Tucson’s famous food scene continues to innovate at these restaurants

Like New Orleans, Tucson is one of America’s great cities for its original cuisine that quickly spread across the country. In 2017, Tucson became the first American city to be recognized by the United Nations as a remarkable “city of food”. Not even New Orleans can claim that.

But what sets Tucson’s food scene apart from other Southwestern cities? Like similar rustic kitchens in the region, Tucson’s Sonoran cuisine is defined primarily by its Native American, Spanish colonial, Mexican, and American heritage. Unlike other frontier cuisines such as Tex-Mex, New-Mexican, or Baja styles, Sonoran cuisine tends to focus on simple things, using fewer ingredients but still fresh, and it presents little. (if any) of the indulgence or bustle of other styles of cooking.

Fresh ingredients add flavor to simple Sonoran dishes. © Blake Snow

And that’s where the call lies. This, of course, resulted in some wonderful dishes. The most famous is chimichanga, a simple fried burrito (or “burro” as they are called here). Although contested by other parts of Sonora, Tucson’s famous El Charro Café initially claimed the invention. Either way, they’re a widespread “Mexican” favorite that arguably hails from Tucson.

Sonoran cuisine is also known for its cheese crisps, made (as most dishes are in Tucson) with flour tortillas. These are basically open-sided tortillas where the cheese is sautéed on top of the tortilla for a crispy 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’s cuisine is more than these three elements. On a recent tour of some of the best restaurants in town, these were my favorites.

Commoner & Co.

You’d be hard pressed to find a better example of how punchy simplicity can uplift the kitchen than Commoner & Co. In fact, I am convinced that they are incapable of serving uninteresting food. They even make the carrots (honey glazed with candied walnuts and blue cheese) taste better than the best Thanksgiving side dish you’ve ever had.

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Honey-glazed carrots with candied walnuts and blue cheese exemplify Tucson’s simple yet tasty cooking philosophy. © Blake Snow

If you love phenomenal food without the smoke and mirrors, sky-high prices and the indulgence of other fancy restaurants, you’ll love Commoner & Co. It sounds overkill, but eating here made me happy to be alive, and it is evident that the attentive staff very much love the food as much as the keen eaters without the snobbery sometimes found in food culture. It is a beautiful thing.

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It might sound simple, but Commoner & Co.’s Classic Goat Cheese Pie tastes exciting. © Blake Snow

Tito & Pep

From the outside, this downtown bistro doesn’t look like much. But since we all know it’s the inside that counts, Tito & Pep delivers totally. In a nutshell, this restaurant is incredibly refreshing. Light portions of creative dishes are sure to satisfy with reasonable prices.

The menu is simple and small (it’s Tucson, after all) but will surprise and delight you with a fun fusion, like Southwestern Shrimp Pho Soup with Cornmeal Dumplings. It also featured an impressive playlist.

Boca Tacos

Welcome to a Tucson institution. Known for serving up an insane number of salsas, each more inventive than the next, along 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 common American and Mexican heritage. It’s easy to see and taste his passion not only for salsas, but also for imaginative tequila concoctions. And it’s not just the locals who love Chef Mazon’s cuisine – she was a finalist on Top Chef: Portland.

With a few unconventional (if not slightly heretical) food choices, 24 varieties of tacos, and a dog-friendly patio, it’s easy to get excited about Boca Tacos.

Coffee Mug

Cup Cafe is downtown Tucson’s premier choice for indoor and outdoor decks alongside an intimate live performance stage if you’re looking for upscale entertainment and comfort food. Located inside the historic Hotel Congress, this hip American cafe serves up-to-date classics, creative sandwiches and old-fashioned desserts made daily on site.

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The Cup Café serves revisited classics such as lamb with mint demi-glace and cashew polenta. © Blake Snow

Recipient of numerous “Best of Tucson” awards, Cup Cafe is also a great place to people-watch and soak up the ambiance of downtown Tucson. Even on a recent Monday evening, the atmosphere was full of energy.

Vivace Restaurant

By critical consensus, this award-winning restaurant is the top rated restaurant in all of Tucson. It has nothing to do with Sonoran cuisine, although Strongly shares his affinity for simple ingredients. In this case, the cuisine is from northern Italy and the dining room is arguably the most picturesque in town.

Located in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains, Vivace delights diners with perfectly prepared meals with gorgeous views with epic sunsets and saguaro cacti in the distance. With a staff that is both welcoming and attentive, this expensive little gem is popular for special occasions and romantic birthdays.

Honorable mentions

If time and stomach allow, the following are also highly recommended, whether for dinner or a quick lunch:

● The Grill at Hacienda Del Sol. Like Vivace, this restaurant offers hefty 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 make avocado toast and chili con carne.

● Kitchen Seis. Drawing inspiration from Mexico’s six culinary regions, this is a showcase of Mexican street food served hot on the griddle, accompanied by homemade tortillas and fire-roasted salsas.

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