From bacon-wrapped Sonoran hot dogs to bite-sized Bosnian sausages.
Cynics were deeply confused when the tourism drivers at Unesco declared Tucson the country's first City of Gastronomy in late 2015. Tucson? Isn't that the land of lonesome cacti, fantastic Mexican food, and, well, we're-not-sure-what-else? Why, yes, but it's also the kind of place that's been conserving heirloom seeds since the early '80s and producing self-made success stories like Barrio Bread owner (and heritage grain whisperer) Don Guerra.
"It's been amazing to be a part of the Tucson dining scene and watch the growth of it," says Prep & Pastry co-owner Nate Ares. "From [Downtown Kitchen chef] Janos Wilder to [restauranteur] Sam Fox, Tucson has produced some excellent talent and leaders in our industry, and they've paved the way for people like myself."
None of this has happened overnight, of course. The way Presta Coffee owner Curtis Zimmerman sees it, "[Tucson] fell stagnant for 10, 15, 20 years, and there was no growth downtown in the early 2000s. Bars and shops were all the same concept, then a new generation came to town and it exploded off its hinges. With the new generation came the craft wave, and a lot of shops that are not corporate driven. People don't want something standard; they want creative thinking."
Here are 10 of our favorite spots—new and old—that are doing just that these days….
Benin native Ismael Lawani can often be found behind the grill, counter and cash register at Alafia West African Cuisine, a barebones operation that serves one of the best deals in town: a big ol' slab of expertly grilled, perfectly seasoned tilapia, paired with caramelized, thick-cut plantains. Round out your order with a fiery glass of ginger juice and a cooling, rarely seen dessert called degue (spiced yogurt mixed with millet, a.k.a. thiakry). Other main attractions include a love-or-loathe okra sauce (because okra), a far more crowd-friendly peanut butter option, and a comforting bowl of bone-in goat soup that was paleo well before it was cool.
Fear not the $38 "Surprise Plate" at the prideful home of chef Ahmet Alisah. Depending on the day, it may include enough chicken, sausages, shaved lamb, and skewers to feed a small family (or two really hungry people). Not to mention several buttery spins on rice, fresh bread, grilled eggplant, tzatziki, and a vinegary cabbage salad or Bosnian-style blend of tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, onions, parsley, olive oil, vinegar, and sheep's milk cheese. Leftovers are a given, and Alisah will most likely stop by to say hi and ensure you're happy with every last bite. BYO a bottle or six-pack of something good from Plaza Liquors and Fine Wine and you'll leave downright giddy.
Locals and tourists alike load up on Sonoran hot dogs at El Güero Canelo's three locations every day. The bacon-wrapped icon is so beloved, in fact, that the folks behind the James Beard Awards slapped an "America's Classics" sticker on Daniel Contreras' decades-old cheap eats destination earlier this year. Get the works, of course; EGC's own soft, bolillo rolls have more than enough room for a mountain of mayo, mustard, beans, spicy jalapeno sauce, tomatoes, and two kinds of onions (grilled and raw). Still not enough? There's always the toppings bar, which is probably meant for tacos, but we won't judge. Bless this mess.
While its interior looks pretty dated—unless you're into choo-choo trains or mallrat aesthetics from the Zack Morris era, that is—Hub Ice Cream Factory deserves some credit for its top-of-the-line Choco Taco. Much more artisanal than anything that ever rolled off Klondike's assembly line, it features robust vanilla bean ice cream, Callebaut dark chocolate, salted roasted peanuts, and a Hub-made waffle cone shell. You're welcome, Instagram! Not in the mood for that much ice cream? Take a friend and split one taco—they're pretty filling, anyway—then head to the nearby Hotel Congress bar for a creative nightcap like the Tango Departed (tequila, Lillet Rouge, honey, multi-layered Mi Casa bitters, and absinthe) or Grey Garden (gin, Saint Germain, lemon, simple syrup, Crème de Violette, and a refreshing pineapple-mint finish).
Since Tucson's high temperatures never stray too far away from the 100-degree mark, it doesn't hurt to have several options on the frozen treats front. Oasis Fruit Cones has won its fair share of battle royales over the best raspados in town thanks to its innate grasp of the delicate sweet, sour and savory dance that make the Mexican dessert much better than a snow cone. Come to think of it, there's really no contest between the two if you're into pyrotechnic flavor profiles. Opt for a mangoyada to get a prime example of the regional favorite's push and pull on adventurous palates; it starts with fresh fruit and dives straight into the deep end from there. (Expect fists full of candy you've never heard of and a generous showering of Chamoy, glorious Chamoy.)
Anyone who swore off brunch years ago (amateur hour, amirite?) needs to swing by one of Prep & Pastry's two bustling locations. Yes, there's a Bloody and a Benedict on the menu, but neither one takes the easy way out; the former pairs a house-infused guajillo & garlic vodka with an herbed mustard mix, local beer back, and gaggle of garnishes, and the latter stars cheddar biscuits, pork belly, asparagus, herbed cheese hollandaise, and soft-poached eggs. Us, we're partial to the cast iron duck confit with crispy potatoes, shallots, spinach, Cabernet-braised cherries, goat cheese mousse, and over-easy eggs. It sounds pretentious, but trust us; it tastes amazing. Do ask what's good in the baked goods department, too. They don't call it Prep & Pastry for nothing.
The all-seafood-everything menu at Taco Fish includes Cali-caliber mounds of fried shrimp and whitefish on top of fresh corn tortillas, but the real can't-miss items here are marlin and cahuamanta (a.k.a. manta ray and shrimp). Both are popular Mexican proteins rarely seen on this side of the border. Order a little bit of everything as a result, but try and avoid the temptation to try it all in one taco (the aptly named "gordo"), as that could muddy or mute their individual flavors like an all-you-can-eat buffet.
With a name that's a nod to Northern Mexico's most beloved garage rock band—Los Apson, a cooler-than-thou crew that slayed the Stones, Yardbirds, and Beatles in the '60s—Tacos Apson is a rough-around-the-edges revelation owned by the son of drummer Francisco Durazo. Little English is spoken, so here's all you need to know: The costillas taco can barely contain its hunk of roasted beef ribs. If you're name isn't Fred, go with the razurado instead; it does the work for you, crisping a pile of shredded, fatty goodness on the griddle. Meat and cheese addicts should also cop a caramelon (an ooey, gooey quesadilla cut with carne asada) or a signature taco that tacks on some chile verde sauce, mushrooms, onions, and bacon. Because why not right?
Thanks to the award-winning design skills of its neighbor/landlord (Repp + McLain), Presta Coffee's flagship is so gorgeous you might not even make it inside. Press onward, friends; we named Presta Arizona's top roastery for a reason, and it's not the racing bike collection of owner Curtis Zimmerman. An honorable mention in the third-wave coffee arena also needs to go out to Exo Roast Co. Aside from feeling a little more laid-back than Presta, it's known for bold cold brew combos like one that's made with chocolate milk and chiltepin peppers, and another that's cut with a quirky mesquite syrup. Homebrewers should buy a bag from both shops by the way.
Much like its predecessor in Phoenix, Welcome Diner's Tucson outpost looks like a lovingly restored diner from back in the day (a Googie number from 1964, to be specific) but tastes very 21st century. We're talking a butter lettuce Caesar salad brimming with brown butter walnuts, locally sourced dates, white anchovies, freshly shaved parmesan, and a creamy dressing; a jackfruit po boy slathered in Carolina BBQ sauce; and mesquite-roasted Pima grits coupled with homemade pimento chase.
"My hope for Welcome," says owner Michael Babcock, "is that it continues to be engaged in the community and culture through its love affair with making good food, using as many ingredients as possible from within our region. I want people to be as stoked about cooking and eating in Tucson as I am!"
Consider it done.
Main photo: Facebook/Prep&Pastry