Growing up in Tucson, I didn’t think it was very exciting. Now, Tucson is decidedly cool. Downtown has been completely transformed with a new light rail and (somewhat) increased parking, and there are new restaurants going in all all over the city. The food and drink scene is evolving beyond just Mexican — which has always been great — and Tucson is becoming worthy of a visit.
I only visit Tucson once a year but I try and hit as many of these places as I can.
Beyond Bread: What is a humble sandwich joint doing on a must-eat list for Tucson? If you knew Beyond Bread’s colossal sandwiches, you wouldn’t question it. From an ultra stacked muffalotta to a classic tuna, Beyond Bread’s sandwiches are a Tucson institution.
Nico’s Taco Shop: There are a number of fast food Mexican spots around town, but Nico’s is my favorite. They’ve got solid burritos, loaded carne asada fries, and taquitos pilled high with shredded lettuce and cheese. I stop here at least once for a second dinner when I am in town.
Anita St. Market: Tucked deep in a neighborhood near downtown, Anita St has INSANE burritos. I often go for breakfast and get a chorizo-egg-cheese burrito. The burritos have an excellent ratio of meat to cheese to potatoes to tightly-wrapped tortilla bites. They also sell tortillas, but get there early or else they will sell out. Pro tip: it gets crowded so either wait patiently in line or call your order in when you’re en route.
St. Mary’s Mexican Food: Truthfully, I don’t come here for food (though I have eaten here on occasion and it’s great!). I come here for tortillas. Both Anita St. and St. Mary’s have great tortillas, and St. Mary’s has a wide variety of sizes. I like coming here to get the quesadilla size.
Eegee’s: The sandwiches here are solid, but I’d take my sandwich money to Beyond Bread. The move here are the signature Eegee’s: a frozen Italian ice-like drink made with actual fruit. The classic lemon and strawberry flavors are excellent standbys, but if you’re in town for watermelon month (July), walk — do not run — to Eegee’s. Seriously it’s the best thing on a hot, shitty Tucson summer day.
El Güero Canelo: The signature dish here is a regional specialty: The Sonoran Hot Dog: a bacon-wrapped hot dog with beans, grilled onion, fresh onion, tomato, mayo, mustard, and jalapeños. Their dog is so famous, El Güero Canelo won a 2018 America’s Classics Awards from the James Beard Foundation.
Chuy’s: Chuy’s bills itself as a “Mesquite Broiler” and truthfully I am not entirely sure how to describe that. They have mesquite-roasted chicken, as well as grilled tri-tip and fish, as well as coleslaw that I am obsessed with. My move is a combo plate with chicken and beef, plus extra tortillas and coleslaw. The rice and beans on the side are ok, but generally I always love the food I get here. Plus, they have a self-serve chips and salsa bar!
Boca Tacos y Tequila: Boca is the Tucson equivalent of an up-scale taco joint. Tucson is full of inexpensive, hole-in-the-wall taco places that are awesome, but Boca is nicer. It’s less of a late-night second dinner spot and more of a day time let’s meet for lunch spot. The tacos are good and they also have a great beer list.
Prep and Pastry: A breakfast and lunch spot that is seriously the most packed place in town. Their menu is a mix of breakfast and lunch classics as well as some fun finds like shakshouka and breakfast poutine.
Blanco Tacos y Tequila: The food here is decidedly good, but there are other more exciting options in town. The real move here is there insane happy hour. The margaritas are delicious and made with fresh fruit and herbs and are only $6! The appetizers are a great complement to the many margs you’ll drink and the queso fundido is bomb.
5 Points Market & Restaurant: Part market, part restaurant, part coffee shop, 5 Points serves breakfast and lunch featuring local ingredients. They serve classic egg dishes and sandwiches, but their specials board is always the most exciting.
El Charro Cafe: The oldest continually-run Mexican Restaurant in the US, El Charro has excellent Mexican classics and also serves a Tucson staple: Machaca (aka carne seca). Dried in the hot Tucson sun, carne seca is served across El Charro’s menu in tacos, burritos, and another El Charro classic: the chimichanga.
Cafe Poca Cosa: A higher-end Mexican restaurant that features a menu that changes daily. With a farm-to-table approach, Cafe Poca Cosa is a place that is consistently good and always booked.
Penca: Located downtown, Penca features upscale Central Mexican cuisine. In a city of outstanding Mexican restaurants, Penca takes the role of great food + well-designed space + cool location in downtown Tucson. Their pozole is also some of the best pozole I’ve had (besides my own).
Agustin Kitchen: A new American kitchen with a focus on Tucson-specific ingredients, you’re just as likely to see cholla buds and mesquite flour as you are brussels sprouts and pork belly on the menu. Get a reservation, this place is usually crowded.
Downtown Kitchen: A bit Mexican, a bit American, a bit Southwest, Downtown Kitchen is from James Beard Award winning restauranteur, Janos Wilder. An ever evolving menu, Downtown Kitchen is a great place for after work drinks, a pre show dinner, or a weekend brunch. I’ve never had a meal here I didn’t like.
PY Steakhouse: I never really think of steakhouses as anything more than steak and good sides — and PY is definitely that. But there’s also a dedication to locally-raised beef and locally-sourced ingredients that sets PY apart from your run-of-the-mill steakhouses. It’s a bit out of town, but it’s worth the trip.
Barrio Bread: In Tucson, people don’t wait in extensive lines for food, except at Barrio Bread. Using locally-milled heritage grains, Barrio Bread sells literally the best bread I’ve ever eaten. Get there at least a half hour between store opening to make sure you’ve got a good spot in line.
Borderlands Brewing: Relatively new to Tucson, Borderlands Brewing makes one of my favorite Gose beers. Inspired by local ingredients and food traditions, Borderlands makes interesting and tasty beer that’s worth a stop.
Brianna is the Founder & Editor-in-Chief at Hook & Blade. She is based out of New York City where she enjoys exploring the city, trying new foods, and people watching. She works as the Global Email Marketing Manager at Global Citizen, and tries to travel as much as she can.