The Grand Canyon might be Arizona’s hotspot, but its food and drink scene sizzles. Tucson, America’s first Unesco ‘world city of gastronomy,' lives up to the hype, and the melding of Mexican, Native American and Sonoran Desert influences on menus around the state make for an enticing foodie road trip.

Ingredients for guacamole on a table

Whether you opt for classic Southwestern (grits, biscuits and gravy) at roadside diners or explore the desert’s unique ingredients (prickly pear syrup, mesquite) at upscale ranch resorts, our tour of must-try flavors also takes in Arizona’s thriving craft beer and coffee scene. All you need to bring is your appetite.

The freshest guacamole of your life in Scottsdale

For your first foray into Arizona’s multi-influenced fare, head to Scottsdale, northeast of Phoenix, Arizona’s capital. About a mile from the whimsical Old Town, where you could buy some Wild West cowboy boots or scorpion lollipops (yes, really), you’ll find The Mission. This is Nuevo Latino food that will surprise and entertain. Stroll pass the Himalayan salt wall (you can lick it if you want!) to the candlelit courtyard. Watch transfixed as your server wheels over a wooden trolley laden with a huge mortar and pestle, along with bowls of super fresh ingredients: chunky Haas avocado, jalapeño, red onion, garlic, sea salt, lime, tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, chipotle puree, cilantro, cotija cheese & roasted pepitas. As the guacamole is expertly ground and mixed before your eyes and dolloped into your serving bowl, know that all future supermarket-bought tubs of guac will only disappoint.

Prickly pear in Phoenix: cactus or cocktail?

Prickly pear cactus in Arizona

A pleasant stroll around Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Garden will educate and amaze. Here, among the hummingbirds, owls, woodpeckers and roadrunners, you can learn about the desert’s 500 edible plants and even see what your next cocktail ingredient might look like: the prickly pear cactus. The fruit from the cactus is refreshing and cooling, almost watermelon-like in flavor. Try it in a vibrant pink margarita at La Hacienda in the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess resort. Or kick-start what will become your Arizona chile addiction with the pineapple and serrano-infused tequila. Hey, you’re on vacation.

Grits, biscuits and gravy, and the Ale Trail in Flagstaff

Only heard about eating ‘grits’ and ‘biscuits and gravy’ in Western films? Head north to Flagstaff, a laid-back college town and gateway to the Grand Canyon. Similar to polenta, grits are made from stone-ground dried corn and you can get them real fancy at Tinderbox Kitchen, a cozy restaurant that bills its style (rather aptly) as ‘American Comfort Food…Redefined’. Try the blue cheese grits, oozing enticingly beneath juniper-cured venison, balsamic black figs and fennel salad.

Biscuits and gravy are a popular breakfast choice in Southern USA and you may find you need a snooze after this hearty meal. The all-vegetarian Macy’s, which also does a perfectly good (freshly roasted) coffee, dishes up a healthier-than-usual serve of the iconic dish: its homemade buttermilk biscuits are dunked in a vegetarian gravy (sausage gravy being the traditional choice).

Sign outside Beaver Street Brewery

While you’re in town, pick up your craft beer passport for the Flagstaff Grand Canyon Ale Trail, offering stamps and discounts at 10 of the participating breweries in the area. You could do worse than start with Beaver St Brewery’s R&R oatmeal stout made with chocolate, black and roasted barley malts.

S’mores around the campfire in Grand Canyon West

It’s true that the dining options around Arizona’s most popular attraction cater to the masses and are generally overpriced. Why not make s’mores by a campfire while being serenaded by a guitar-strumming cowboy? The Hualapai Ranch at Grand Canyon West offers this experience to overnight guests (note: we had to ask, several times). But even if the hospitality seems a little forced, nothing beats sitting at the rim of the Grand Canyon under a star-carpeted sky, roasting a marshmallow on a stick then cramming the melty goodness along with a wedge of chocolate between two graham crackers. A crackling fire, a cowboy crooning Johnny Cash, and the occasional coyote howl is the ideal soundtrack as you chow down.

Craft beer, burgers & water views at Lake Havasu

Lake Havasu
Formed by a dam across the Colorado River, Lake Havasu is a popular destination for travelers seeking a respite from the desert heat © Karyn Noble / Lonely Planet

After a lot of dry desert driving, Lake Havasu City with its 78-sq-km, manufactured reservoir and palm trees is a refreshing contrast. Londoners might recognize the bridge that crosses the reservoir – it’s actually the original London Bridge from the 1830s that was dismantled and sold to an American tycoon in 1968 and reassembled in this city. Enjoy a stroll across it (perhaps you’ll hear the clock that chimes like Big Ben) to Barley Brothers microbrewery. You could try a Freedom Bridge Amber Ale with hints of toffee and caramel. If the red chile mayo on your burger isn’t strong enough, you’ll know your Arizona taste buds have acclimatized.

Green chile pork stew and huevos rancheros in Prescott

Next, head for Prescott, famed for its Gold Rush history and the wild saloons of Whiskey Row. Tend to your chile cravings inside the charming former train station, which has been converted into the Iron Springs Cafe. There are Cajun as well as Southwestern influences here and you could have your pick of the mouthwatering meals, including gumbo with andouille sausage and chicken or a ridiculously addictive green chile pork stew. But your best Arizona breakfast is likely to be the heaping serve of huevos rancheros at Lone Spur Cafe: eggs, jack and cheddar cheese melting over a corn tortilla with beans, salsa and bacon, served with potatoes, sour cream and green onions. Yes, there’s still gold to be found here.

Sonoran hot dogs, coffee bliss and saguaro sunsets in Tucson

Tucson is nirvana for foodies, not to mention coffee purists. If you’re a fan of the third-wave coffee scene (a rarity in this neck of the woods), Presta Coffee will be your happy place, from the moment you smell the freshly roasted beans to when you see the beautiful, handcrafted, stoneware-style mugs. Your next sensory overload is definitely the Sonoran hot dog, and El Guero Canelo (so popular there are four branches across Tucson) is the place to go. Let’s face it, you’re going to feel a little dirty. This is like no other hot dog you’ve faced before: a sausage wrapped in mesquite-smoked bacon in a bolillo roll stuffed with pinto beans, onions, tomatoes, jalapeño sauce, mayonnaise and mustard. You have to try it to believe it.

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The Sonoran hot dog, served with a side of roasted pepper © Karyn Noble / Lonely Planet

To take things up a notch, head for The Grill restaurant, at the forefront of Tucson’s farm-to-table movement and located in the historic Hacienda del Sol. Inspired by early Moorish architecture, this prestigious ranch resort (famous in the 1940s as a romantic getaway for Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy) is the perfect place to watch the sunset turn the saguaro-framed skyline pink and purple over the Santa Catalina mountains. Worry not about the ‘rattlesnake egg’ (a chile stuffed with shrimp and cheese) served with the sous vide chicken. Just relax and toast the end of your tasty trip with one of the signature chipotle chile and cilantro margarita cocktails.

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