Get a taste of Tucson's Unesco-recognized food scene

Recognized by Unesco as one of the world’s most important food scenes, Tucson is not only bigger than you thought (one of the country’s 30 largest cities), it’s an exceptional place for Mexican and Southwestern gastronomy. Here's a list of can't miss eats in this Arizona metropolis. 

Things you can't miss in Tucson

Desert provisions

Tucson was first settled by Paleo-Indians some 12,000 years ago, then the Spanish in the 1600s, then later by the Mexicans, and most recently, Americans in the late 1800s. That melting pot plays an important role in the city’s standout textures and flavors in its cuisine. 

But so does the desert. Like anything else that lives and thrives in the desert, Tucsonans are forced to get creative with what they eat. They don’t scavenge, of course. Rather they take what the Baja desert gives them in the form of unique provisions. Namely chiltepins, cholla buds, prickly pear syrup, mesquite flour, tepary beans and White Sonoran wheat to name a few. 

Tucson still uses many of the same meats, beans, veggies and grains you’d expect; but the dressings, salsa, spices, and presentation are unlike anything else on the continent – a truly remarkable mashup of both Mexican and Southwestern American fare. 

Three colorful tacos drizzled with assorted green and yellow sauces
Chef Maria Mazon of Boca Tacos brought her family's recipes with her when she moved from Sonora, Mexico © Image courtesy of Visit Tucson

Southwestern standouts

For an introductory first taste of all that history, start at Boca Tacos. The staff serves up to a half dozen salsas with every order, letting you sample a wide variety of flavors in an al fresco setting under clementine-purple skies as the sun sets. It’s wonderful – all of it. 

Next check out what the city calls “the best 23 miles of Mexican food” in America. This can be found along 12th Ave. Try the beef tamales or red chili combination plate at Perfecto's. Have a Southwestern hot dog fight between BK Tacos and El Guero Canelo. For a Tucson take on seafood, head to El Merendero for the crispy chicharrones de cameron (fried pork rinds). For local pastries and freshly baked sweets, don’t miss La Estrella Bakery.

In Tucson you’ll also find the oldest Mexican restaurant in the country (family-owned since 1922) at El Charro Café, which serves traditional plates with a Sonora spin. As the restaurant likes to say, "We are not the best because we are the oldest. We are the oldest because we are the best!" 

A flaky pastry filled with lobster pieces and peas served on a white plate
Lobster pot pie is one delicious spin on an American favorite at The Hub © Image courtesy of Visit Tucson

The best of the rest

Staying true to comfort food, you’ll find a Tucson twist on American favorites at The Hub, which is as kid-friendly as it is delicious. For an indulgent take on breakfast or lunch (think snickerdoodle pancakes), visit Baja Cafe. For Zagat-rated and fine-dining Italian, head to Vivace Restaurant, a local staple and favorite. 

And when you’re done with meat but still seeking inspiration, you’ll be impressed with the vegetarian creations of The Tasteful Kitchen

Store shelves with jars of green and red salsas and cookbooks for sale
Native Seeds/SEARCH stocks an amazing selection of cookbooks and locally sourced salsa © Image courtesy of Visit Tucson

Farm to table 

If you really want to go behind the scenes, there are several farm-to-table food tours offered by local providers. Standouts include Mission Garden, Native Seeds/SEARCH, San Xavier Co-op, The Presidio District Experience, and the Obama-endorsed Tucson Village Farm. There's also two notable farmers’ markets in town: Santa Cruz River Farmers' Market and Heirloom Farmers' Market at Rillito Park.

Pairing good food with the truly great outdoors of Saguaro National Park, mountains on all four sides, and sunsets that last forever – when it comes to “The Old Pueblo” (as the city is lovingly called), both your stomach and your heart are in good hands. 

Produced by Lonely Planet for Visit Tucson. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.

Related content