Like New Orleans, Tucson is one of the great American cities for original cuisine that has spread rapidly across the country. In 2017, Tucson became the first American city to be recognized by the United Nations as a notable “city of gastronomy.” Not even New Orleans can claim that.
But what sets Tucson's food scene apart from other Southwestern cities? Like similar rustic cuisines from the region, Tucson's Sonoran cuisine is defined mainly by its Native American, Spanish colonial, Mexican, and American heritage. Unlike other border cooking such as Tex-Mex, New Mexican, or Baja styles, Sonoran cuisine tends to focus on the simple things, using fewer but always fresh ingredients, and it features little (if any) of the indulgence or fuss of other styles of cooking.
And therein lies the appeal. This, of course, has resulted in some wonderful dishes. The most famous is the chimichanga, a simple deep-fried burrito (or “burro” as they're called here). Although contested by other regions of Sonora, Tucson's famous El Charro Café first laid claim to the invention. Either way, they are a widespread “Mexican” favorite that arguably originated in Tucson.
Sonoran cuisine is also known for its cheese crisps, made (as most dishes are in Tucson) with flour tortillas. These are basically open-faced tortillas where the cheese is sautéed on top of the tortilla for a crunchy texture. Perhaps the most famous regional dish is the Sonoran hot dog, which is wrapped in bacon and served on a bolillo-style hot dog bun and topped with beans, onions, tomatoes, and jalapeño salsa.
But Tucson cuisine is more than just those three items. On a recent tour of some of the city's best restaurants, these were my favorites.
Commoner & Co.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a better example of how impactful simplicity can elevate cuisine than Commoner & Co. In fact, I'm convinced they're incapable of serving unexciting food. They even make carrots (honey-glazed with candied walnuts and bleu cheese) taste better than the best Thanksgiving side dish you've ever had.
If you love phenomenal food without the smoke and mirrors, exorbitant prices, and indulgence of other fancy restaurants, you will love Commoner & Co. It sounds overblown, but eating here made me excited to be alive, and it's obvious the caring staff love great food as much as enthusiastic eaters without the sometimes snobbery found in foodie culture. That's a beautiful thing.
Tito & Pep
From the outside, this midtown bistro doesn't look like much. But since we all know that it's the inside that counts, Tito & Pep totally delivers. In a word, this restaurant is incredibly refreshing. Light portions of creative food are sure to satisfy with reasonable pricing.
The menu is simple and small (this is Tucson, after all) but will surprise and delight you with fun fusion, such as Southwest Shrimp Pho soup with cornmeal dumplings. It also boasted an awesome playlist.
Welcome to a Tucson institution. Known for serving a crazy number of salsas, each more inventive than the last, with proven street tacos, Boca Tacos is a favorite with locals and visitors alike. Located on the popular “Fourth” (or 4th Avenue), Boca was founded by Chef Maria Mazon. Born in Tucson but raised in Sonora, Mexico, Mazon claims to follow her heart with a "best of both worlds approach" to her shared American and Mexican heritage. It's easy to see and taste her passion for not only salsas but imaginative tequila concoctions too. And it’s not just locals who love Chef Mazon’s cooking — she was a finalist on Top Chef: Portland.
With a few unconventional (if not slightly heretical) culinary choices, 24 varieties of taco, and a dog-friendly patio, it's easy to get excited for Boca Tacos.
Cup Cafe is Downtown Tucson's first choice for indoor and outdoor patio seating next to an intimate live performance stage if it's entertainment and upscale comfort food you're after. Located inside the historic Hotel Congress, this trendy American cafe serves updated classics, creative sandwiches, and old-school desserts made in-house daily.
A recipient of numerous “Best of Tucson” awards, Cup Cafe is also a heckuva place to people-watch and soak up the vibe of downtown Tucson. Even on a recent Monday night, the atmosphere was packed with energy.
According to critical consensus, this award-winning restaurant is the highest-rated in all of Tucson. It has nothing to do with Sonoran cuisine, although Vivace shares its affinity for simple ingredients. In this case, the cuisine is Northern Italian, and the dining room is arguably the most scenic in town.
Located on the foothills of the Catalina Mountains, Vivace treats diners to perfectly prepared meals with gorgeous views featuring epic sunsets and saguaro cacti off in the distance. With a staff that's both welcoming and attentive, this pricey gem is popular for special occasions and romantic anniversaries.
Time and stomachs permitting, the following also come highly recommended, whether for dinner or a quick lunch:
● The Grill at Hacienda Del Sol. Like Vivace, this eatery boasts high prices that match the romantic views, all paired with traditional American cuisine.
● Barrio Charro. This is what happens when a famous local baker goes into business with a renowned local chef. Their signature is the “tortamano” sandwiches, but they also do avocado toast and chile con carne.
● Seis Kitchen. Pulling inspiration from the six culinary regions of Mexico, this is a showcase of Mexican street food served hot off the griddle, complete with homemade tortillas and fire-roasted salsas.