Because Arizona is a mélange of cultures -- Anglo, Hispanic, Native American -- the state's culinary scene is equally diverse. Of course, you'll find plenty of fast-food restaurants as well as restaurants following the latest trends, but you'll also find Native American foods little changed in hundreds of years and an astonishingly wide variety of Mexican food, from Baja-style fish tacos to Nuevo Latino preparations that seem lifted from the pages of Like Water for Chocolate.
If you have an adventurous palate, be sure to search out some of the state's Southwestern restaurants. Although many of these can be rather expensive, the flavors, which combine the spices of Mexico with the fruit-and-meat pairings of nouvelle cuisine, are so distinctive that you'll likely find yourself soon craving more. Don't worry, Southwestern cooking is not all about fiery peppers. Expect pistachio-crusted meats, fruit salsas, cream sauces made with smoky chipotle peppers, and the likes of duck tamales and cassoulet made with indigenous tepary beans. Among my favorite Southwestern restaurants in Arizona are Janos (and its affiliated and less expensive J Bar) in Tucson; Vincent's on Camelback, Cowboy Ciao, and Kai in the Phoenix area; and the Turquoise Room at La Posada hotel in Winslow.
At the other end of the culinary spectrum is the simple fare favored by Arizona's Native Americans. On reservations throughout the state, you'll usually find fry bread on the menu. These deep-fried disks of dough are similar to that county-fair staple, the elephant ear (only without the sugar and cinnamon). Fry bread is eaten as a side or is used to make fry-bread tacos (called Navajo tacos on the Navajo Reservation). These tacos are made by piling shredded lettuce, ground beef, pinto beans, and cheese on top of a circle of fry bread. The best fry-bread tacos I've had in Arizona are in Phoenix at the Fry Bread House and Sacred Hogan Navajo Frybread. The biggest are at the Cameron Trading Post restaurant near the east entrance to Grand Canyon National Park. One regular fry-bread taco here is enough for two people.
Other than fry-bread tacos, authentic Native American fare is hard to come by in Arizona. At the Ch'ihootso Indian Market, in the Navajo Nation capital of Window Rock, you can sample such traditional dishes as mutton stew and steam corn (a soup made with whole corn kernels). Also, if you should happen to see a roadside sign for kneel-down bread, be sure to buy some. This traditional Navajo corn bread is similar to a tamale, only sweeter. Wherever you should happen to sample Navajo food, ask whether Navajo tea is available. This is a mild herbal tea made from a plant that grows in northern Arizona.
On the Hopi Reservation, at the Hopi Cultural Center, you can sample traditional Hopi stew (made with hominy, green chilies, and lamb). In the southern part of the state, you can often sample Native foods at stalls in the parking lot of Mission San Xavier del Bac south of Tucson. If you'd like to take home some Native American ingredients, stop by Native Seeds/SEARCH, a Tucson nonprofit organization involved in preserving the indigenous crops of the Southwest.
No discussion of Arizona cuisine would be complete without mentioning Mexican food. Yes, I know that Mexican food is ubiquitous all over the U.S., but Arizona Mexican restaurants have far more to offer than deep-fried chalupas, flavorless burritos, and plates of unidentifiable stuff covered under a dense layer of molten yellow cheese. How about a Sonoran hot dog? I bet you can't get one of those at your local gringo-mex joint. Sonoran dogs, available at El Guero Canelo in Tucson, are hot dogs wrapped in bacon and slathered with beans and salsa. For another distinctive Sonoran dish, sample the carne seca at Tucson's El Charro Café. The English translation of this dish (dry meat) may not sound too appetizing, but, trust me, this stuff is great. At the other end of the Mexican spectrum are the flavorful and creative dishes concocted by chef Suzana Davila at her Tucson restaurant Café Poca Cosa.
Because of the heat and proximity to Mexico, margaritas are among the most popular cocktails in the state, and they come in a wide range of flavors. Although I am a traditional on-the-rocks-with-salt person, I can never resist a prickly-pear margarita. These cocktails, prepared with a syrup made from the fruit of the prickly pear cactus, are shockingly pink and surprisingly good.
You may never have thought of the desert as wine country, but Arizona is actually producing some decent wines. Wineries can be found both in southern Arizona in and near the small town of Sonoita, and in central Arizona near Sedona and Cottonwood. Big reds are the focus of most of the state's wineries. My favorite wine producers include Callaghan Vineyards, Alcantara Vineyards, and Page Springs Cellars.
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