Variety, they say, is the spice of life, and Tucson certainly dishes up plenty of variety (and spice) when it comes to eating out. For its wealth of eating opportunities and the quality of the food served here, in 2015 Tucson was named a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy, the first in the United States. (San Antonio, Texas, earned the second title a couple of years later.) Tucson is a city that lives for spice, and in the realm of fiery foods, Sonoran-style Mexican reigns supreme.
If you’re one of those rare people who aren’t fans of Mexican food, don’t despair—there are plenty of other restaurants serving everything from the finest French cuisine to innovative American, Italian, Asian, and African food. Southwestern food, Mexican-inspired but a creation of the region, is prevalent, too, and you should be sure to dine at a Southwestern restaurant early in your visit. This cuisine can be brilliantly creative, and after trying it, you may want all your meals to be Southwestern.
On the other hand, if you’re on a tight dining budget, look for early-bird dinners, which are quite popular with retirees.
The Secret of Carne Seca
Housed in an old stone building in El Presidio Historic District, El Charro Cafe (311 N. Court Ave.; tel 520/622-1922) is Tucson’s oldest family-operated Mexican restaurant, and it’s legendary around these parts for its carne seca, a traditional air-dried beef that is a bit like shredded beef jerky. To see how they make carne seca, just glance up at the restaurant’s roof as you approach: The large metal cage is filled with beef drying in the desert sun. You’ll rarely find carne seca on a Mexican menu outside of Tucson, so indulge while you’re here. El Charro also claims to be ground zero for the deep-fried burrito called the chimichanga, and though historical fact points elsewhere, it’s an enjoyable local legend. The adjacent ¡Toma!, a colorful bar/cantina, is under the same ownership. There are other El Charro locations at 6910 E. Sunrise Dr. (tel. 520/514-1922), and 7725 N. Oracle Rd., Oro Valley (tel. 520/229-1922), as well as in Concourse B of Tucson International Airport.
Hot Dogs, Sonoran-Style
You might think it a scenario out of a detective show, but the early days of Sonoran-style hot dogs in Tucson were accompanied by industrial espionage, extortion, and considerable bad blood. The dust settled, and one pioneer stood standing: El Guero Canelo, which in 2018 was awarded a coveted James Beard America’s Classics prize for its take on the salchicha rojo. The hot dog, wrapped in bacon and slathered with beans and salsa, will thrill the connoisseur, and the restaurant scene itself is a pure joy. For a slice of authentic Tucson culture, this place is not to be missed. The original El Guero Canelo is at 5201 S. 12th Ave. (tel. 520/295-9005), and there are locations in central Tucson (2480 N. Oracle Rd.; tel. 520/882-8977), on the East Side (5802 E 22nd St.; tel. 520/790-6000), South Tucson’s hip new “meat market,” or carniceria (4519 S 12th Ave.; tel. 520/889-3935), and even, as an act of clemency toward its northern neighbor, on the west side of Phoenix (5131 W. McDowell Rd.; tel. 602/278-8560). Main courses run between $2.50 and $8; it’s open Monday–Thursday 10am–10pm; Friday–Saturday 8am–midnight; Sunday 8am–10pm.
Saturday and Sunday mornings are great times to stop by St. Philip’s Plaza, just across the street from a historic Episcopalian church on the corner of Campbell Avenue and River Road. On weekend mornings, there is a wonderful little farmers’ market here. You can pick up organic bread, prickly-pear cactus juice and jelly, homemade tamales, Mexican cheeses, and plenty of produce. Stock up here, and then head to Sabino Canyon Recreation Area for a picnic.
If your movie didn't let out until 10pm and the popcorn wasn't enough to fill you up, where do you go to satisfy your hunger? Try Kingfisher, 2564 E. Grant Rd. (tel. 520/323-7739), which stays open until midnight every night, or Pastiche Modern Eatery, 3025 N. Campbell Ave. (tel. 520/325-3333;), which stays open until 11 on the Saturday and Sunday. T
Bakeries, Cafes & Quick Bites
For some of the best espresso in Tucson, head to Raging Sage Coffee Roasters, 2458 N. Campbell Ave. (tel. 520/320-5203); prices are high, but the espresso here sure is tasty. If you've been visiting the museums on the University of Arizona campus and need a pick-me-up, try Caffe Luce, 943 E. University Blvd., no. 191 (tel. 520/207-5504), which is directly across the street from the campus. If you're a tea person, be sure to check out Seven Cups, 2516 E. Sixth St. (tel. 520/881-4072), a traditional Chinese tearoom in a hip residential neighborhood near the University of Arizona.
If you find yourself craving a cupcake, head over to the university area to Red Velvet Cupcakery, 943 E. University Blvd., Ste. 165 (tel. 520/829-7780). For eight-layer cakes and light food in an edgy atmosphere, I like to stop in at the Cup Cafe, at Hotel Congress, 311 E. Congress St. (tel. 520/798-1618). At La Baguette Bakery, 1797 E. Prince Rd. (tel. 520/322-6297, which is affiliated with Ghini's French Caffe, you can get all kinds of delicious French pastries. AJ's Fine Foods, 2805 E. Skyline Dr. (tel. 520/232-6340), a gourmet supermarket in La Encantada shopping center at the northwest corner of Skyline Drive and Campbell Avenue, is another good place to grab a pastry. If it's a hot day, head to Frost, A Gelato Shoppe, 7131 N. Oracle Rd., Ste. 101 (tel. 520/797-0188), a great little gelateria in the Casas Adobes shopping center. Other Frosts can be found at 7301 E. Tanque Verde Rd. (tel. 520/886-0354), which is conveniently close to Sabino Canyon, and at 2905 E. Skyline Dr., Ste. 286 (tel. 520/299-0315), in La Encantada shopping center.
If you need a quick lunch, head for the nearest Baggins Gourmet Sandwiches for a delicious sandwich. Baggins has several locations, including 7233 E. Speedway Blvd. (tel. 520/290-9383), 1800 E. Fort Lowell Rd. at Campbell Avenue (tel. 520/327-1611), and downtown at 33 N. Stone Ave. at Church and Pennington streets (tel. 520/792-1344). Good pizza can be had at Magpies Gourmet Pizza downtown at 605 N. Fourth Ave. (tel. 520/628-1661), 105 S. Houghton Rd. (tel. 520/751-9949), and 6342 N. Oracle Rd. (tel. 520/297-2712). Whole Foods Market is a good place to get picnic supplies: organic fruit, delicious baked goods, cheese, meats, and wine. Locations are at 3360 E. Speedway Blvd. (tel. 520/795-9844) and 7133 N. Oracle Rd. (tel. 520/297-5394).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.