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Taste the Flavors of Tucson

With regionally driven restaurants, up-and-coming winemakers, and a grounding in local culinary heritage, the Old Pueblo is the Southwest’s next foodie destination.


Where to Stay

Make like the cool kids and crash at the Hotel Congress (from $89), a onetime John Dillinger hideout and current hub of downtown Tucson’s evolving dining and nightlife scene. Once you’ve checked out your playfully appointed vintage digs — think Barton Fink–esque touches like rotary phones, iron bed frames, and matelassé coverlets — head downstairs to the buzzing Cup Cafe for bites like curry-spiced cauliflower tacos ($8) and smoky chilaquiles verdes piled with braised pork and poached eggs ($11). Be sure to check out the calendar at Club Congress, the intimate in-house venue that attracts acts like Eleanor Friedberger and Electric Six.


Take in views of the Santa Catalina Mountains at the Inns at El Rancho Merlita.  

Slip on your spurs at the Inns at El Rancho Merlita (from $99, including breakfast), a sprawling and serene complex originally built at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains for mid-century cosmetics maven Merle Norman. The eight-room property was reinvented as a B&B following an update by its current owner, a local architect whose aesthetic marries breezy luxury with tasteful Old West touches like handsome leather headboards and Native American textiles. Take your breakfast — think southwestern-inflected dishes like blue-corn pancakes with mesquite syrup — on the shaded veranda; when the stars come out, cuddle up to your favorite cowpoke beside the fire pit.

Get inspired at the Poet’s Studio (from $75/night, two-night minimum), a light-filled, one-room Airbnb rental originally built in 1975 as an artist’s workspace. The Santa Fe–style detached residence oozes rustic loveliness thanks to its sun-dried adobe walls, a beehive fireplace, and exposed timber ceiling. A modern kitchenette stocked with fresh coffee and locally made green-corn tamales will keep you fueled between meals, while a picturesque plunge pool provides the impetus to soak up the Arizona sunshine.

Where to Eat

Refined plates with a Southwestern touch take the stage at Agustin Kitchen.  

Tuck into a perfectly blistered slice (or three) at Pizzeria Bianco, the Congress Street outpost of James Beard–winner Chris Bianco’s wildly popular Phoenix pie spot. Opened in mid-2014, Bianco’s new venture makes liberal use of the region’s edible bounty, working local produce into an ever-changing roster of shareable plates like shaved asparagus, kohlrabi, radish, and herbs in a ricotta dill dressing ($12), and pouring brews from nearby outfits like Iron John’s and Barrio. Tear into the Rosa ($15), a white pie scattered with funky Parmesan, red onion, rosemary, and Arizona pistachios, or try the Wiseguy ($18), featuring wood-roasted onion, fennel-flecked sausage, and house-smoked mozzarella.

Relax in the airy, inviting space at Agustin Kitchen, set in Menlo Park’s LEED-certified Mercado San Agustin. Ryan Clark, a rising star on Tucson’s culinary scene, took over the kitchen here in late 2013, instituting a menu of hearty American fare. Start with small plates like Arizona Wagyu tartare topped with piquant pickled mustard seeds ($13) before digging into warming mains like brined Berkshire pork with heirloom red beans and Del Bac smoked molasses ($19). Cool down with a Nazca Lines ($9), a refreshing cocktail of pisco, quinquina, lemon, pineapple syrup, and allspice liqueur.

Dip into upscale Mexican flavors at Reforma Cocina y Cantina, a newly opened spot where graphic tilework, minimalist furnishings, and low lighting suggest the cosmopolitan vibe of a Mexico City café. Snack on a plate of sopes, ethereal housemade corn cakes topped with braised beef cheek and marrow salsa ($11), followed by cochinita pibil tacos enriched with sour orange and zesty achiote ($11). Explore the catalogue of over 200 mezcals, or go for the classic citrusy punch of the Margarita de la Casa, capped with salted lime foam ($8).

What to Do

Callaghan Vineyard, one of many sprouting up in the burgeoning Sonoita region.  

Get a taste of Tucson’s culinary past at Mission Garden, an “edible museum” established at the base of arid Sentinel Peak in 2012. Situated on land occupied by a mission in the 18th century, the garden’s walled orchard is planted with quince, pomegranate, and other fruit trees descended from plants toted here by Europeans beginning as far back as 1692. The adjacent Timeline Garden (a work-in-progress) pays homage to the site’s staggering 4,000-year history of continuous cultivation. For a fitting souvenir of your newfound agricultural knowledge, head across town to northern Tucson’s Native Seeds/SEARCH to browse an array of heirloom seeds and pick up foodie-friendly gifts like mole powder and dried cholla buds. When hunger kicks in, stop at El Güero Canelo (multiple locations) to experience another regional flavor: the bacon-shrouded, pico-and-mayo-topped Sonoran hot dog ($2.78).

Head for the hills of Sonoita, a designated American Viticultural Area an hour’s drive from the city that has started to turn the heads of wine pundits. As your car climbs 5,000 feet, watch the city’s ubiquitous saguaro cacti give way to a rolling, scrubby landscape that’s more southern Europe than southern Arizona. Swirl and sip spicy Tempranillo and dark, complex Graciano at Callaghan Vineyards ($10 tasting fee); drive on to Dos Cabezas for a taste of Pink (a bright, summery rosé) and sultry red blends like El Campo ($15 tasting fee). Prefer to let someone else work out the logistics? Book a full-day bus tour (including hotel pick-up and drop-off, four winery stops, tasting fees, and lunch, $165) with Reisen Arizona.

Immerse yourself in Tucson’s burgeoning drink culture on a downtown bar crawl. People-watch over sundowners (the Hegemon, made with Whiskey Del Bac, is a good choice; $11) on the Coronet’s lively terrace. Arizona booze is the stock-in-trade at Good Oak Bar; try one of the inspired infusions, like a French press of beer (from area brewers including 1055 and Dragoon) steeped with add-ins like ginger or freshly ground coffee ($9 to $10). Adjourn to the Tough Luck Club — a stone-walled, subterranean space that once served as a morgue — for creative cocktails like the Philosopher’s Burden (bourbon, amaro, grapefruit, honey, and mole bitters, $10).

Expert's Tips

Even in non-snowy weather, it's possible to enjoy the vistas from Mt. Lemmon.  

From Adam Lehrman, founder of the popular culinary website Tucson Foodie.

Although Tucson has a number of killer coffee shops, lately it has been a toss-up between Exo Roast and Stella Java for me. In May, the latter opened up a slick new centrally located roastery and café called Presta Coffee. As for Exo, perfected coffee drinks aside, they recently began selling a chiltepin cold brew too.

Falora is a self-professed “analog pizza joint” with a minimalist-meets-modern interior with exposed brick and an open kitchen. While they eat, guests are invited to select a record to play on the vintage stereo system. One of my favorite dishes here is the classic Margherita pizza.

Fed by ThreadsFed by Threads sells stylish, sweatshop-free graphic T-shirts and socks made from quality American fabrics. For every item sold, $1.20 is donated to the national hunger-relief organization Feeding America, helping to provide 12 meals to the hungry.

Believe it or not, Ski Valley, at the top of Mt. Lemmon, sits at a 9,000-foot elevation. It’s a woodsy forest that stays about 30 degrees cooler than Tucson, with excellent views of the city.

Surrounded by saguaro cactus and other desert life, Tumamoc, in the west part of town, is a quick, paved, challenging but doable hike offering killer views of Tucson. It’s a great workout, too.

Resources

Get a crash course in local cuisine with the latest issue of Edible Baja Arizona, a bimonthly paean to the region’s foodways.

Scan Tucson Weekly for up-to-date music, art, and theater listings.

Work up a thirst for the region’s wine scene by clicking through tasting notes and vintner interviews over at the Wine Monk, the blog of an Arizona wine aficionado.


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