Grub in the Grand Canyon State: The Best Things to Eat in Arizona

Arizona is home to to some incredible eats, from authentic Mexican fare to colossal steaks fit for a cowboy. Here are a few spots where you can go to sample the Sunset State's quintessential dishes.

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Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©© 2016, Television FoodNetwork, G.P.All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2016, Television FoodNetwork, G.P.All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2016, Television FoodNetwork, G.P.All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2016, Television FoodNetwork, G.P.All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2016, Television FoodNetwork, G.P.All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2016, Television FoodNetwork, G.P.All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2016, Television FoodNetwork, G.P.All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2016, Television FoodNetwork, G.P.All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©© 2016,Television FoodNetwork, G.P.All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2016,Television FoodNetwork, G.P.All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2016, Television FoodNetwork, G.P.All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2016, Television FoodNetwork, G.P.All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2016,Television FoodNetwork, G.P.All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2016, Television FoodNetwork, G.P.All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2016, Television FoodNetwork, G.P.All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2016, Television FoodNetwork, G.P.All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2016, Television FoodNetwork, G.P.All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2016, Television FoodNetwork, G.P.All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2016, Television FoodNetwork, G.P.All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2016, Television FoodNetwork, G.P.All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2016,Television FoodNetwork, G.P.All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2016,Television FoodNetwork, G.P.All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2016, Television FoodNetwork, G.P.All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2016,Television FoodNetwork, G.P.All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2016,Television FoodNetwork, G.P.All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2016, Television FoodNetwork, G.P.All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2016, Television FoodNetwork, G.P.All Rights Reserved

Where to Eat in the Sunset State

Arizona is a big state (the sixth largest in the United States) with several different dining regions. Southern Arizona is heavily influenced by Sonora, Mexico, to the south, while the cuisine in central Arizona tends to be shaped more by the mishmash of cultures in and around Phoenix. Though Arizona is geographically and culturally diverse, there are many dishes that signify the state not only to its residents, but also to outsiders looking in. Here are some of the most-iconic dishes across Arizona and where to find them.

Illustration by Hello Neighbor Designs. Photos courtesy of Jackie Alpers.

Chimichangas

One day in the mid-1950s, El Charro Café’s founding chef, Monica Flyn, accidentally invented the chimichanga when she dropped a burro (a big burrito) into the deep fryer. On that day a legend was born. Now, the crisped, packed dish is available at the Tucson and Oro Valley restaurants in sizes from the bite-size mini to their supersized USA Today chimi, which is about the size of a rolled-up newspaper, full of chicken, beef, shrimp, vegetarian beans or carnitas. 

Go to: El Charro Cafe

Gingerbread Pig

Some people call them cochinitos. Others prefer "ginger pigs." Cute and not too sweet, these little piggies from El Rio Bakery in Tucson fall somewhere between a cookie and a cake, yet they're not really a sweet bread. Rumor holds that they get their flavor from molasses, but the bakery won’t tell.

Go to: El Rio Bakery

Sonoran Hot Dogs

Wrapped in bacon, then nestled into a bolillo — or Mexican baguette — on top of a bed of pinto beans, the Sonoran dog is sitting pretty in its international fame. There are many great Sonoran hot dogs in Arizona, but the ones from Jason’s Mexican Food in Tucson come with a cheese-filled, bacon-wrapped yellow chile pepper on the side. They’re also topped with an exceptional green-chile salsa alongside the mayo, yellow mustard and chopped tomatoes. 

Go to: Jason's Mexican

Ranch Fries

Crinkle-cut fries smothered in housemade ranch dressing and vegetarian bacon bits may not seem like that big of a deal, but anyone who’s tried them will disagree. When people are asked what dish most reminds them of Arizona, the most-frequent response tends to be Eegees’ ranch fries, which are available only in southern Arizona. 

Go to: eegees

Cowboy Steak

A cowboy steak dinner fulfills a lot of people’s culinary Old West fantasies. This is the kind of meal that you can imagine John Wayne eating: a giant mesquite-grilled T-bone steak served with charro beans, thick slices of white bread and an auxiliary green salad. Get one at Pinnacle Peak in Tucson or Rustler's Rooste in Phoenix. 

Go to: Pinnacle Peak

Mesquite Flour Bread

Barrio Bread’s Don Guerra makes wild-yeast artisan loaves out of mesquite flour and other ancient grains native to Arizona. A full-service bakery in Tucson, Barrio also serves a huge selection of lovingly crafted classics, including Pan Epi and Old World Rye.

Go to: Barrio Bread

Carne Seca Plate

Thin slices of beef are marinated in lime and garlic, then slow-dried in the sun before being shredded and pan-fried with green chiles, onions and tomatoes to make carne seca. The classic carne seca plate served at the famous Mi Nidito pairs the sun-dried shredded beef with Mexican rice, refried beans and a tortilla. Word to the wise: The wait time for a table can be up to an hour, so get to the restaurant at off-peak times if you don’t want to idle. 

Go to: Mi Nidito

Cheese Crisp

Falling somewhere in between an open-faced quesadilla and a Mexican Pizza (which has more toppings) is the Cheese Crisp. Pictured is a green chile and carne seca cheese crisp from Mi Nidito in Tucson. If you’re in Scottsdale you can get an excellent cheese crisp at Los Olivos.

Go to: Los Olivos Mexican Patio

Red and/or White Menudo

Don’t be put off by the main ingredient in menudo. Not only is this tripe and hominy soup delicious, but it is also widely believed to heal hangovers and whatever else might ail you. At Teresa’s Mosaic Cafe in Tucson (pictured) it's served with toasted bolillo rolls, ground chiltepin peppers, Mexican oregano, cilantro and slices of lemon. Thankfully diners can get small bowls of both red and white menudo, so the indecisive don’t have to choose between the two.

Go to: Teresa's Mosaic Cafe

Prickly Pear Margarita

If you don’t believe that the bright-pink color of this margarita really exists in nature, go to the serene and scenic Tohono Chul Park Garden Bistro in Tucson and drink one amongst actual prickly pear cactus and other native flora and fauna. Then you can take a walking tour of the park and learn all about Sonoran Desert edible plants.

Go to: Tohono Chul Park Garden Bistro

Pico de Gallo Fruit Cup

Chile powder, lime and salt are all key ingredients in many local sweet treats, especially those that feature fruit. Chamoy, a sweet and slightly vinegary sauce made from fermented chiles, also makes an appearance. Taqueria Pico de Gallo in South Tucson serves thick slices of watermelon, jicama, mango and fresh coconut doused liberally in all of the above in their iconic red plastic cups.  

Go to: Taqueria Pico de Gallo

Mangoyada Raspado

Most raspados — Mexican-style snow cones — start with shaved ice, but they have a more complex combination of flavors than your typical American version. The Mangoyada is topped with diced mango, lime juice and Chamoy (pickled fruit syrup), along with the salty-sweet rielitos, which are tamarind candies that are everywhere in Arizona, though they're less well-known in other parts of the country.

Go to: El Migos Water-N-Ice

Tostiverduras

At Raspados El Paraiso in Tucson, you'll also find a few savory treats, including Tostiverduras. It's a slightly healthier version of the popular Mexican street snack tostilicos, which are made by slicing open a bag of tortilla chips lengthwise and then stuffing it with cabbage, diced cucumber, tomatoes, lime, Chamoy, chile powder and the hot sauce of your choice.

Go to: Raspados El Paraiso

Paletas

Paletas are Mexican ice pops with sweet, savory and sometimes spicy ingredients. Paletas Betty in Chandler has a wider-than-usual selection of rotating flavors that include cucumber, coconut, rice pudding, sweet corn, pecans and mango, each ideal for cooling off on brutally hot summer days.

Go to: Paletas Betty

Chiltepin Salsa with Tortilla Chips

Chiltepin are pea-sized and extremely hot chiles that grow wild in southern Arizona. At Tucson's Boca Tacos, Chef Maria Mazon grinds them into her unique and ever-changing salsas served with signature made-to-order red tortilla chips

Go to: Boca Tacos

Duck, Fig and Almond Crepe

Planet of the Crepes food truck uses locally sourced ingredients in lieu of standard French fillings. Figs, almonds and ducks are all native to Arizona, and they are spectacular when tucked together inside these giant crepes. The crepes are good anytime, but they're the best during the Sunday morning farmers market at St. Philips Plaza in Tucson.

The Combo Plate

Tucson is UNESCO’s first U.S. city of Gastronomy. To experience the variety of flavor that landed the city its prestigious accolade, try one of Cafe Poca Cosa’s ever-changing combo platters, which are edible works of art created by Chef Suzana Davila. Pictured are pico de gallo-encrusted fruit, green corn tamale pie, chicken mole, machaca and eggs, and pickled onions.

Go to: Cafe Poca Cosa

Green Corn Tamales

Considered seasonal but available at most places year-round, green corn tamales are best when the fresh green corn is harvested in late summer. Try them at Carolina’s Mexican Food in northern Arizona or at the Alton Brown-approved Tucson Tamale Co., down south.

Go to: Carolina's Mexican Food

Topopo Salad

Named for a volcano in Mexico, the Topopo Salad features shredded lettuce and dressing pushed into a cone-shaped mold, topped with a bean tostada (bean-side down) and then flipped onto a plate to make the volcano shape. It is then decorated with slices of cheese, vegetables, fruit and the optional protein of your choice. Try it at the El Charro Café in Tucson, shown here with grilled shrimp, or Los Olivos in Scottsdale.

Go to: Los Olivos Mexican Patio

Native American Fry Bread Tacos

Named one of America’s Classics by the James Beard Foundation, the Tohono O’odham-owned Fry Bread House in Phoenix serves puffy, slightly sweet fry bread topped with refried beans, red- or green-chile beef, lettuce, tomatoes and a squirt of salsa. Authentic fry bread tacos are also available in Tucson at Manna from Heaven (shown).  

Go to: Manna from Heaven

Taco Gordo

They weren’t kidding when they named the Taco Gordo; it’s a fat thing to behold, at a restaurant with the best name ever. The Taco Gordo atTaco Fish in South Tucson has two corn tortillas layered with fried fish and shrimp, shredded marlin, and a single fried shrimp perched on top like a cherry. One Taco Gordo costs $3.50 and with all the toppings from the salsa bar, it’s a full meal.

Go to: Taco Fish

Elotes

Elote — grilled corn on the cob squirted with lime, slathered in mayo and then dredged through chile powder, Cotija cheese and the hot sauce of your choice — is a standard at local fairs and festivals. A fancier version is also available atPenca in Tucson year-round.

Go to: Penca

Ceviche Tostadas

With its wild sea-themed murals, giant fiberglass fish floating from the ceiling and pleasantly extensive selection of hot sauces, Mariscos Chihuahua in Tucson, Nogales and Phoenix is the place to go for Mexican seafood in Arizona. The ceviche tostadas are a cool and refreshing balance of briny shrimp marinated in lime juice, onions, cilantro, tomatoes and avocado served on top of crispy deep-fried tortillas.

Go to: Mariscos Chihuahua

Tri-Tip Steak Sandwich

A hundred steaks grilling on a huge iron rack over a roaring fire on a cart attached to the back of a truck is an incredible sight to take in. People follow theBBQ 4 U food truck's schedule online and travel miles for the meat, which is sliced, piled onto a roll and served with salsa.

Beef Patty Tacos

To help satisfy her children’s cries for burgers, Theresa Matias folded a hamburger patty into a tortilla and fried it. Topped with cheese, lettuce and tomato, it later became a regular menu item at her restaurant, Teresa’s Mosaic Cafe, in Tucson. Apparently a lot of moms had the same experience because the beef patty taco has been standard restaurant fare around southern Arizona since the mid-1970s.

Go to: Teresa's Mosaic Cafe

Red Chile Tamales with Green Olives

At El Molinito in the Oro Valley, you'll find Sonoran-style red-chile tamales made with green olives inside, which differentiates them from red-chile tamales in other parts of the American Southwest. Even though they are traditionally served on Christmas Eve and are a popular holiday gift, they are available year-round in southern Arizona restaurants.

Go to: El Molinito

Sonoran-Style Flat Enchilada with Egg

A corn masa pancake that’s baked or fried and then topped with enchilada sauce — and, if you’re lucky, a fried egg — is perfect for breakfast anytime. Get one at the Anita Street Market in Tucson or Rosita’s Mexican Food in Tempe.

Go to: Rosita's Mexican Food