Taste of Tucson: A Weekend Guide for the Curious Traveler - Gastro Obscura

Weekend Guides for the Curious Traveler
Taste of Tucson

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The people of Tucson have been eating off the land for 4,100 years. From grains to livestock to produce introduced by missionaries in the 1600s, this UNESCO City of Gastronomy is home to some of the oldest farmland in North America. What once was old is new again in The Old Pueblo where ancient flavors are found in nearly every dish — trendy to traditional.

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Day 1
Sonoran Influence

Today, see history come alive in modern gardens replicating Tucson's ancient farms and experience the city's traditional foods that have stood the test of time.

Tacos al pastor at Polos Taqueria's stand sell out every morning.
Secret Tacos

1. Tohono O'odham Swap Meet

Those who hit snooze will likely miss out on this non-traditional breakfast, because most restaurants at the Tohono O’odham Swap Meet sell out by 9 in the morning. While you won’t find a website for this weekend-only event, the actual swap meet, which boasts dozens of stands, is only about 20 minutes southwest of downtown Tucson. Family restaurants are peppered throughout the permanent flea market where used appliances and bikes are for sale next to barber shops and local honey. Work your way through the maze to Polo’s Taqueria for some of the only al pastor cooked on a trompo in all of Tucson. Be sure to bring cash and don’t rely on finding an ATM, but do be prepared to eat tacos and sopes al pastor for breakfast.  

521 S Westover Ave, Tucson, AZ 85746

The gardens at Mission Garden sit on the same land that has been farmed for more than 4,000 years.
Living History

2. Mission Garden

Mission Garden could be called a living museum. This community garden sits on the same plot of land that has been continuously farmed for more than 4,000 years on the San Agustin Mission. Visitors are greeted by volunteers who guide them through 10 gardens, each re-creating the foods grown by settlers over the centuries in the heirloom Sonoran Desert-adapted gardens and orchards. The tour is like a timeline, beginning with the earliest agricultural gardens and moving through a Spanish Colonial garden to Mexican and Chinese gardens, and on to the children’s garden of today. Not only does the Mission Garden Project serve as a historical experience, but it also provides the opportunity to touch and taste native plants and fruits like agave, Chinese gourds, and Mexican sweet limes. 

946 W Mission Ln, Tucson, AZ 85745

The carne seca platter comes with tortillas on the side.
Paper-thin Tortillas

3. St. Mary’s Mexican Food

In most restaurants, main courses take the spotlight while bread falls into a supporting role. But at St. Mary’s on Tucson's west side, the vehicle for meats and beans and rice is the star. Order a burrito, or tacos, or a plate of rice and beans, but whatever you do, go for the prized tortillas. These giant 15-inch paper-thin disks are thin enough to shine a light through and served fresh with each order. Unlike most Mexican restaurants, the staff at St. Mary's still makes their tortillas the traditional way, stretching and pulling the dough by hand. Take home a dozen of the handmade tortillas and work your way through the stack as you take in Tucson.

1030 W St Mary’s Rd, Tucson, AZ 85745

This Arizona staple has been made in Tucson for over 50 years.
Arizona Cheese Crisps

4. El Minuto Cafe

It’s not a quesadilla, not a pizza, and not grilled cheese. But an Arizona cheese crisp holds its own among all great carbohydrate and cheese combos. This regional specialty, prepared by local restaurants for more than 50 years, is simply an open-faced tortilla covered in cheese and fried in a pan. Unlike a quesadilla, it is served light and crispy on the bottom. 

The dish was originally made with only butter—no cheese—but today restaurants across Tucson have sections of their menus dedicated to cheese crisps. El Minuto Cafe is an area favorite, known for giant crisps served pizza style on a large stand for sharing. Get one with the works — carne seca, guacamole, tomatoes, green onions, and chiles, or opt for a classic. Fresh, fried-crisp tortillas are combined with blends of melty cheese to create this Southwestern specialty.

354 S Main Ave, Tucson, AZ 85701

Exo Roast Co infuses its cold brew with chiletepin peppers.
Kicked-up Cold Brew

5. Exo Roast Co

The Tucson area’s unique topography yields a number of singular culinary treasures—including prickly pear cactus (hello margaritas!), mesquite honey, and more. One regional favorite is the chiltepín pepper, a tiny red chile that packs a punch of heat. A local coffee shop, Exo Roast Co., has combined the indigenous pepper with its signature cold brew coffee and bottled it for sale. The bottle contains simple ingredients: coffee, cream, dark chocolate, and chiltepín chiles for a well-balanced flavor. In the mood for something less spicy? The coffeehouse also serves a cold brew made with smoky mesquite syrup.

403 N 6th Ave, Tucson, AZ 85705

Order the carne seca platter at El Charro.
Carne Seca

6. El Charro Cafe

Carne seca first came about as a convenient meal for cowboys to eat on the go. Today, the jerky-like meat is a staple of Tucson’s food culture. Local restaurants each have their own recipe, but the most legendary is El Charro Cafe which opened in 1922 and is currently the oldest operating Mexican restaurant continuously owned by the same family. The savory dish relies on the unique climate of the Sonoran Desert, perfect for drying the beef to a crispy bite. Aside from its seasoning blend, El Charro is particularly known for employing traditional techniques when making their carne seca by drying the meat in metal cages while suspended from the trees outside the restaurant. 

311 N Court Ave, Tucson, AZ 85705


Day 2
Unexpectedly New Again

Explore Tucson through the lens of foods using ancient traditions in updated ways.

The Barrio Bread signature loaf is easily identified by the saguaro stenciled in flour.
Milled for Perfection

1. Barrio Bread

Artisanal baker Don Guerra, owner of Barrio Bread, has been on a mission to create a grain-based business in Tucson. His journey started when he read about a Spanish priest who helped start more than 20 bakeries in the late 1600s. Guerra set out to follow in his footsteps, using heritage grains indigenous to Tucson’s arid landscape. What started as a garage bakery officially opened as a full-fledged small business in 2009 and has since earned a James Beard Award nomination. Local growers provide the grain milled specifically for the bakery’s breads. Get in line early on Saturday mornings to get one of the highly sought-after Barrio Mesquite loaves, made from locally harvested and milled mesquite flour.

18 S Eastbourne Ave, Tucson, AZ 85716

Seeds of all types are available for purchase at the Native Seeds store.
Seeds for Sale

2. Native Seeds/SEARCH

Native Seeds preserves and offers more than 2,000 native seed varieties to the region, making this nonprofit a key resource for locals, co-ops, and community gardens. However, one thing that’s gotten much less attention is the free Seed Library of Pima County Public Library, a collection of open-pollinated and heirloom seeds that people can have to plant and grow in their own gardens. In addition to saving seeds as a community, the organization also runs a store near the Catalina Foothills that sells seeds and grains native to the local desert climate. Visitors can explore the farm just south of town, or purchase dried goods in town including a vast array of the region’s Tepary beans, one of the most drought and heat-tolerant crops in the world. 

3061 N Campbell Ave, Tucson, AZ 85719

A Sonoran hotdog is wrapped in bacon and covered with tomatoes, onions, beans, mayo, mustard and jalapeño sauce.
Iconic Dogs

3. El Guero Canelo

One of Tucson's most known culinary inventions is the Sonoran Hot Dog, aptly named for the region where the city sits. While there’s some debate about how the delicacy was created (some say it was first sold at a baseball game in Mexico in the 1940s and others think a traveling circus brought it to the area), one of the establishments that’s helped shape the modern interpretation is El Guero Canelo. The dog is a classic example of Mexican-American street food fusion and blends the best of both cultures into one beloved bite. While you'll find them being sold from vendors across the city, the most iconic take can be found at El Guero Canelo. When you go, get the Sonoran Style, a bacon-wrapped dog topped with pinto beans, grilled and fresh onions, tomatoes, mayo, mustard, and jalapeño sauce, all stuffed into a slightly sweet and fluffy bun. 

5201 S 12th Ave, Tucson, AZ 85706

Mexican Snow Cones

4. Raspados Rio Sonora

Tucson’s desert temperatures can be hot even for locals, so it’s no surprise that icy treats are easy to come by. Street vendors, raspados stands, and full-service restaurants alike all serve up their take on this local treat. Raspados, derived from the Spanish word meaning scraped, are Mexican snow cones—but better. Walk up to any raspado counter and find white pails brimming with sugary juice and freshly chopped fruit, ready to become one of the dozens of fruity concoctions a person might dream up. And the rainbow doesn’t end with juicy flavors. Tucson locals know that the best raspados add in the creaminess of sweetened condensed milk, and sometimes ice cream. Stop by any of the local favorites like Oasis Fruit Cones or Sonoran Delights, or pay a visit to Raspados Rio Sonora after having a Sonoran hot dog just a few blocks away at El Guero Canelo. 

5015 S 12th Ave, Tucson, AZ 85706

The Trash Can is a crowd favorite at The Buffet.
Happy Minute

5. Buffet Bar & Crockpot

You might feel studious having a drink at The Buffet, since the dive bar - built in 1934 - can double as a historical stop. Located in Tucson’s resurgent Ironhorse neighborhood, the city’s oldest bar has been in the same spot since it opened in 1934, right after the repeal of prohibition. Today, it proudly holds the record for serving more draft Coors beer than any other establishment in the country — a title confirmed by the custom neon sign that hangs on the wall: "Coors thanks, Ted." Ted Bair's granddaughter now owns and runs the bar that was once her grandfather's and maintains many of the traditions he instituted including the Happy Minute in which patrons with a drink in hand at 6 pm receive a token for a second one on the house. Be sure to order the house specialty, the Trash Can, a pitcher of Blue Curacao and Red Bull — crushed can included. Or, keep traditions alive and ask for a Coors. 

538 E 9th St, Tucson, AZ 85705


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The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The RV/MH Hall of Fame.

Motown to Music City Road Trip

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The East Texas Bayou.

Gulf Coast Road Trip

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Coachella Valley Preserve.

Hidden Coachella Valley

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A view of L.A. from the top of Highland Park.

Highland Park

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The heart of Venice.

Venice

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Artist Colette Miller's tribute to the City of Angels.

L.A.’s Downtown Arts District

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The Whitehall Banqueting House is full of topsy-turvy views.

Hidden Trafalgar Square

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An elevator shaft in Tribeca opens to reveal a museum of small wonders.

Secrets of NYC’s Five Boroughs

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Plenty of sweet treats are on offer at Pastelería Ideal

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View of the Hollywood Sign from Babylon Court

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A subway entrance in Times Square.

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Chicago

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Detroit

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The dome of Estrela Basilica in Lisbon.

Lisbon

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Miami

Go beyond the beaches in the continental United States’ only truly tropical city.

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Queens

New York City's most diverse borough is also its most rewarding.

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San Diego

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Savannah

Find surprises around every corner in a U.S. city that embraces history like no other.

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