth a trip of their own. With BOCA's recent relocation, the larger kitchen and dining room allows Mazon to flex her culinary muscles with more weekly soups and specials. What other Mexican joint in town offers eel or kangaroo as a special?
For more information, call (520) 777-8134 or visit bocatacos.com.
Amatriciana, a classic hearty Italian sauce, is surprisingly rare in a city with as many Italian restaurants as Tucson. Thankfully, Cielos, one of a handful of historic and essential Tucson restaurants offers Bucatini Amatriciana with San Marzano tomato sauce, rendered pancetta, Calabrian chiles, Calabrese salami, and Pecorino Toscano cheese.
For something meatier, check out the Short Ribs with sweet & sour turnips, polenta, red beet purée, and heirloom carrots. The turnips provide a delightful crunch and acidic counterbalance to the rich meat.
For more information, call (520) 320-2000 or visit lodgeonthedesert.com.
Autumn is arriving at Commoner with wild mushrooms and roasty flavors. The Airline Chicken features a chicken breast cooked sous vide in bacon fat, along with wild mushrooms, sweet potato, cipollini onion, asparagus, brown butter sauce, and pecan raisin crumble.
Wild mushrooms also make an appearance with the 16-oz Rib Eye alongside fingerling potatoes, cremini glaze, and crispy onion.
On the roastier side of things, the Coffee Guajillo Lamb Chops feature roasted parsnips and carrot purée. The coffee and guajillo helps create a complex flavor profile balancing fruitiness and slight bitterness.
For more information, visit commonertucson.com.
The Coronet's fall menu features additions from newly-appointed executive chef Moody Albarasi.
Brisket is utilized in two dishes: Red Wine Braised Brisket with roasted mushrooms and Brussels sprouts on a parsnip puree, and Shredded Brisket Flatbread with turmeric roasted cauliflower, pickled shallots, and shabazi sauce.
The Rigatoni Arrabbiata features spicy tomato sauce, green olives, capers, piave cheese, arugula, and lemon zest — make it heartier with the addition of shrimp.
For more information, visit cafecoronet.com.
While the Caribbean island of Jamaica evokes summer imagery, the warm spices and stews are perfect for cold weather enjoyment too.
Oxtail Stew gives short ribs a run for their money with its extremely high gelatin content, helping create a lip-smackingly sticky sauce with Jamaican spices, bell peppers, carrots, onions, and potatoes.
Adventurous eaters can go for the Curry Goat as well for rib-sticking fare.
For more information, call (520) 861-2271 or visit dsislandgrilltucson.com.
Guests have until November 13 to try the Zahlé, Lebanon menu with Lebanese influence with ingredients such as bulgur, za’atar, lamb, pickled turnips, and more.
The fragrant Kibbeh: Lamb + Bulgur Stuffed with Labneh features beet puree with pomegranate molasses & yogurt, pickled turnips, pistachios, dried apricots, and minted tahini & blood orange olive oil.
Separate on the dinner menu, the Pan-Roasted Chicken Breast is stuffed with habanero pepita pesto.
For more information, call (520) 623-7700 or visit downtownkitchen.com.
Bright, tropical flavors such as lime and chile shine alongside fresh raw seafood in the Sea Aguachile. Thinly-sliced shrimp, scallops, octopus, red onion, serrano, chiltepin, and special salsas combine for a bold blend of flavors.
El Ceviche Route showcases three ceviches: tropical, Peruvian, and spicy. The trio of items contrasts with each other with fruity, limey, and tomato-y flavors.
La Berraca Tostada bridges the gap between mariscos and sushi with fresh tuna, salmon, scallops, cooked shrimp, cucumber, guacamole.
For more information, call (520) 620-9828 or visit el-berraco.com.
It's hard to beat the seasonality of Feast, which changes their menu monthly. While we don't have the clairvoyance to analyze the menu of future cold months, we can rave about October's Oxtail Bolognese with braised oxtail simmered in tomatoes and aromatic vegetables over house-made pappardelle pasta.
For more information, call (520) 326-9363 or visit eatatfeast.com.
Former food truck Holy Smokin' Butts recently settled into a brick-and-mortar location without losing their charm or quality control. The menu is static, but they offer specific barbecue cuts for enthusiasts such as Fatty Moist Brisket. The potato salad is German influenced with a bit of dill, which tastes more autumnal than summery.
They make limited quantities of barbecue daily and close once they're sold out, so keep up with Holy Smokin' Butts BBQ on Facebook to check for their "sold out" posts before heading over.
For more information, call (520) 329-3088 or visit holysmokinbutts.com.
Ikkyu's Japanese cuisine is laid-back soulful. Their take on Tonkotsu Ramen features a luscious pork bone broth with spicy ground pork, chashu, naruto, green onions, bamboo shoots.
Spicy rice bowls are also craveable. The Akuma Donburi simply features pork and cabbage in spicy sauce, while the Spicy Tuna Don features spicy tuna over a bowl of sushi rice, garnished with seaweed, sesame seeds, and scallions. For some bolder flavors and textures, make your Spicy Tuna Don volcano style to add unagi sauce, spicy mayonnaise, and crunchy bits of tempura batter.
For more information, call (520) 297-9011 or keep up with Ikkyu on Facebook.
Hawaiians sure know how to pack a plate to the fullest. While the hearty Loco Moco is available year round, Island Plate Lunch on Facebook posts new specials on a regular basis.
On Fridays and Saturdays only, arrive early to snag one of the limited quantities of Oxtail Soup, served with rice and ginger soy sauce. The oxtails swim in a light-yet-rich broth with peanuts, ginger, baby bok choy, and shiitake mushrooms.
For more information, call (520) 989-0001 or visit islandplatelunch.com.
The Yuk Gae Jang and Kimchi Chigae are spicy soups that rival the revitalization power of menudo.
The Kimchi Fried Rice with pork, ham, and a fried egg on top sounds simple, but the kimchi adds complexity that makes it difficult to stop eating.
For a social dining experience with guests, order one of the combination specials that include a bottle of soju.
For more information, call (520) 305-4900.
When it comes to no-nonsense seafood, Kingfisher is king. Having been open for over 20 years, they've developed a loyal following of gourmands, chefs, and anyone who just wants good food.
While certain farmed oysters are available year-round, seasonal oysters are truly gems. Don't forget to order one of Kingfisher's 13 martinis.
If for some reason you're avoiding seafood, consider Braised Lamb Shank Cassoulet with apple-bacon jam, balsamic syrup, cannellini beans, and roasted mirepoix. But really, you should trust the Kingfisher team to serve you the Kingfisher's Lobster Roll.
For more information, call (520) 323-7739 or visit kingfishertucson.com.
Autumn is Maynards executive chef Brian Smith's favorite time of year as a chef with access to autumn produce like turnips, beets, pomegranates, grapes, swiss chard, celery, and squash.
With all of Smith's recent UNESCO trips, his deeper appreciation of Tucson ingredients has led to the creation of the Barrio Bruschetta with grilled Barrio Bread baguette, Native Seeds/SEARCH Anasazi bean, tomato, ricotta, pickled peppers, preserved lemon, and basil from the garden just outside of the kitchen.
The Chipotle-Rubbed Pork Chop features a fennel-brined and chipotle-rubbed pork chop with Hayden Mills creamy semolina, stone fruit chutney, braised kale, and fried garlic.
For more information, call (520) 545-0577 or visit maynardstucson.com.
This year's Iron Chef Tucson winner, executive chef Travis Peters, creates bold, fun dishes on a regular basis. While many items on the menu have been long-term fixtures, guests can anticipate boundary-pushing specials and other new items to be announced.
Don't miss out on a piping hot bowl of Guedry's Gumbo or a plate of the Drunken Angel, which features Burgundy angel hair pasta, shrimp, crawfish, lobster broth, saffron red pepper cream sauce, and wisps of freshly-grated parmesan.
For more information, call (520) 797-1233 or visit theparishtucson.com.
With executive chef Ryan Clark and recently appointed chef de cuisine Roderick LeDesma, house-made components are sure to impress.
PY's menu usually includes a seasonal variation of Brussels sprouts — this season, Fried Brussel Sprouts are dressed with mustard butterscotch, house-made pork belly pastrami, and Marcona almonds. Another veggie side, Pan-Roasted Turnips, features a short ingredient list with complex flavors utilizing lamb bacon and fermented garlic honey.
Thanksgiving flavors shine in the Hudson Valley Duck Breast with apple tarte tatin, celeriac mousseline, celery leaf salad, and a brown butter & walnut broken vinaigrette. Winter flavors come through in the Tomahawk Pork Chop with sweet potato hash, apple, house bacon, local greens, and seasonal vegetables.
For more information, call (520) 324-9350 or visit casinodelsol.com.
Gratuitous cheese is comforting too. The Fungus Humongous is a satisfyingly meaty meatless pizza with grilled portabella and white mushrooms along with onions and garlic.
Guests can count on the monthly pizzas to reflect the season in a clever way. October's The Basic Witch is "a friggin' hot deep-dish pumpkin pie cheesecake."
If you haven't checked out this inclusion of fall and winter essential Tucson restaurants, make it happen.
For more information, call (520) 321-1860 or visit roccoslittlechicago.com.
Sushi lovers can just sit at the sushi bar and be taken care of accordingly. Take advantage of the excellent oysters, daily specials, and whatever the sushi chefs recommend.
Diners seeking warmer fare have to try the Hamachi-Kama, which is charbroiled yellowtail collar with ponzu sauce. The rich meat with rice and tangy ponzu are such a simple yet primally satisfying combination.
Lastly, noodle soup lovers can get their fix with various udon and soba soups.
For more information, call (520) 297-3615 or visit sushionoracle.net.
Even though Tumerico only has a chalkboard menu with new items daily, guests can always be confident they'll receive a feel-good food hug. A real hug from chef Wendy Garcia too, if you're lucky and it's not too busy.
The cost of entrees includes a bowl of the daily soup and a cup of coffee. Large portions with a variety of veggies are filling, but don't weigh you down.
Past favorites include the Coconut Curry, Quinoa Nopalitos Tostadas, and Sweet Potato Flautas. A wide range of vegan and gluten-free options make it a fantastic choice for anyone.
For more information, call (520) 270-2055 or keep up with Tumerico on Facebook.
Have an opinion of essential Tucson restaurants for fall and winter? Let us know 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...