Penca Restaurante, Tucson, Arizona

Mexican Food & More in Tucson

By: Arizona Office of Tourism

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April 2, 2017

Find Southwestern favorites, local delicacies and global influences throughout this internationally known city.

About the author

Arizona Office of Tourism

These articles are brought to you by staff of the Arizona Office of Tourism, as well as local tourism organizations around the state.

Of course, you’d assume that Tucson, a quick drive from the international border, is a great place to get Mexican food…and it is. In fact, Tucson believes it is the home to the Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food in the United States. What makes Tucson’s culinary scene – from street-side carts to downtown elevated dining – great is the fusion of cultures in Southern Arizona.

American Indian influences show up at a diner; salsa and tamales are re-imagined with surprising ingredients; Tucson’s semi-official dish, the Sonoran hot dog, is served at a chic downtown hotspot – and to working-class folk on nearly any street corner. Tucson is a food lover’s dream come true.

UNESCO Accolades

But, Tucson isn’t the only city claiming to be a great place for food these days. However, what makes one city’s food more notable than another? Notice from national magazines? Accolades from bloggers? Tucson has those, too, but it also happens to have recognition from the international organization, UNESCO.

There are only 116 Member Cities of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Creative Cities program – established in 2004 to promote cooperation between cities for “sustainable urban development” – and on December 11, 2015, Tucson became one of six Creative Cities in the United States. What’s more is it is the only one selected for gastronomy.

Why Tucson? As the city’s press release puts it, Tucson was selected for the “region’s rich agricultural heritage, thriving food traditions and culinary distinctiveness.” That’s a lot to process, but in essence, it means that dining in Tucson is a unique experience, one that reflects the culture of the Sonoran Desert, from the soil to the people who live here.

Eclectic Flavors

Tucson’s “Free Yourself” culture appears on every plate, whether that’s at Barrio Bread, where delicious loaves are made with heritage grains, or at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, where the buds of the cholla cactus often make an appearance on the menu (don’t worry, the prickly spines are long gone by the time they hit your plate).

The resort hotels framing the city in the foothills of the surrounding mountain ranges offer opportunities to experience Tucson’s gastronomy for yourself. The beautiful Loews Ventana Canyon Resort hosts foraging classes with its talented chef Ken Harvey, where you can learn to turn the wonders of the Sonoran Desert into delicious plates of food, and the luxurious Miraval resort has a beekeeper on staff, so you can learn about honey and how it reflects a taste of place.

Head downtown and there are plenty of choices – whether the night calls for classic (yet endlessly tasty) comfort food at 47 Scott, the classic Sonoran cuisine of El Charro or the bright flavors of Mexico at Elvira’s. End the night with innovative cocktails at Owl’s Club or Tough Luck Club.

South-of-the-Border Specialties

Back to the Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food. The wide variety of options here are stunning – from the humble, yet delicious, taco shops of South 12th Avenue and seafood delights from the Sea of Cortez at El Berraco, to high-end takes on tropical tastes at Café Poca Cosa. Try a raspado, a shaved-ice treat with stacks of fresh fruit and ice cream. And, of course, no one should leave town (vegetarians get a pass) without trying a Sonoran hot dog, with bacon, pinto beans and more joining the party. You can find them all over town, but El Guero Canelo and BK’s are the most famous practitioners of the genre. Want the Cliffs Notes to the southside culinary scene? Consider booking the “Best of the Barrio” culinary tour by Gray Line, which hits several of the highlights.

New York Magazine called Tucson, “the Southwest’s next foodie destination.” Wine Enthusiast named Tucson one of 2016’s Top Under-the-Radar Food Towns. National Geographic recommended a trip to Tucson for the food. Even the cover of the Tucson visitor’s guide has a beautiful photo of a dish from downtown’s Charro Steak. Isn’t it time for you to see (and taste) what everyone is talking about in Tucson? Learn more at VisitTucson.org.

(Brought to you by Visit Tucson, (800) 638-8350, VisitTucson.org.)

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