You may have heard of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and vaguely know that it is a worldwide non-profit organization that strives to improve people’s lives through art, culture, education, communication, and science.
The Creative Cities Network is a partner of UNESCO and focuses on cities that have identified creativity as a strategic factor for sustainable urban development.
Being deemed a UNESCO City of Creativity is a big deal. There are only about 300 cities in the entire world that have this designation in any of the creative fields. The United States has two UNESCO Creative Cities of Gastronomy. I’ve been lucky enough to visit both: Tucson and San Antonio. Here’s why they have City of Gastronomy designations and where to eat in both.
Thanks to Tucson and San Antonio for inviting me to visit! All opinions are my own.
Over breakfast, legendary Tucson chef and Tucson City of Gastronomy board chair Janos Wilder shared some of Tucson’s gastronomic history and the diversity of the Tucson food scene today. Why a City of Gastronomy? The Santa Cruz River that runs through town is the longest continuously cultivated riverbed in the United States. With a 4,000+ year history of agriculture, local food heritage is embedded in the culture and fantastic restaurants are plentiful. But the UNESCO designation is much more than good food. It’s about the history, culture, traditions, and flavors of the city.
Best Places To Eat In Tucson
Located in the heart of downtown Tucson in the historic Congress Hotel, Cup Cafe is known around town as a solid choice for a scrumptious meal. I recommend the barrio toast made with barrio bread from James Beard award-winning baker and Tucson native Don Guerra. It’s simply amazing.
What To Order: The barrio toast
El Charro Café Downtown
When one of the most renowned chefs in the city tells you to go to a restaurant, you go. Such was the case with El Charro downtown. Recommended to us by none other than Janos Wilder, we made a beeline for El Charro that very day for lunch. An institution in Tucson, El Charro Café is as good as it gets for Mexican food. This legendary restaurant celebrated 100 years in business in 2022 and is the nation’s oldest Mexican restaurant continuously operated by the same family.
Pro Tip: Their salsa is in a class by itself and the best we had anywhere.
Seis Kitchen serves the best brunch drinks in Tucson. Ten years ago, when they were doing take-away lunches from a food truck, cocktails weren’t on the menu. Now, the Munoz family serves an array of inventive cocktails along with a full menu of scratch-made breakfast, lunch, and dinner options. We especially liked the colorful and smooth Mexican hibiscus mimosa, and the bloody Mary with a rim of chamoy. But the hands-down winner is the signature Seischata. A play on the traditional Mexican horchata drink, this rum-infused cocktail is way too smooth and could get you in trouble if you’re not paying attention! Along with the house-made cocktails, you’ll find award-winning Mexican fare. Featuring foods from the six (seis) regions of Mexico, this is “honest food” made fresh.
What To Order: Mexican hibiscus mimosa, bloody mary, Seischata cocktail
Tito & Pep
The cool quotient at Tito & Pep is apparent as soon as you walk in the door. This neighborhood eatery in midtown Tucson has a mid-century vibe and lots of beautiful plants decorating the space. The culinary focus here is on distinctive wood-fired cuisine. A compact menu showcases shareable small plates, as well as entrées including seafood, chops, and steaks.
Pro Tip: Tito & Pep offers many gluten-free options.
Five Points Market & Restaurant
This cute breakfast spot is super homey and comfortable. Opened in 2014, the cafe prides itself on made-to-order, handcrafted fresh food. The owners at Five Points set out to prove that it’s possible to make a living in the restaurant business while practicing sustainability, sourcing locally, and offering employees fair pay. Try the signature huevos rancheros, they’re legendary.
What To Order: Huevos rancheros
Located in downtown Tucson, Penca is the place to go for Mexican fine dining. We loved the ambiance inside. Dark wood and exposed brick felt right with candlelights flickering on the dining tables. Though I didn’t have tequila, I should have because Penca created the first agave bar in Tucson. Choose from mezcal, sotol, and more distinctive tequila options. Our group shared an array of tasty appetizers including, flavorful queso fundido, salsa verde, chipotle salsa, and an excellent sweet cashew salsa.
What To Order: Top-shelf tequila cocktails
Gourmet food at a pizza joint? That’s what you’ll find at Zio Peppe, the pizza place co-owned by Chef Devon Sanner, who worked under famed Chef Janos Wilder for many years. You’ll find a Sonoran-influenced menu of elevated pizza, pasta, and rich risotto dishes as well as inventive appetizers and salads.
What To Order: El rustico birria pizza
Bonus: Mission Garden
The heritage garden, an ode to Tucson’s gastronomic history, is a fascinating look into Sonoran agricultural history. This living agricultural museum occupies the same ground where the U.S. Tohono O’odham Nation lived and grew their crops thousands of years ago. Wander the grounds through the Spanish Colonial Orchard Garden, the ancient Hohokam Garden, the African Garden, and more. Better yet, take a tour and learn from one of the fantastic docents.
2. San Antonio
Designated a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy in 2017, San Antonio has a rich culinary history dating back to the city’s founding by the Franciscans along the San Antonio River. Settled by people with Spanish, American-Indian, and Mexican heritages, the culinary scene has always focused on simple foods prepared with spices and seasonings that impart deep flavors.
Best Places To Eat In San Antonio
Clementine chef-owners John and Elise Russ start with the freshest of ingredients. Whether it’s a simple but oh-so-delicious fresh mushroom salad with pomegranates, watermelon radishes, and pecorino cheese, or okra with spruce tips, you know whatever you’re having is fresh and made with local ingredients. The spruce tips may have been picked from a tree the previous day. The pomegranates are undoubtedly from a friend. It’s no wonder they are a 2022 James Beard Award semi-finalist. Pastry Chef Elise (who is John’s wife and partner) works her magic on the sweet side of things. Try her Clementine crunch bar.
What To Order: Chose the “Feed Me” Menu option and be surprised and delighted by what the chef selects.
Not only is La Gloria chef-owner, Johnny Hernandez, a renowned chef with multiple restaurants in San Antonio, he’s also the city’s biggest fan. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Johnny specializes in creating authentic Mexican cuisine. Whether you enjoy the tacos el pastor, the ceviche veracruz, or an award-winning margarita, you’ll taste the delicate layers of flavor. He’s also passionate about giving back. As founder of the non-profit Kitchen Campus and San Antonio’s Culinary Taskforce, he’s a driving force behind San Antonio’s culinary profile and was instrumental in San Antonio’s designation as a Creative City of Gastronomy.
What To Order: Any of the ceviches are amazing.
Cured At Pearl
Cured at Pearl is all about using fresh ingredients that are locally-sourced and working with people you know. At Cured, they like to keep things tight, working with the same small group of local suppliers. On weekends, you’ll find them at the farmers market buying produce for the week. Visit owner Steve McHugh, a James Beard award finalist, and the rest of the Cured crew for a delicious taste of creativity that focuses on handcrafted cured foods.
What To Order: The reserve charcuterie plate for an indulgent, hearty starter
La Panaderia is a scratch Mexican bakery owned by Mexico City natives Jose and David Caceres. They believe in doing things the right way, which means making dough every day for their wide variety of Mexican breads and pastries. Someone is baking almost 24 hours a day here so they can whip up delicious Mexican specialty breads and desserts.
What To Order: The tequila almond croissant or any other of the delicious pastries
Chef Elizabeth Johns believes that food is medicine and created Pharm Table as a culinary medicinal platform to show people that good-for-you food can be delicious. She’s sharing a whole new world of nourishing foods, ancient grains, heirloom vegetables, and local herbs, all while being conscious of the environment and sustainable best practices. A proponent of zero waste and education, Elizabeth was instrumental in getting the Creative City of Gastronomy for San Antonio. She wants people to understand how food is made and how some of those practices impact our planet. Pharm Table is unlike any restaurant you’ve likely been to before.
What To Order: The ayurvedic wellness flight
Bonus: Food Chick Tours
While not a restaurant per se, a Food Chick Tour through San Antonio with former San Antonio food critic and CIA instructor Julia Celeste is a lesson in artisanal foods made the way they’ve been making them for generations. You’ll meet local proprietors that can tell you exactly where their ingredients come from and watch as they create incredible dishes. You’ll delve into the history of the San Antonio Missions and learn how they’re intertwined with the culture of the city.