Welcome to Tucson: 35 Must-Try Mexican-Inspired Dishes

Here's a guide to 35 can't-miss Tucson dishes with a distinctly Mexican influence. 

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Photo By: Jackie Alpers

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers

Photo By: Jackie Alpers

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers

Photo By: Jackie Alpers

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers

Photo By: Jackie Alpers

Photo By: Jackie Alpers

Photo By: Jackie Alpers

Photo By: Jackie Alpers

Photo By: Jackie Alpers

Photo By: Jackie Alpers

Photo By: Jackie Alpers

Photo By: Jackie Alpers

Photo By: Jackie Alpers

Photo By: Jackie Alpers

Photo By: Jackie Alpers

Photo By: Jackie Alpers

Photo By: Jackie Alpers

Photo By: Jackie Alpers

Photo By: Jackie Alpers

Photo By: Jackie Alpers

Photo By: Jackie Alpers

Photo By: Jackie Alpers

Photo By: Jackie Alpers

Photo By: Jackie Alpers

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers

Photo By: Jackie Alpers

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jackie Alpers ©2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Welcome to Tucson

Tucson, Arizona, is famous for its Sonoran-style Mexican food. A college town located just 60 miles north of the Mexican border, and situated between Santa Fe and Southern California in both geography and style, Tucson boasts a truly unique regional cuisine.

 

In fact, Tucson has been designated the first U.S. City of Gastronomy by UNESCO, celebrating its unique regional cuisine, which is influenced heavily by the city’s proximity to Mexico and its location in the Sonoran Desert, where prickly pear, mesquite and chiltepin grow wild. Native American and Hispanic cultures mix with those of generations of settlers who moved to the Southwest looking for a new life.

 

Here are 35 can't-miss Tucson dishes with a distinctly Sonoran-Mexican influence.

Carne Seca at El Charro Cafe

Carne seca is sun-dried shredded beef, and Tucson, which boasts 270 sunny days a year, is one of the few places in the world where it's available year-round. Thin strips of beef are seasoned with lime and salt, then hung in a large cage to dry. The dried meat is then shredded and pan-fried with green chiles, onions and tomatoes, and served with tortillas or in salads, tacos, burros (large burritos) and enchiladas. Pictured is the Carne Seca Plato from the oldest family-owned Mexican restaurant in the United States, El Charro Cafe.

Go to: El Charro Cafe

Green Corn Waffle at Mother Hubbard’s Cafe

Unlike any toaster-style waffle, this savory waffle at Mother Hubbard’s is created from green corn, red onion and roasted chile, and topped with green chile sauce and cheese. The lot is then served with house-cured bacon, two eggs and maple syrup. Mother Hubbard’s aims to take traditional (American Indian) cooking techniques and adapt them for contemporary palates, and roughly 80 percent of its ingredients are locally sourced.

Go to: Mother Hubbard's Cafe

Taquitos at Seis Kitchen

The rolled chicken tacos (aka taquitos) at Seis Kitchen are made by slow-stewing all-natural boneless, skinless chicken thighs in a mirepoix-chile stock. The shredded meat is then rolled in fresh corn tortillas, flash-fried and topped with a chipotle aioli, guacamole, queso fresco and chopped cilantro. Plus, one of the restaurant’s co-owners is a nutritionist, so it’s easier to pretend they’re good for you.

Go to: Seis Kitchen and Catering

Sonoran hot Dog at BK Carne Asada  

The Sonoran hot dog has gained international fame. It's a grilled bacon-wrapped hot dog served in a soft, sweet bolillo roll, topped with whole pinto "charro" beans, chopped tomato, mustard, mayo and (if you dare) a chile or two. Find it at local favorites El Guero Canelo and BK Carne Asada

Go to: BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs

Spiced Fruit Salad at Taqueria Pico de Gallo

South Tucson has miles of Mexican taquerias, but only one, Taqueria Pico de Gallo, serves red plastic party cups filled with spears of fresh mango, coconut, jicama, watermelon and pineapple doused generously with lime juice, salt and chili powder. It will cure whatever ails you. 

Go to: Taqueria Pico de Gallo

Fish Tacos at Taqueria Pico de Gallo

Handmade, thick corn tortillas are part of what make the tacos at Taqueria Pico de Gallo unforgettable. The delicate fish tacos served with pickled carrots, onions and jalapenos are a favorite. They also come stuffed with traditional carne asada, birria or cabeza. 

Go to: Taqueria Pico de Gallo

Tostilocos at Jason’s Mexican

Tostilocos are a street snack with a cultlike following. A small bag of Tostitos is ripped open lengthwise, then dressed with chamoy (a sauce made of pickled fruit and chili), cucumber, peanuts, tamarindo candies, salsa, lime and Clamato. Try them at Jason's Mexican.

Go to: Jason's Mexican

Quesadilla with Cochinita Pibil at Seis Kitchen

Quesadillas mean much more than just cheese fillings at Seis. The cochinita-filled version presents a hand-pressed corn gordita stuffed with shredded cheese, fire-roasted green chiles and achiote-roasted pork, drizzled in chipotle aioli and topped with chopped cilantro and red onion. Also pictured are the sauteed calabacitas, featuring sliced yellow squash and zucchini that come flash-sauteed in the restaurant’s signature roasted-garlic mojo de ajo sauce.

Go to: Seis Kitchen and Catering

Chicharrones at Penca

In the South and other areas of the country, these are called pork cracklins. Here in Tucson, they're called chicharrones, and they still crackle and pop in the bowl. At Penca they are seasoned with housemade chili-lime salt, and they're perfect for happy hour. 

Go to: Penca

Posole at Welcome Diner

Welcome Diner’s posole is complicated, but in a good way. Yes, it has the required pork, hominy, shredded cabbage, radishes and squeeze of lime. To take it to a diner-style level of homey flavor, the chefs here serve it topped with a heaping spoonful of mole-spiced blood pudding, which then gets swirled into the soup, resulting in layers of richness and augmented flavor.

Go to: Welcome Diner

Fusion Sushi at Ginza

One of the owners of Ginza Sushi is from Japan. The other was raised in Mexico, where the two met. They later moved to Tucson and built a life and a restaurant together, creating a menu that marries their two cultures through creative rolls. A few examples are the Sonora, the Tampico, the Ceviche and the Heart Attack (shown), a spicy tuna roll with jalapeno, cream cheese and imitation crab.

Go to: Ginza Sushi

The J Dawg at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails

Janos Wilder, the James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, will be the first to tell you that the J Dawg is not a Sonoran hot dog. And yet it is distinctly Sonoran in style, topped with chorizo black beans, smoked poblano crema, housemade whole-grain mustard, pickled nopalitos and red onion. It’s available only at the bar, so stop in for happy hour or grab one as an appetizer before dinner.

Go to: Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails

El Octopus at El Berraco

The interior of El Berraco looks like a submarine, which is fitting, because the kitchen specializes in seafood dishes inspired by the Pacific Route, a maritime delivery route primarily used during World War II. El Octopus is a marinated and grilled whole octopus that is a smoky taste of the sea.

Go to: El Berraco

Fried Chicken Gizzard Dinner at Lucky Wishbone

The fried chicken gizzard dinner at Lucky Wishbone may not be Sonoran-style, but it’s been a Tucson legend since 1954. Lucky claims to be the city’s first fast-food restaurant, and to this day, it’s one of the few places that serve chicken livers and gizzards, in addition to fried chicken tenders and steak fingers. The fried gizzard dinner comes served with extra-crispy fries, a slab of buttery garlic toast and the restaurant’s special cocktail sauce, and attracts masses of local fans.

Go to: Lucky Wishbone

Sonoran-Style Shrimp and Grits at Lerua’s

Lerua’s is famous for green corn tamales – in fact, it sells thousands of orders at Christmas alone. So, in a brilliant moment of inspiration, Mikey Hultquist, a member of the youngest generation of chefs at this multigenerational family restaurant, came up with his own take on shrimp and grits by topping a tamale with tomatillo sauce and shrimp from the Sea of Cortez.

Go to: Lerua's Fine Mexican Food

Avocado Toast at Reforma

There may be nowhere better to eat fancy avocado toast than in this land of guacamole. Though avocados aren’t easily grown in Tucson, the variety of delicious guacamole styles found in the Sonoran diet ensures that avocados are a cornerstone of the local cuisine. At Reforma the toast is made by smashing fresh avocados over grilled housemade sourdough bread, and then topping it with cilantro, sea salt, pepitas (pumpkin seeds), sesame seeds, housemade chile powder and a drizzle of honey.

Go to: Reforma Cocina & Cantina

Que Machin at El Berraco

Another dish inspired by a stop along the Pacific Route is the Que Machin. The chefs at El Berraco lop the top off of a young coconut, then fill it with an unexpected mix of seafood, jicama, mango, peanuts, Rielitos (crunchy, savory wheat snacks), tamarind candies and a chamoy-chile sauce.

Go to: El Berraco

Charred Romaine Wedge con Chicharron at Charro Steak

Even salads hit the grill in Arizona. The charred wedge at Charro Steak comes with crisp pork belly, red onion, scallions and locally grown tomatoes. The romaine is charred over mesquite and topped with smoked blue cheese for a hit of woodsy flavor.

Charro Steak: Charro Steak

Chorizo and Eggs at Poco and Mom’s

Poco and Mom’s is something of a regional anomaly, because it serves up New Mexican-style food in Tucson. This means that traditional chorizo and eggs come dressed up with a smoky Hatch red and green chile sauce, showing off the bold flavors of that cult-favorite chile. The housemade green chile sauce is so popular with the locals that the restaurant sells it in giant jars.

Go to: Poco & Moms Restaurant

Duro at Juice & Fruit or Raspados El Paraiso

According to the Star Wars wiki, the Duros “were a humanoid species native to Duro,” but back on Earth, they are also a popular Mexican snack food made with puffed wheat. This is a single, giant duro topped with veggies, chile and lime. You can find duros at Juice & Fruit or Raspados El Paraiso.

Go to: Raspados El Paraiso

Ahi Tostadas at Hacienda del Sol

The Ahi Tostadas at Hacienda del Sol look like they could be a pretty little meal for “ladies who lunch,” but they pack a wallop both spicewise and in heft. Crispy tortillas are topped with seared rare albacore tuna, avocado aioli, watermelon radish, cilantro, Fresno chiles and edible flowers.

Go to: Hacienda del Sol

Custom Salsa Made Tableside at Guadalajara Fiesta Grill

Watching the skilled workers at Guadalajara Fiesta Grill masterfully create custom batches of salsa right in front of diners can seem like beholding an edible magic trick. Diners receive a bowl of fresh salsa that’s custom-made tableside to their ingredient and heat specifications in about two minutes.

Go to: Guadalajara Fiesta Grill

Sopes at Welcome Diner

Though most frequently made out of pork, chicharrones can actually be fashioned from the skins of chicken, beef, mutton or most any other animal’s skin. Welcome Diner has played with the concept by concocting deliciously unexpected chicharrones out of trout skin. The crunchy snacks sit like a beautiful prize on top of the sopes topped with smoked trout, red tepary bean puree and blue corn.

Go to: Welcome Diner

Papas Mole at Zivaz

Zivaz has created something of a Southwestern spin on gravy fries in this decadent dish, which serves up a full pound of deliciously crispy french fries smothered in smoky-sweet, black mole sauce, under a sprinkle of sesame seeds. For an additional tingle, try shaking on a little hot sauce.

Go to: Zivaz Mexican Bistro

Papanacha at Aqui con El Nene

The papanacha is a Sonoran-style baked potato that is steamed, then filled with local specialties that add more heat and spice than the standard sour cream-and-chive combination. The versions from Aqui con El Nene are stuffed with cheese, bacon, grilled mushrooms and diners’ choice of grilled chicken, steak or pork. You also get grilled onions, crispy tortillas and an extensive selection of toppings from the salsa bar.

Go to: Aqui Con El Nene

Cold-Brew Coffee at Exo Roast Co

The spicy-sweet chiltepin-chocolate cold-brew coffee at Exo Roast Co features hand-crushed, Sonoran-grown chiltepin peppers. The super-hot pea-size chiltepin is known as the “grandmother” of all chile peppers, and it grows wild in parts of Arizona. Housemade truffle chocolate, organic cream and ice perfectly counter the heat.

Go to: Exo Roast Co

Mike’s Southwest Duck Confit 3.0 at Baja Cafe

Though Baja Cafe is in a strip mall behind another restaurant, it’s worth seeking out for brunch: Just follow the local insiders forming a line out the door. The breakfast menu is truly inspired yet reasonably priced, featuring a lengthy list of creative eggs, waffles, pancakes and Benedicts. Chef Mike’s Southwest Duck Confit 3.0 is an eggs Benedict rendition that exemplifies the care and thought that goes into each dish. It features fried arepas filled with chipotle bacon and cheese, jalapeno bacon, fire-roasted green chiles, caramelized onions, poached eggs and slow-brined duck atop a bourbon-ancho sauce, all garnished with a Mexican cheese blend and chipotle hollandaise.

Go to: Baja Cafe

Pork Torta at 5 Points Market and Restaurant

The owners of 5 Points Market and Restaurant renovated a dilapidated shop that mostly sold old bicycle parts into a beautiful local market and restaurant. They also elevated a pretty standard local sandwich into something sublime. Their Pork Torta is made with chile-glazed pork, pear-apple chutney, avocado aioli and pickled red onion, served on organic, housemade ciabatta. Pork torta is such a standard local dish that there’s even a popular Tucson band with the name.

Go to: 5 Points Market & Restaurant

Queso Fundido Taco at Lerua's

The shell of the Queso Fundido Taco at Lerua's is made entirely of cheese. Chef Mikey Hultquist invented the dish because his favorite part of pizza and lasagna is the crispy, almost-burnt cheese at the corners. He combined that idea with the ingredients in the popular Mexican dish queso fundido to create the Queso Fundido Taco. A grilled cheese taco shell is stuffed with slow-braised carnitas, then covered with salsa tatemada and garnished with cilantro-lime crema, avocado, habanero puree, queso fresco, micro cilantro and diced white onion.

Go to: Lerua's Fine Mexican Food

Totchos at May’s Counter

What are Totchos? It’s the clever name the folks at May’s Counter came up with for their fried chicken-and-potato tot nachos. The restaurant’s signature fried chicken is broken into bits, then mixed with Tater Tots, cheese sauce, hot sauce, jalapenos and olives to create a brand-new food that draws together deep-fried favorites with a spicy kick.

Go to: May's Counter

The "OMFG" Burger at Lindy’s on 4th

Lindy's hamburgers are completely over-the-top, mountains of meat with names like "The Donkey Punch" and "OMFG" that can be a little intimidating. The one pictured has diced green chiles, jalapenos, pepper Jack cheese and guacamole, available with up to three burger patties. The "OMFG" has nine patties (!), and if you finish it in 20 minutes or less, it's free.  

Go to: Lindy's on 4th

Combo Plato at Cafe Poca Cosa

Each combo plato at Cafe Poca Cosa is an edible work of art crafted by Chef Suzana Davila. This one is constructed with a pico de gallo-and-mole salad as well as Machaca de Poblanos: shredded beef slow-simmered with egg, cilantro, garlic and fresh grilled poblano.

Go to: Cafe Poca Cosa

Southwest Chicken at Jonathan’s Cork

Due to popular demand, the light and simple Southwest Chicken has been on the menu at the gamecentric Jonathan’s Cork since the restaurant opened in 1966 as the Cork and Cleaver. Two boneless, skinless chicken breasts are stuffed with green chiles and feta cheese, and then topped with a lemony salsa butter.

Go to: Jonathan's Cork

Shrimp at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails

The menu at Downtown Kitchen calls this "Shrimp with a Sense of Place." I call it a spectacular marinated shrimp gordita with pickled locally scavenged cholla cactus buds (escabeche), housemade stone-ground corn gorditas and spicy black beans. 

Go to: Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails

Bloody Mary at the Cup Cafe

This may look like your run-of-the-mill Bloody Mary on the outside, but on the inside it's very special, made with tomatillo puree, a batch of secret spices and and Tito's vodka. Find it at the Cup Cafe in the Hotel Congress. 

Go to: The Cup Cafe at Hotel Congress

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