Even though you’re just a quick two-hour jaunt from Phoenix down the interstate, there are many ways that Tucson will leave you feeling like you’ve been transported to another world. You can experience Tucson’s charm through its art, architecture and local history, sure—but the most enticing and refreshing way to do so is through food.
Perhaps nowhere in Arizona do the traditions, flavors, and particularities of Sonoran cuisine feature so prominently as in Tucson, its proximity to the border with Mexico being just the first hint at the long-standing history of cultural exchange. After all, food is the essence of how a place has marched onwards through time, and unique in its capacity to be both timeless and ever-changing.
Join us on a journey through the Sonoran cuisine of Tucson.
Bars and Lounges
Maybe it’s the fact that it’s a college town, or maybe it’s the heat of the Sonoran desert that means a cool drink is always extra refreshing. Either way, the townspeople of Tucson like to get their drink on. They also understand, though, that the best pairing with a good drink is some downright delicious food, so the libation offerings here are as good for quelling your appetite as they are for a nightcap.
A quintessential Tucson taproom can be found in the city’s historic Hotel Congress, where a bartender named Tiger has achieved local legend status by tending the bar since the 1950s. His long tenure, gentle manner, and affection for patrons have earned him profiles in publications like the New York Times, and the bar in the hotel is now named in his honor as Tiger’s Taproom.
It’s just one of a few places to sip on something sweet on the hotel property, and you can get some great food on the patio at Congress’s Cup Cafe or their sit-down restaurant, Maynard’s. The margaritas, palomas, and Tiger’s Collins are all smash-hits, while their unfiltered farmhouse ale is a real treat for those beer snobs among us (myself included).
If the food and drink at the Congress gives you a strong hint of history, then the fare at the trendy Downtown Clifton is contemporary-forward. Their casual but elegant digs at the Red Light Lounge provide the perfect set-up for their food to follow through; you might be surprised to learn that there even is a kitchen when you arrive, with no line cooks or expo window in sight.
Here, they break with fine dining tradition in a move of great confidence that they’ll deliver something all on their own, and boy, do they. Their Oaxaca Old Fashioned, brilliantly blending mezcal into a classic recipe, is the perfect refreshment to sip on as the sun sets and you wait for your order of scrumptious fry bread or carne asada tacos to arrive. Our favorites include the beer-battered cauliflower tacos or perfectly cheesy stuffed Poblano pepper, a much heartier entree than it might sound!
For a nightcap, a breezy get-together with friends, or cocktail with a loved one, head to the versatile and memorable Owls Club. This dimly-lit haven for cocktail connoisseurs is one of several businesses housed in a former crematorium, but they lean into any sense of spookiness here with quirky decor choices that create a strong sense of character.
Their cocktail menu is split into two sections, with house creations leading the charge and the classic foundation recipes bringing up the rear. Of the latter category, two mezcal cocktails are the stars of the show: the Morricone has vermouth, chocolate, and mole bitters to create a complex taste profile, while the Leo Goldschmidt puts the mezcal center stage.
Street Food Galore
Tucson boasts an impressive street food scene to be explored. With lots of hidden gems and local favorites, our street food recommendations will give you an authentic taste of Tucson.
First on the list is Ensenada Street Food, a cozy taco spot. Magdalena Alvarez transformed an appliance shop into a beautifully unique dining area that cannot be found anywhere else. Her tacos focus on the flavors of Baja, California—so seafood is definitely on the menu. On top of that, she blends in flavors from her hometown Ensenada, by incorporating many different meats into her tacos.
One of her own fusion creations is the Sicodelico, featuring carne asada and melted cheese in a handmade corn tortilla. Strong emphasis on ‘handmade.’ Two of the meats that really stand out are the birria and al pastor; the birria in a creation called Frida is honestly divine and one we’re still drooling over. A messy eat for sure, but so worth the delicate flavors, especially when you add in some avocado sauce from the salsa bar.
We’d be remiss to talk about Tucson street food and not mention Sonoran hot dogs—or a local haunt where you can tuck into the best one. The Sonoran dog is, traditionally, a bacon-wrapped weiner served in a slightly sweet bun (a bolillo), with the traditional mustard. But that’s where this dog’s similarity with anything else you’ve seen before stops.
Besides mustard, you’ll get mayonnaise, onion and tomato as well as Mexican-inspired pinto beans, and salsa verde. If you’re lucky, it’ll be served with a stuffed jalapeño on the side. Some of the wilder wiener slingers in town might even add crushed potato chips, cheese or another curious topping.
Pop by El Güero Canelo, which won a James Beard America’s Classic award for their original Sonoran dogs in 2018. Or swing round to BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs on 1st or 12th Avenue, both owned by Benjamin and Kariela (that’s where the BK comes from) Galaz, who started selling these now famous dogs from a street cart back in 1994.
If fine dining is more your scene, here are some of our recommendations for a swanky evening out.
The Grill at Hacienda Del Sol is a gorgeous spot tucked away in the Catalina foothills within a quintessential Southern-style guest ranch resort. Southwestern elegance meets ranch style charm in the well thought out aesthetic of this restaurant, not forgetting the backdrop of the Arizona desert with burnt red foothills and gleaming cacti offering unrivalled views as you enjoy an award-winning meal.
Entrees that accompany dinner usually have ingredients grown on property. Offering several pasta and seafood dishes, we recommend the andouille sausage with roasted vegetables. Sunday brunch at this spot offers a range of omelets, breakfast meats, cheeses, waffles and more.
Along with the breathtaking golf course views at arguably the best steakhouse in Tucson, Bob’s Steak & Chop House pairs above and beyond service with complimentary freshly baked bread alongside pickled peppers and cucumbers upon being seated and an extremely pleasant ambiance. This steak house has got to be on your must-visit list.
The filet mignon is astounding—accompanied with a gorgeous lemon mash potato and a large glazed carrot, it’s certainly a signature side. Value for money at Bob’s is also worth noting; despite being on the expensive side of fine dining, you get a lot of ‘bang for your buck’. While many other steak restaurants require you to separately purchase side dishes (which pushes up the overall cost of your meal), Bob’s includes sides with their mains at very reasonable prices for fine dining.