Tucson's food scene is defined by its its location -- in the Sonoran desert, right near the Mexican border. It's a city that excels in casual, often decadent, comfort food, as well as a growing number of gourmet options that put an upscale twist on local flavors. Take a photo tour of Tucson's restaurants and food scene here.
The hot dog is something of a Tucson specialty -- ranging from the cross-border fusion of the Sonoran Hot Dog, perfected at El Guero Canelo, to the home-spun goodness of Pat's Drive-In's chili dog.
Tucson's Mexican Restaurants
Mexican food is an obvious choice in Tuscon; the style you're most likely to encounter is Sonoran, which tends to be on the heavier side. El Charro (311 N. Court Avenue) is a bit touristy, but the food is also reliably good. The restaurant specializes in carne seca, which means "dried beef", essentially a beef jerky. El Charro does it the old fashioned way -- look for the cage suspended above the restaurant where the beef gets sundried.
Other well-regarded options include Cafe Poca Cosa (110 E. Pennington Street), Mi Nidito (1814 S. 4th Avenue, just beware annoying music on its website) , Michas (2908 S. Fourth Avenue), Taqueria Juanitos (708 West Grant Road), La Indita (622 N. 4th Avenue).
Gourmet Takes on Local Tastes
One of the most celebrated restaurant in Tucson is Janos, which is at the Westin La Paloma Resort. Chef/Owner Janos Wilder brings a French style of cooking to locally-sourced ingredients, including those that come from the Native Seeds/SEARCH, which conserves heirloom seeds of the Southwest. Dishes have included the likes of prosciutto wrapped mission figs, stuffed with Briggs and Eggers apple butter, served on braised pork belly with spicy prickly pear sauce; a lamb loin made with a mole from Native Seeds/SEARCH. Chef Wilder also runs J Bar next door -- a similar genre, but a more casual fare. Another celebrated restaurant noted for using local produce is the romantic Hacienda del Sol, and its slightly more casual sister, Harvest.
A good place to get to know your reposado from your anejo is at Salud, the bar at the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort & Spa. The bar has more than 100 different types of tequila, hosts regular tequila tastings and hotel guests are offered a complimentary tequila toast each evening.
The Hearty Southwestern Breakfast
It's light years away in terms of setting, but if you visit Tohono Chul Park, a desert botanical garden, you can also have a fine breakfast at its tea room. Think sweet potato hash browns topped with poached eggs and a prickly pear lemonade. Be sure to visit the demonstration gardens, where native fruits and vegetables are planted.
Sweets and Treats, Tucson-Style
When it comes to the sweet stuff, the Mexican influence dominates in Tucson. Head to Le Caves Bakery (1219 S. Sixth Ave.), an old-fashioned bakery that serves empenadas, a fried dough concoction that you may be more accustomed to seeing in a savory form. Here, you can get yours filled with mango, pineapple, and seasonal flavors like pumpkin. This is also a good source for buttery Mexican wedding cookies, but what people really freak out about are Le Cave's donuts. (They're called "vegetable" presumably because they're made with vegetable oil -- the bakery has been in business since the 1930s and the staff is tight-lipped on recipes.)See the goodies here.
If your tastes trend more towards cold treats, look for Frost, a local gelato chain.