Tucson is officially a foodie town. Named the nation’s first City of Gastronomy by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2015, Arizona’s second-largest city has a rich agricultural history. It has been continuously cultivated for 4,000 years, the longest in North America. Other qualities include its native ingredients, James Beard-nominated chefs, and a wide variety of cultural influences that collide to serve up everything from artisan bread and loaded hot dogs to inventive salsas and roadside burritos. So head down Interstate 17 and eat your way through “Old Pueblo” like a pro.
Chorizo burrito + coffee at Barista Del Barrio
1002 North Grande Avenue, Tucson
As with many great food stories, this one began with beloved family recipes, a dream and a coffee cart – the birth of Barista Del Barrio. Started by owner Flavia Briones and her two kids, Sergio and Ariana, the establishment now has a walk-up window with outdoor patio seating in the historic Barrio Hollywood neighborhood. Made with local tortillas from Tortillas de Harina Linda, burritos are filled with potato, cheese, beans, and the fluffiest scrambled eggs. You can pick the protein (bacon, ham, sausage, soyrizo), but the obvious best choice is the house-made chorizo with its secret blend of chiles and spices. It’s panini-pressed to crispy perfection and comes with two burritos in each order. Say yes to extra salsa and wash it down with coffee, from killer cold brew to a lovely lechera latte.
Breakfast at Meyer Avenue Café & Mercantile
353 South Meyer Avenue, Tucson
Everything is cute, cozy, and made from scratch at Meyer Avenue Café, a quaint counter service spot tucked in the Barrio Viejo neighborhood with ample patio seating and a Parisienne feel. Order up delights like Lil Dutch Babies for a threesome of puffed-up pancakes filled with tart citrus cream and seasonal fruit; Coronet Eggs Benedict with shaved corned brisket, potato kugel, and dill hollandaise; and Horchata Steel Cut Oatmeal in ginger-spiked horchata with fresh berries, apple butter, and spiced pecans. Open daily from 8 am to 2 pm, so perfect for those vacation days when you want to sleep in, the mercantile is also stocked with jams and hot sauces to take home.
Donut at Le Cave’s Bakery & Donuts
3950 East 22nd Street, Tucson
Le Cave’s donuts are impossibly fluffy, with a springy, cloudlike texture and ridiculously indulgent finish that doesn’t feel heavy or greasy — and they happen to be vegan. The original shop opened in 1935. Now under new ownership in a new location — a former Jack in the Box with a drive-thru — it has the same time-tested recipes. But which donut to order? The apple fritter is a fave, moist on the inside with a tappable exterior. Ditto for the glazed, a glistening, melt-in-your-mouth morsel that’s both featherweight and filling. Oh, and a chocolate frosted donut that’s somehow the milkiest chocolate you’ve ever tasted, yet vegan. And for non-vegans, the Boston cream is a whipped cream, chocolate revelation that tastes better than any donut should. In other words, you can’t go wrong.
Jackfruit anything at Tumerico Cafe
2526 East Sixth Street, Tucson
Wendy Garcia, chef-owner of Latin-inspired, plant-based Tumerico, can butcher a jackfruit like a boss. She starts with the giant, green fruit, adds a blend of spices and seasonings, fries it up and piles it into tacos and enchiladas. Also included are adobo sauce, fiery salsa, cashew crema, and guacamole, all house made from scratch. The ever-changing blackboard menu comes with options like fiery jackfruit al pastor tacos, jackfruit carnitas, ropa vieja, and huevos rancheros, all beautifully plated creations that pop with color and spice, much like its owner.
Sonoran hot dog at El Guero Canelo
5201 South 12th Avenue, Tucson
We’re not sure what we like best about Sonoran hot dog house El Güero Canelo, a Tucson institution that has been serving up the bacon-wrapped dogs since 1993. There are the toppers, a combo of pinto beans, fresh and grilled onions, diced tomato, mayo, mustard, and jalapeno sauce, a just-right ratio that gives it crunch and character. There are the delicately steamed, slightly sweet buns, which owner Daniel Contreras gets from his hometown of Magdalena, Mexico. There’s the single dog Sonoran style ($3.99) and the Sammy Dog ($5.00) that comes with two bacon-wrapped franks in one bun. And the epic toppings bar gives you the chance to take your already-loaded dog to new heights with pickled onions, shredded cheese, more grilled scallions, and a slew of house-made salsas. What’s more, the hot dog joint won a James Beard America’s Classics Award.
Chocolate at Monsoon Chocolate
234 East 22nd Street, Tucson
Not your average sweets shop, Monsoon Chocolate is a bean-to-bar operation in the historic Santa Rita Park neighborhood that serves up handcrafted confections using sustainably sourced cacao like you’ve never seen or tasted. The bonbons are sculptural, hypnotic gems infused with southwestern flavors like chiltepín pepper, prickly pear caramel, and Sonoran sea salt that look almost too good to eat. But, man, when you do, they coat your mouth in a robust, velvety texture that makes regular, waxy chocolate seem flat. They also serve signature hot chocolates made with 62 percent “La Buena Blend” dark chocolate; fudgy brownies spiked with miso and with toasted sesames; cold brewed horchata with roasted cocoa nibs; and a house-made ChocoTaco with sweet corn frozen custard dipped in chocolate. The modern-day, Willy Wonka-esque setting adds to this delightful experience.
Salsa at BOCA Tacos y Tequila
533 North Fourth Avenue, Tucson
Make sure to order a taco to go with your salsa at BOCA Tacos y Tequila, where the declaration, “Our salsas are hotter than your wife,” says it all. Way beyond a side piece, executive chef and owner Maria Mazon, who’s also a 2020 James Beard Award semifinalist and Top Chef Portland contestant, takes salsa seriously. And he doesn’t think of it in terms of mere red and green, not when inspired ingredients can be turned into a carnal condiment. Think banana and habanero, pickled jalapeno and honey, chai tea and soy sauce, peanut butter and guajillo, watermelon wasabi, an ever-changing repertoire with no fewer than five flavors made fresh each day. Start with the chips and salsa flight and move to tacos, where you can choose from 19 creations ranging from Taco Dog inspired by the Sonoran hot dog and chipotle BBQ made with boneless pork ribs.
Pizza at Anello
222 East 6th Street, Tucson
Anello has strong Phoenix ties. Chef-owner Scott Girod, who’s from Gilbert, worked under Chris Bianco at Pizzeria Bianco, and also spent time in Italy as a pizzaiolo before opening Anello in Tucson’s Warehouse Arts District in 2017. But his pizza is all Tucson, built on naturally leavened dough that’s fermented over 30 hours, and wood-fired with Arizona’s native mesquite wood to a charred, bubbly finish. There are only four regular pizzas on the menu, including: the Bianco with fresh mozzarella, ricotta, garlic, basil, and local chiltepin peppers; and the Verde with smoked mozzarella, salsa verde, and pistachios. There’s also a standout market special made with seasonal ingredients (think local kumquats, smoked ricotta, rosemary, and chili oil). The minimalist space — mostly blonde wood with a bubble gum pink wall — matches the pared-down menu.
Bread at Barrio Bread
18 South Eastbourne Avenue, Tucson
Between Marco Bianco’s baguettes at Pane Bianco and Jason Raducha’s naturally leavened loaves at Noble Bread, Phoenix knows good bread. Yet we don’t see the lineups that exist at Barrio Bread, where diehards queue up in front of the small Broadway Village storefront before it even opens. Barrio is Spanish for neighborhood, and owner-baker Don Guerra’s bread is imbued with a lot of local love. Look for a blend of locally grown heritage flours/grains unique to the Southwest, including white Sonoran wheat (one of the oldest surviving varietals in North America), and the cactus stenciled on the signature Heritage loaves. Get the Locavore showcasing three organic local flours, the Cinnamon Raisin loaded with Thompson and golden raisins, the Jalapeno-Cheddar with sharp cheddar and spicy jalapenos, or the Pan de Kino with its white Sonoran wheat. Just hope they don’t sell out.