From the beef chimichangas and ceviche tostadas in Tucson to the street corn and barbacoa beef in El Paso, the two cities in the far southern reaches of the United States have plenty to brag about in the Mexican cuisine department.
In fact, the two cities are known for slogans that tout their Mexican food scenes: Tucson, Arizona bills itself as the “Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food in America,” while El Paso, Texas is often referred to as the “Mexican Food Capital of America.”
The two cities are located just 4 hours and 30 minutes from one another along I-10 in the region along the U.S./Mexico border. They are fairly similar in size, with populations in the 500,000 to 600,000 range.
Having visited Tucson often over the past several decades, I am familiar with its strong Mexican food game. And after spending a week in El Paso and the West Texas area in the summer of 2021, I was also struck by that city’s delicious cuisine.
Still, with both communities claiming to be the best, it begs the question: Who wins this culinary dual in the desert?
As a casual foodie, I’ve noticed a number of differences in the Mexican cuisine in the two cities, along with strengths in both, and some similarities. Based on my observations and the recommendations of local experts, here are 8 things to know about the Mexican food scenes in El Paso and Tucson.
1. El Paso Has Strong Border Influences
With its location right along the U.S./Mexico border, El Paso draws heavily from the cuisine in Ciudad Juarez, the city just across the border, which has a population of 1.5 million and is the largest metro area in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.
Several international ports of entry in El Paso connect the two metro areas, and local experts say the two cities continually draw from one another for inspiration in the culinary arena.
El Paso restaurants also often source their food products from Mexico. On my recent visit to El Paso, I talked to representatives of two different businesses that obtain their products directly from farmers in Mexico — the ELEMI Cocina for its corn (maíz), and the MaybeWest Mezcal company for its agave.
While Tucson has a strong Mexican influence in its cuisine as well, the Arizona city is not located directly on the border; it is about an hour’s drive north of the border cities of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico.
2. Tucson Is A World Heritage Gastronomy City
With a culinary heritage that dates back 4,000 years, Tucson was the first U.S. city to earn the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization designation as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2015.
That title has set Tucson apart not just for its stellar Mexican cuisine but for its Native American influences as well. The Visit Tucson website refers to the city’s culinary heritage as a “tapestry of Mexican and Native American traditions.”
The local food scene is bursting with regional products like cactus (nopales), sunflowers, corn, chiltepin (red chile pepper), prickly pear, and squash. In fact, fresh ingredients are the backbone of Tucson’s chef-driven culinary scene.
The Tucson City of Gastronomy organization regularly releases a list of certified Tucson City of Gastronomy Restaurants. Honorees have included a variety of eateries and bakeries — everything from the upscale Mexican steakhouse, Charro Steak & del Rey to the breakfast/lunch/dinner made-from-scratch mainstay Blue Willow Bakery.
Charro’s specialty is beef, and the menu includes a variety of steaks and grilled carne asada. I also loved the great seafood choices, such as the branzino Veracruz, a whole fish filet in a sauce of tomato, olive, and capers, and served with nopalitos and grilled butterfly shrimp.
For breakfast at Blue Willow, try the chorizo scramble featuring beef chorizo and scrambled eggs topped with salsa, or the huevos rancheros with eggs, pinto beans, corn tortillas, cheese, and home-style potatoes.
3. El Paso Incorporates Tex-Mex
Tex-Mex cuisine, a blend of Texas cowboy fare and the foods of northern Mexico, is said to have spawned favorites like nachos, fajitas, and cheese (queso) dip.
El Paso puts a unique spin on the popular fusion by adding spicy elements and mesquite-grilled meats. Add in the proximity of chile-focused New Mexico towns like Las Cruces and Hatch, and you have a Tex-Mex scene that truly stands apart. In fact, El Paso’s cuisine is sometimes described more as Mex-Tex than Tex-Mex.
Again, local experts attribute El Paso’s stellar Tex-Mex to nearby northern Mexican states like Chihuahua and Coahuila, as well as its symbiosis with its sister city of Juarez. The result: Tex-Mex classics with a twist.
For instance, queso fundido, El Paso’s version of queso dip, has extra zest with the addition of spicy chile peppers. Try it at Tacos Chinampa or Tacos El Toro Bronco. And for authentic fare like tampiquena (meat topped with grilled green chile, onion, and tomato) and deshebrada (shredded beef in a rich salsa Española), head to the local favorite L&J Café. While tacos are great all over El Paso, regional chain Tacotote, which originated in Juarez, is known to have a wide variety of meats and taco fixings.
4. Tucson Has A Strong Seafood Game
Even though Tucson is a 3 hour and 30-minute drive from the nearest ocean (the Sea of Cortez Mexican beach town of Puerto Peñasco), the Arizona desert community boasts excellent Mexican seafood fare — offering everything from shrimp ceviche to fish tacos to whole grilled fish.
Taquerias all over the city offer variations on ceviche and fish tacos. For a restaurant choice that has landed on the City of Gastronomy list for authenticity, head to the Taqueria Pico de Gallo, a colorful little eatery that offers tangy ceviche tostadas, flavorful fish tacos, and rich soups featuring mixed fish or shrimp.
5. El Paso/Juárez Claims Margaritas
Although stories differ, one of the popular theories on the origin of the ubiquitous margarita cocktail is that it was created by bartender Pancho Morales in the (since-closed) Tommy’s Place Bar in Ciudad Juarez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso.
In a 1974 article, Texas Monthly reported that Morales had invented the icy/tangy/salty tequila-infused drink while he was bartending at Tommy’s Place in Juarez in the summer of 1942. As Morales recalled it at the time, a customer ordered a magnolia cocktail (typically made with gin). When Morales was uncertain how to make that drink, he improvised and used tequila instead. The customer loved it, and the margarita was born.
6. Tucson Claims Chimichangas
Tucson lore has it that the creation of the chimichanga, a deep-fried flour-tortilla burrito, was also created largely by accident. The website of the city’s legendary El Charro Café says the café’s founder, Tia Monica Flin, “is well-known as the inventor of the chimichanga.”
According to the account, Flin accidentally dropped a burrito into the frying pan while she was making tacos and yelled out the word chimichanga instead of a “common Spanish cuss word.” The crispy fried burrito creation caught on and now is featured on Mexican restaurant menus across the country.
7. Beloved Local Spots
The two Southwest-U.S. cities have many similarities along with their differences. For instance, both cities have numerous cherished Mexican restaurants that have been go-to spots for locals for generations.
In Tucson, local favorites include Mi Nidito, the spot famous for its President’s Plate (Bill Clinton’s famous meal of bean tostada, birria taco, chile Relleno, chicken enchilada, and beef tamale); the charming El Charro Café, known as the oldest continuous Mexican restaurant in the country; and the Crossroads Restaurant, a favorite among locals for its authentic tacos, burritos, and rich beef and vegetable soup.
In El Paso, local mainstays include L&J Café, famous for its green chile chicken enchiladas, chile con queso with green chile strips, and beef fajitas; Chico’s Tacos, known for its rolled ground-beef tacos, deep-fried, and served in a tomato-based sauce; and Kiki’s Mexican Restaurant, famous for its brisket machaca plate.
8. Drawing From Neighboring Mexican States
Tucson and El Paso may not get the attention of Mexican cuisine hubs like San Antonio or Los Angeles, but the two desert cities set themselves apart by putting their own spin on the cuisines of the neighboring Mexican states.
From the agricultural and ranching culture in Chihuahua, El Paso gets wonderful corn dishes, such as the esquites at ELEMI, and numerous flavorful beef varieties, including barbacoa, a type of beef (traditionally made from beef cheek) that is often slow cooked in an in-ground pit or outdoor oven — a specialty of the regional chain Tacotote.
Likewise, Tucson draws heavily on the cuisine of the state of Sonora, where wheat has been used for hundreds of years for flour tortillas and bread.
An article on the This Is Tucson website reports that when Spanish colonizers arrived in the region 500 years ago, they introduced wheat to indigenous groups, who used the grain to make tortillas. Through the years, flour tortillas have become synonymous with Tucson, and the article lists 18 tortillerías that produce the famed tortillas, including Alejandro’s Tortilla Factory and Anita’s Street Market.
Tucson is also known for its artisan breads, and Barrio Bread is iconic in the community for its loaves made using centuries-old baking techniques and locally grown heritage grain. Many of the bakery’s signature loaves are stenciled with Arizona symbols like the saguaro cactus and the state flag.
Owing to their different influences, Tucson and El Paso both have something special to offer on the Mexican cuisine front. That makes pitting the two against one another like, say, comparing corn tortillas and flour tortillas. From my experience, you really can’t go wrong with either.
Pro Tips: For more ideas on Mexican cuisine in El Paso, see The 9 Best Mexican Dishes To Try In El Paso And Where To Find Them, and for foods to try in Tucson, see Eating Local In Tucson: 7 Best Foods And Drinks To Experience.