From tater tots to menudo, Tucson offers a wide range of options for inebriated eating.
“Wholesome” is not a word that comes to mind when thinking of dive bar food. Rather, it’s easy to envision their kitchens as scenes of disastrous food safety breaches – like clumpy expired mayonnaise on a stale white burger bun. That leads to the aftermath similar to when Anthony Bourdain (R.I.P.) ate warthog anus while filming in Namibia and had to run off camera gagging.
Fried bar food is more approachable, considering that at least whatever it is, it’s fried. Frying stuff kills everything, right?
And Tucson dive bars can seem like the world’s diviest. A Tucson dive bar is not like a Boston dive bar, nor an Omaha dive bar, or really any dive bar anywhere in the world. The smell of decades-old chorizo grease mingles with cheap cigarette smoke while off-key banda leaks out of a corner jukebox, generating a uniquely gritty terroir.
Truth bomb: believing this isn’t just snobby, it’s erroneous. By having the guts to exit your food comfort zone, you learn that Tucson’s dive bar food can actually approach gourmet. That chorizo grease you smell might turn out to come from an exquisite caramelo. Here’s a list to start.
Tiny’s Saloon & Steakhouse
4900 W. Ajo Hwy.
There will be a burger special each week! This is the California burger! Comes with ?!
Tiny’s 1/2 lb Famous Steer Burger is actually famous enough for a following and not arbitrarily titled. Additionally, they just announced plans for weekly burger specials.
Keep up with Tiny’s Saloon & Steakhouse on Facebook.
3700 N. Oracle Rd.
While the fried food samplers at dive bars are usually a safe bet, skip it at Rockabilly Grill. Instead, get the bacon-wrapped jalapeños or the original wings, which are fried, sauced, then grilled.
For more information, visit rockabillygrill.com.
The Meet Rack
210 W. Drachman St.
The Meet Rack’s no-frills sirloin burger (once served with clam chowder) is marvelous, should the proprietor Jim Anderson (who goes by “God”) deem you worthy of one. Like the Hideout, the infamous bar/party has also been featured on national TV — but on The People’s Court for an infected branding incident.
Keep up with the Meet Rack on Facebook.
The Buffet Bar
538 E. 9th St.
Known to locals as The Buff, the Buffet is perhaps the best known dive in Tucson due to its shady history and just-off-the-beaten-path location. This classy joint maybe used to serve Buff Dogs cooked in a Crock-Pot in cheap beer. Maybe. And once upon a time, they offered pickled eggs. Now they just offer packaged snacks. No one really ever remembers what happened at the Buffet. And what happens at the Buffet most definitely stays there anyway.
Keep up with the Buffet Bar on Facebook.
6510 E. Tanque Verde Rd.
The barbecue from Fire N’ Smoke Wood Fired Pizza & BBQ next to and affiliated with Cowpony Bar (AKA, Cow Pony AKA The Pone) is something to behold. You wouldn’t know it judging by how neon beer signs are the only source of light at Cowpony, but the pizza they dish up from their sister restaurant is decent too.
Shooter’s Steakhouse and Saloon
3115 E. Prince Rd.
Tucked back in a residential neighborhood right along the Rillito, Shooter’s Steakhouse and Saloon straddles the edge of dive and not-dive. Opt for the onion rings, steak fingers, or signature fried portobello mushrooms.
Keep up with Shooter’s Steakhouse and Saloon on Facebook.
3940 E. 29th St.
The Neighborhood makes surprisingly killer ceviche, as well as street tacos and other Mexican American cuisine to complement their outstanding micheladas. People really dig their wings too.
For more information, visit yourneighborhoodbar.com.
Red Garter Bar & Grill
3143 E. Speedway Blvd.
Just a few doors west of the Loft, the Red Garter has a giant menu featuring mozzarella sticks (that are kind of sweet for some reason) and one of the best French dips in town. They also claim to have the best burger in town. Again, debatable, but it’s freaking delicious.
For more information, visit redgartertucson.com.
Wooden Nickel Tavern
1908 S. Country Club Rd.
Wooden Nickel Tavern also claims to have the best burger in town – or at least the most succulent, per their website. That burger is a damned fine welcome home from a trip, situated as it is not too far from the airport. After that, you can go get Mexican food from any of a zillion nearby taco stands.
For more information, visit woodennickeltucson.com.
Surly Wench Pub
424 N. 4th Ave.
The dive bar Surly Wench Pub (locals often just call it The Wench) makes the best tater tots in the whole world. Period. But maybe it’s the bloody mary talking. The Hangover Tots are aptly named and topped with a fried egg, Swiss cheese, and a poblano pepper sauce.
For more information, visit surlywenchpub.com.
Home Plate Sports Pub
4880 E. 22nd St.
Home Plate Sports Pub cooks decent reubens and killer pizza. Plus, the bar has batting cages. They welcome kids, so as to indoctrinate them young to the dive bar way.
Keep up with Home Plate Sports Pub on Facebook.
Nevada Smith’s Steakhouse and Saloon
1175 W. Miracle Mile
Should you be truly fearless and into inland seafood, order some seasonal oysters on Thursdays at Nevada Smith’s Steakhouse and Saloon. Their steaks are delicious too — with 38 years of experience, the kitchen has them well-mastered.
For more information, visit nevadasmithssaloon.com.
3306 N. 1st Ave.
Go old school at Nancy’s Boondocks for their long-standing tradition of Tuesday night fish tacos. Or do Meatloaf Mondays, Fish Fry Fridays, or “Big Azz Cheeseburgers” on Wednesdays. Every night there’s a special, and it’s all good.
For more information, visit nancysboondocks.com.
The Original Hideout
3000 S. Mission Rd.
The Hideout serves some of the world’s greatest chili, at least according to the giant sign hanging outside the formerly truly sketchy biker bar. Since the television episode that Bar Rescue filmed there aired in May, things may have changed. But hopefully not the weekend morning menudo.
Keep up with the Original Hideout on Facebook.
Dive bar food some of your favorite eats? Let us know, below.