One of the hardest decisions we make each year.
Each year, the food scene in Tucson expands. Just thinking back on the tantalizing plates we’ve tasted is enough to start salivating. If you missed it, 77 new restaurants opened this year… and we’re all about it.
A mere restaurant opening isn’t enough to hit the tastebud spotlight, however. We’re looking for flavorful bites, stellar service, and an all-round memorable experience that will draw us back.
Although the Tucson Foodie team couldn’t agree on one standout spot, we decided to each contribute our favorites. It makes sense, right? Different palates, preferences, and personal experiences? We thought so. Well, the result is a curated list of what we deem our favorites of 2019.
As the founder of Tucson Foodie, I’ve had the privilege of dining at some truly remarkable restaurants since launching in 2009. Every year since, while we lose a handful of restaurants to closures, many more open than close. And we at Tucson Foodie eat at most of them.
More than 50 restaurants opened in Tucson in 2019. And so many of them stand out. One of the challenges I’ve noticed is that it’s easy to forget what I’ve tried just months prior. But the truly memorable experiences are not easily forgotten, whether it’s a dish, a drink, a server, a beautiful interior, or an all-encompassing experience.
You might say, “well, the service and interior design have nothing to do with the food.” And you would be correct. But after 10 years of Tucson Foodie—and I still value the food more than anything else —it’s the experience that really sticks out and lingers. The food is part of that experience.
Churrasco de Brasil
I’ve said for years that a Brazilian barbecue place would do well in Tucson. Let me tell you a little bit about the story of how we got the scoop on this spot.
I am mostly removed from the day-to-day content side of Tucson Foodie these days. Our editor Kate and lead writer Jackie, along with our growing team of contributors, do a phenomenal job. So, there’s no reason I’d be carrying a pen and paper when I had to run to REI for some last-minute items for a trip to Oaxaca. But I had my phone, snapped a quick photo and sent it over to the editorial team, knowing they’d be on top of it. But, I thought, this was too big to let go even another hour. I waltzed into the half-gutted Twigs Bistro only to find an older gentleman sweeping up demolition debris wearing a necktie. He was not the owner, as I assumed, but he did lead me upstairs to a small, un-air-conditioned office with two gentlemen in it (the owner-partners) sitting at a makeshift table who must’ve thought I was crazy. But not too crazy as they loaned me a piece of paper and a pen and kindly gave me every detail I asked for. If I remember correctly, I dictated the notes to Jackie from my car on the way back to the office.
Fast forward to today, the restaurant—which I finally dined at on my birthday—exceeded my expectations. It offers an original experience not previously available in Tucson and executes well. The food and service is top-notch and it was an ambitious project for the two partners to embark upon—even with their years of experience working for Fogo de Chao.
Read our October 2019 article Brazilian steakhouse Churrasco de Brasil opens tonight at the Tucson Mall.
For a little white-boy taco shop, Toro Loco sure delivers some tasty food. And Serial Grillers owners Travis and William knocked the branding and build out of the park on this one. It’s a little far east for me to get to as often as I’d like but I love new things that aren’t commonly available and Toro Loco offers a variety of items you can’t get anywhere else (outside of making them yourself).
Read our July 2019 article Toro Loco to open Friday, Aug. 2 with craft tacos, french fry-stuffed burros.
Ben Rine’s new burger joint, which is another eastside addition, has entered the unofficial best burger in town competition with a bang. I’ve always said that there’s only a small handful of local burger places to go for a great burger: Diablo Burger, Zinburger, Graze, and Monkey Burger. (Yes there are plenty of restaurants, too, but not that specialize in burgers). Add Divine Bovine to the list.
Read our March 2019 article Burger & Beer-Focused “Divine Bovine” at Speedway & Wilmot Now Open.
Maru Japanese Noodle Shop
Unfortunately, I don’t get out to the new spots as quickly and as often as I used to. Maru approached us for advertising. It’s the same team that’s behind Yoshimatsu on Campbell. When I finally did make it in, I was blown away at the flavor—bold, but not gut-bomb bold—and the variety of options. There’s a number of types of bowls, like udon, curry, ramen, but for each of those bowls, Maru offers around 7-9 different variations. They also don’t add MSG, if that’s something you’re trying to avoid.
Read our March 2019 article Maru Japanese Noodle Shop at Speedway & Silverbell Now Open.
I’ll never forget the first time I heard “Loser” by Beck. I thought it was a great song, but one-hit-wonder material, for sure. And that’s kind of what I thought when I heard there was a new restaurant with the word “Mian” in it. But this is the real deal—super-flavorful authentic Chinese noodle bowls. Full disclosure, these guys are advertisers, too, but it had no sway in my decision to include them in my picks.
Read our March 2019 article Chinese noodle shop Mian Sichuan now open on North Oracle Road.
So many delicious meals this year, so much to rejoice, so many wonderful restaurants. Even though I’m writing this on a full stomach, I’d drop everything and put myself over the gluttony edge just to have a meal again at any of these gems.
One of the things I notice is that three of the four favorite new eateries are all al fresco with counter service, lunch/brunch spots. There are reasons for this:
- We live in this beautiful town with beautiful weather (eight months of the year it’s perfection…four months of the year, well, you know);
- I love relaxing while eating (I’m a Jew, we annually devote an entire meal around relaxing while eating…but that’s for another article). I am most relaxed out of doors either by myself, with my dog or with my closest compadres;
- Counter service is perfect for me as I can have as much or as little interaction as possible and just savor the meal and the moment. This isn’t to say that I don’t adore terrific service. The talented servers in Tucson are unsung heroes, especially when dealing with this moody eater.
That being said, after narrowing it down, an excruciating process, here is where I ended up (in alphabetical order):
I love a great noodle. Last year’s new noodle for me was at Fatman Kitchen while this year, it is at CERES. I don’t care what the country of origin is, a great noodle is a great noodle… and these are great noodles.
The simple, house-made pasta served here is perfect for me, as are the sandwiches. They keep the food and menu focused and delicious. It is an exquisite experience every time I go.
The pasta is always cooked exactly as I like it—just a bit beyond true al dente but never close to mushy. All of the sauces hit the different notes I love: pesto with its bright and nutty flavors; bolognese for a hearty and creamy meat sauce; cacio y pepe for salty and creamy perfection with just the right amount of pepper.
I love their sandwiches either with the prosciutto or vegetarian. The simple arugula salad with a tangy dressing complements both the sandwiches and/or the pasta.
To finish it off, they always have something terrific in the desert case. If the Italian cheesecake is there, get it. If you think you don’t like cheesecake, well, you will love this.
Once you have your order, head across the street to the beautiful shaded patio on the East side of La Cocina and grab a bench at the community tables and some water from the provided water station. Now you can enjoy a bit of heaven in Tucson.
Read our October 2019 article “CERES” brings fresh hand-made pasta & bread to El Presidio.
This new place is my favorite of all the El Charro family of restaurants and it is the only full-service new restaurant to make my list this year. It is a delicious departure for chefs Gary Hickey and Carlotta Flores. While still keeping their feet firmly planted in Tucson’s and Western European culinary history, they take us on a voyage forward.
I enjoy the focused, plant-based menu. The surroundings (along with the foods) are fresh and comfortable. For snacks or happy hour with friends, this is a standout spot in the group of new restaurants of 2019
My go-to order is the small noshes. The chips and salsa are fabulous (that pickled salsa verde is one of my three favorite salsas in town—totally habit forming). The Spanish Lesson is a perfect blend of what I like to eat during the summer (the oil-braised lima beans are perfectly rich, paired with briny warm olives, Marcona almonds, roasted garlic, and get the anchovies).
Finally, I’m a mock-tail kind of girl and CV really delivers. Their non-alcoholic drinks are not just an “also-ran.” I appreciate the diversity and thoughtful aquas frescos, Hola Hemp Horchata, lemonades, and other delicious bebidas.
Read our May 2019 article 7 sensational dishes to order at newly opened Charro Vida (PHOTOS).
El Antojo de Poblano
The owners are wonderful and their food shows how much they care.
The fried Chalupas Poblanos are total winners, but the Cemita is what I crave and return for every time—often alone. It has so many ingredients it sounds like a mess (do bring a bib), but the fried beef and ham combined with cheese and caramelized onions and peppers, well, it just does me in. The salsa is hot as all get out, but sometimes you just have to dive in. Thanks to this terrific little food cart, I can get that great Puebla heat I yearn for.
Read our April 2019 article Newly Opened El Antojo Poblano Serves Tucson’s Best Mexican Sandwich.
Fonda La Hermanita
If you haven’t eaten on this sweet patio, next to the Coronet on Cushing Street, do it. The place and food feels rooted in the past without being even slightly aged. Everything is fresh and delicious. Chef Erika Bostick’s food sticks the landing with all the pretty notes without being cloying.
The first time I went I had the Gorditas with chipotle and a few bites of the Molletes (an open-faced sandwich). Both were excellent. The Churro Muffin was also on point.
But, what I order chronically is the Caldo de Pollo con Chochoyotes. This sparkling chicken soup with just the right amount of schmaltz richness pairs perfectly with its corn dumplings and bright vegetables. I haven’t craved chicken soup since Grandma Jane’s when we moved across the ocean when I was a little girl.
I find that this place transports me to my past but keeps me here in Tucson. I just love it.
Read our October 2019 article Mexican cafe “Fonda La Hermanita” to open on Cushing Street, October 5 (MENU).
In Tucson, you’ve got several options and locations when it comes to picking which Charro restaurant you’d like to visit, but my favorite is Charro Vida — the newest addition to the Charro family. What I like the most is that they’ve got their kitchen divided so that all of the plant-based dishes are prepared separately from the meat.
Speaking of dishes, my favorite is the Bandera Enchilidas, which is a trio of enchiladas in three mole sauces: calabacitas & beets en tomatillo; papas y poblano en chile rojo; chorizo planta en crema. Plus, the fluffy quinoa grain salad, beans, and veggies are more refreshing than the usual heavier conventional sides you typically see. Also, I’d recommend ordering one of the Fruit of Life Margaritas to wash it all down.
Read our March 2019 article El Charro Family to Open “charrovida” Restaurant in Casas Adobes Plaza.
To me, picking the best new restaurant in 2019 has to take into account the food and the experience. It’s not about picking a favorite dish or a favorite chef or even about the restaurant that created the most buzz in town. This is about where I eat often, a place I go back to over and over and there are a handful of delicious things on the menu so I never get bored. It had to be a place that I never get tired of.
In my opinion, the best new restaurant in Tucson for 2019 is Kukai. It was my most anticipated restaurant opening of 2019 and I’ve been back dozens of times since. It’s excellent at lunch or at dinner, a perfect choice for a snack and a beer or a full-on feast with friends.
My go-to dishes include:
The Tuna Mayo Onigiri — This portable snack reminds me of my childhood but it’s elevated. It’s the tuna sandwich I wish I grew up eating. I can’t think of a more perfect meal than a Tuna Mayo Onigiri from Kukai and a beer at Westbound. Summer or winter or anything in between, you can find me with this combo at the MSA Annex.
Spicy Pork Ramen — I think the ramen broth at Kukai is truly the best in town right now. It’s spicy with tons of pork flavor and the toppings are simple and delicious. I love the vegan version as well. Since ramen isn’t always available, half the fun is looking for the red lantern hanging outside of Kukai. If you see it, you know they’ve got ramen available. It’s the most delicious game. See, it’s all in the experience.
Read our February 2019 article “Kukai” at MSA Annex to Highlight Onigiri, Donburi, Ramen & More.
Even though the menu features something along the lines of 165 dishes, all 30-plus dishes I’ve had so far have been exceptional. I’ve avoided the two pages of “popular dishes in America” and stuck to the Chinese regional dishes instead and have not been disappointed yet.
The lazy Susan table makes it great for group gatherings of around 10 people, but you’ll need to reserve it. Start your meal by going to the cold dishes station; I recommend the garlic cucumbers, fuqi feipian (cold slices of beef and offal in chili oil, pronounced foo-chee-fay-peeyan), and wood ear fungus.
Next, explore to your heart’s content with anything ranging from cumin lamb skewers (generous for the price) and grilled intestine pot (chewy and crunchy with spicy lotus root and veggies) to (called small steamed bun on the menu here) and sweet milk buns (fried dough with sweetened condensed milk for dipping).
Service is attentive and efficient.
Read our May 2019 article “Chef Wang Chinese Restaurant” now open with 165-dish menu.
I will admit, I was the last of the team to decide on a favorite. 2019 was my first full year in Tucson and I have madly inhaled local dishes, learned restaurant names, and gone palate exploring trying to better understand this desert gem of a city. Is it possible to absorb the heritage and culture of a city in a year? Unlikely, but I tried. And then came the best new restaurant decision—a seemingly impossible task. Although I haven’t tried them all (before you judge, have you?), I’m throwing my hat into the ring.
Carnitas Los Gordos
Here’s the backstory:
It was a sweltering afternoon in Tucson and my mom was visiting from out of town. When I say “out of town,” I mean the UK. This was her first experience in the US (and she landed in Tucson—solid choice). After I’d been rambling about the food scene here for months, she had finally arrived and would experience it for herself.
Over the course of a week, after visiting several essential restaurants in the city, I told her that I had a surprise. We were on the hunt for a school bus — a wildly exciting venture for an out-of-towner who raised me watching The Magic School Bus. And, boy, did we find it. It stood proudly, on the corner of 22nd and Swan, gleaming pink—the vibrant bubblegum shade that screams nostalgia. She was intrigued.
Brand-spanking new to Tucson, this pink taco bus rolled in with flavor and delivered. The whole experience was excellent—the service, the seating inside the bus (a fun addition), and the juicy carnitas, a pork dish from Michoacán, Mexico.
I mean, we actually climbed inside a converted school bus (what a novelty), ordered a plate of carnitas (each), and helped ourselves to the freshly stocked self-serve salsa bar inside. She’d never seen so many options. When the plate arrived, I watched in amazement as someone I loved dearly took it all in, this experience I’d been frothing to share, unwrapping the handmade corn tortillas as if opening a present, stuffing them too-full with succulent pork, and then going barmy with toppings—a truly beautiful sight.
And the best part? She enjoyed the messy surprise as much as I did.
I’ve since returned to relive the cherished memory and can confidently say that the warmth of my experiences, even when it isn’t a blistering August afternoon, linger. There you have it: Carnitas Los Gordos, officially Carnitas Estilo Michoacán Los Gordos, at 4545 E. 22nd St. is my favorite food find in 2019.
In the words of that faithful childhood TV series, “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!” 😉