“Working with local and heritage products tells an important story about where we live,” said Janos Wilder, James Beard Award-winner and executive chef at DOWNTOWN Kitchen + Cocktails.
“They are the ingredients that provide the authentic and enduring flavors of our home.”
If you look closely enough, food is everywhere in the Sonoran desert. It’s in the pods of mesquite trees, the pads of prickly pear cacti, and the fruits of even the tallest saguaro. Long before air conditioning and refrigeration, natives survived by harvesting wild and domesticated plants that evolved to tolerate drought and extreme temperatures.
Still today our backyards are filled with these local foods — mesquite, acorn, barrel cactus, chiltepin, cholla, desert chia, desert ironwood, hackberry, palo verde, prickly pear, saguaro, wolfberry, wild greens and more. And the tasty Tepary bean, Pima corn, and heritage wheat berries that once provided basic sustenance to tribes like the Tohono O’odham are making their way back to the land. A number of Tucson restaurants have taken on the mission of bringing the richness of our desert to their menus. Here’s our list of some of the best dishes in town featuring indigenous ingredients.
Barrel Cactus Jam
Exo Roast Co., 403 N. 6th Ave.
Exo has perfected the art of turning the barrel cactus fruit into a thick, crunchy jam with a tart sweetness. Paired with a slice of toasted Barrio Bread, it’s a great snack with your morning coffee. When the barrel cactus stops producing at the end of spring, Exo rotates in jam made from prickly pear fruit.
For more information, call (520) 777-4709 or sell exocoffee.com.
Café Botanica, 2150 N. Alvernon Way
Café Botanica’s humble location inside the Tucson Botanical Gardens is not to be missed, especially when Botanical Sopes are on the menu. Chef Christopher Baldwin creates the sopes from native dent corn masa and a creative mixture of seasonable local vegetables which change daily. Served with a trio of salsas, tepary beans, and salad featuring local hydroponically-grown greens, the freshness of this dish is unparalleled.
For more information, call (520) 326-9686 or visit tucsonbotanical.org.
Coyote Pause Cafe, 2740 S. Kinney Rd.
Hidden in the middle of the desert (but not far from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum), Coyote Pause Cafe knows exactly how to turn local foods fantasies into reality. There’s a veggie burger made of Tepary beans, chili made from nopales, prickly pear slaw, and mesquite pancakes. Coyote Pause Cafe is the brainchild of Kerstin Block, founder of Buffalo Exchange, and is part of a unique artisan shopping center, which also includes a bed and breakfast, observatory, and miles of pristine desert. When in season, the chefs often harvest the mesquite pods from right around the cafe, creating an ultra-local dish of fluffy pancakes with a distinct mesquite flavor.
For more information, call (520) 883-7297 or visit catmountainstation.com.
Agustin Kitchen, 100 S. Avenida del Convento #150
When French fries get boring, mosey on over to Agustin Kitchen. The nopales are cleaned in house, breaded with buttermilk and cornmeal, and served with a rich tomato aioli and avocado crema. Paired with beer, it’s a perfect way to spend happy hour. If you’re craving more nopales, Agustin Kitchen also offers a tasty Nopales Salad for lunch and dinner.
For more information, call (520) 398-5382 or visit agustinkitchen.com.
Penca, 50 E. Broadway Blvd.
Penca’s Nopales Tacos are its namesake as penca translates to prickly pear cactus pad in English. The pencas are cleaned in house and grilled to perfection before joining forces with Penca’s famous thick corn tortillas, cilantro, queso fresco, and pickled onion. They make for the perfect lunch or dinner and are just $5 for two during happy hour.
For more information, call (520) 203-7681 or visit pencarestaurante.com.
Maynards Market & Kitchen, 400 N. Toole Ave. A
If you’ve never tried a chiltepin, get yourself over to Maynards stat. Sometimes referred to as the mother of all chiles, the chiltepin is the original wild chile from which all other chiles have evolved. At Maynards, this chile grows right outside of the restaurant window. For the Pan-Seared Scallops appetizer, a little goes a long way. The chiltepins are compressed with apples to create a slight bite that make the tender diver scallops pop in your mouth. Served with date-walnut jam, apple butter and tarragon, this dish’s balance of sweet with spice will keep you coming back.
For more information, call (520) 545-0577 or visit maynardstucson.com.
Prickly Pear Glazed Albondigas
Charro Steak, 188 E. Broadway Blvd.
The Prickly Pear Glazed Albondigas are truly exciting meatballs. Created by chef Gary Hickey while experimenting with prickly pear glazes, these rich, red meatballs will melt in your mouth like you’ve never experienced before. Made of 100% Arizona grass-fed beef and topped with grilled peppers, cilantro, and cheese from a local dairy, it’s a unique, sustainable, and local foods appetizer.
For more information, call (520) 485-1922 or visit charrosteak.com.
Prickly Pear Sorbet
Isabella’s Ice Cream, 210 N. 4th Ave.
The Prickly Pear Sorbet is one of Isabella’s Ice Cream’s newest masterpieces . Founded on the principle of being socially and environmentally responsible, the Prickly Pear Sorbet is a testament to their mission and the power of local. The fresh-pressed, organic prickly pear juice gets mixed with lemon and lime to create a tangy, refreshing, and vegan sorbet. You will most definitely want a scoop of this sorbet (or three) in the middle of the summer.
For more information, call (520) 440-3583 or visit isabellasicecream.com.
Scarlet Runner Bean, Jicama + Pickled Cholla Bud Salad
DOWNTOWN Kitchen + Cocktails, 135 S. 6th Ave.
Remember that pesky cholla cactus that ‘jumped’ on your leg last time you walked too close? Turns out it’s incredibly delicious. Cholla buds (when cleaned) have long been a staple of native diets, and are now on the menu at DOWNTOWN. Served with big, meaty Scarlet Runner beans and crunchy, fresh jicama, the pickled cholla buds will urge you to forgive any past pricks.
For more information, call (520) 623-7700 or visit downtownkitchen.com.
Three Sisters Burrito
Welcome Diner, 902 E. Broadway Blvd.
The Three Sisters Burrito at Welcome Diner is a delicious local foods tribute to the three main crops that have sustained many indigenous communities in the Southwest for centuries: squash, beans, and corn. Native folklore has that these crops supplement each other as they grow; Welcome Diner proves through a mastery of flavors that these crops supplement each other as you eat them. Warm Tepary beans are paired with tempura-battered squash and roasted corn for a crunchy, rich, and filling meal.
For more information, call (520) 622-5100 or visit welcomediner.net.