When Diana’s father moved to Tucson, Arizona, about a dozen years ago, we knew that we would be visiting often. While neither of us prefers hanging out in the desert heat, we have nothing but praise for the incredible food and drinks available in this booming Southwestern city. Tucson borders Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, which infuses a strong Mexican influence on the area. And while there’s a lot of wonderful Mexican-inspired cuisine, the Tucson culinary scene has much more variety to offer. A vibrant and growing college town, Tucson provides many delicious options for every taste and price. To get you started on what you might want to explore, here are a few of our suggestions for some of the best local food and drinks to experience on a visit to Tucson.
1. Sonoran Hot Dog
Coming from Chicago, we know a lot about hot dogs (and why you need to try a Chicago-style hot dog at least once in your lifetime). Tucson has its own unique style of hot dog, and it is something special. The Sonoran hot dog, or Sonora Dog as it’s often called, originated in Hermosilla in the heart of Sonora, Mexico. This tasty street food is so popular you can find hundreds of vendors putting their own spin on the ingredients in Tucson. Ingredients can vary by vendor, but an authentic Sonora Dog must have a bacon-wrapped dog cooked until the bacon is crisp served inside a bolillo-style bun, split-top with the ends still joined, similar to the buns of New England Lobster Rolls. Toppings often include pinto beans, onions, tomato, salsa verde, mustard, and mayonnaise. Some toast the bun, others leave it soft. One of the most famous purveyors is El Guero Canelo, which started out as a trailer and now has multiple restaurants and food factories. Double the fun with the Sammy Dog, which comes with two bacon-wrapped dogs in a bun. Or do what we did and go on a Sonora Dog crawl to various trucks, carts, and stands around town to find your own favorite.
Birria is a delicious traditional Mexican dish of stewed meat that comes from the state of Jalisco and its capital of Guadalajara. Traditionally made with goat meat or mutton, Birria now is commonly created with beef, veal, lamb, or pork. It can be served as a stew or shredded meat filling for tacos, burritos, and sandwiches. Dried chiles, herbs, and spices bring out the unique flavor of this dish, and it can vary from mild to very hot depending upon the amount and type of chiles used in the recipe. Mi Nidito is a multi-year winner of the Best of Tucson competition for awesome birria. But El Charro Cafe and Birrieria Guadalajara have many local enthusiasts, too. Try birria in its different forms to experience what a unique, delicious, and versatile dish it is.
3. Breakfast Burrito (Or Burro)
When the Tucson flavor bug bites you, it’s not uncommon to wake up with a desire for flavors infused with the Southwest. One of the best ways to scratch that itch is with a tasty breakfast burrito. A burrito, literally translated as little donkey, is a flour tortilla wrapped around a variety of ingredients that creates a neatly encased and portable meal. We love a breakfast version filled with local eggs, onions, potato, beans, cheese, salsa, and roasted peppers. You can easily add your choice of meat like carnitas, chorizo, or bacon. Top with a little avocado or guacamole for a final flourish. If you can’t fit it all in, choose a larger version, or burro, and sit somewhere lovely to dine with a view. Check out the fresh local ingredients at Barista del Barrio, Sonoran Brunch Company, and Maynards Market and Kitchen to start your day in a flavorful way.
4. Italian Delicacies
It’s easy to associate Tucson with great Mexican and Southwestern food. But, it’s hard for us to live without Italian food for too long. Fortunately, Tucson locals feel the same. There are plenty of ways to feed the need with great Italian that tastes like Nonna (grandma) made it. Vivace first captured our hearts with its fresh burrata served two ways. One way is with fresh tomato and basil oil, the other is over roasted beets with a pistachio vinaigrette. And that was just the first course! Favorite pastas, classic Italian mains like osso bucco, and a great large and varied wine list make Vivace a local gem. Tavolino Della Notte is another winner with an authentic menu that’s innovative as well as traditional. All the pastas are called Pasta Della Nonna, and we think that any Italian granny would love Nonna’s Sunday Gravy and the classic preparations of beloved dishes like parmigiana, marsala, francese, and piccata. And with creative rotating specialties like a housemade shrimp and lobster sausage served with crispy Nuske bacon in a brioche bun with a side of Old Bay fries, it’s easy to see why we -- and lots of locals -- rave about Tavolino.
5. Lindy’s Challenge Burger
It’s hard to imagine a college town without a fabulous burger joint. But Tucson’s Lindy’s On 4th takes the burger to a whole new level. Its famous Challenge Burger is the stuff of legends. In fact, you may already know about it from Adam Rich’s Man v. Food visit to Lindy’s. He took on a three-pound ginormous burger made with three pounds of meat, one pound of cheese, and all the toppings. Now there are two versions. The OMFG tops the three pounds of house-seasoned beef with cheddar and swiss, lettuce, tomato, onion, and Lindy’s sauce. The Burnout includes pepper jack cheese, green chilis, jalapenos, ghost pepper sauce, and guacamole. Anyone who eats one of these monsters in less than 20 minutes gets it for free. Unfortunately for Adam, though he did finish the burger, it took him 44 minutes, so he had to pay. We say take a hungry partner, friend, or whole family with you and have some fun. If you’re not up to the challenge, don’t worry. Lindy’s has tons of other delicious normal-sized burger and non-burger items, starters, salads, and sides.
6. Caravan Grill And Mideastern Food Market
Ethnic food from Mexico is expected when visiting Tucson. But flavors from the Mediterranean and Middle East might be a surprise. For those of us who love these flavors, Tucson offers a welcome treat. Great hummus, gyros, tabouli, baba ganoush, shawarma, kebabs, falafel, and other well-known dishes appear throughout the Tucson cuisine scene. Caravan Grill is a recent extension of the Caravan Market, an ethnic grocery store that has been in Tucson for over three decades. Skilled chefs work together in the grill kitchen, preparing dishes from scratch. Family traditions have brought out the best recipes, so diners can enjoy authentic flavors from the region. This is one of those times when it’s fun to eat some food at the grill and buy ingredients from the market to take home with you.
7. Prickly Pear Margarita
We’d never hear the end of it if we didn’t mention that Tucson has a lively beverage scene as well. You can bet that tequila of every sort gets a workout from the residents. But one of the most unique cocktails known and loved by Tucson locals makes use of the pinky-purple cactus fruit known as the prickly pear. The iconic prickly pear margarita is not only a local favorite, it’s one heck of a tasty cocktail worthy of the acclaim it receives. Several Tucson establishments earn praise for their rendition of this tart-sweet and colorful drink. For those who want a hands-on experience, summer at the Tanque Verde Guest Ranch offers the chance to harvest prickly pear fruit then learn to make the cocktail and other treats yourself. If you’d rather just enjoy your cocktail, visit their Doghouse Saloon. Or head over to Reforma, known for having the largest selection of mezcal and tequila in Arizona. Their tasty prickly pear margarita will help you refresh and renew, or try it as part of a margarita flight and give your taste buds a spin.
If you love bread like we do, you won’t want to miss out on a signature Heritage Loaf or other artisanal breads at Barrio Bread from James Beard semi-finalist baker Don Guerra. This Arizona native produces phenomenal breads using heritage and ancient grains grown by local farmers. It’s often said that Barrio Bread is just as much a part of Tucson as Tucson is a part of Barrio Bread. All we know is that there’s something special about this hometown hero, and we want to be sure you know about it, too.
Tucson is full of delicious food, drinks, and culinary surprises. We hope you have fun whenever you visit now that you know how to eat like a local. For more on the AZ food scene, meet five amazing Arizona chefs and the unique ways they’re using mesquite.