Tucson sits just 70 miles from the Mexican border. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that many local dishes in this Arizona city take their inspiration from the nearby Mexican state of Sonora. You won’t need much Spanish to hunt out these southwestern specialties, though, thanks to our guide to five distinctive Tucson tastes. In fact, the most important Spanish word you’ll want to learn is delicioso.
Carne seca means “dried meat,” but don’t think you’re getting beef jerky when you sample this dish at one of Tucson’s oldest restaurants. El Charro Café, which entrepreneur Monica Flin opened back in 1922 in the now-historic El Presidio district downtown, specializes in carne seca, a slightly smoky, sun-dried shredded beef that’s become an El Charro signature. Try it stuffed into a crisp corn taco, wrapped into an enchilada and topped with piquant green tomatillo sauce, or grilled with green chilies, tomatoes, and onions, then piled on a platter overflowing with guacamole, rice, beans, and calabacitas (squash).
A “caramelo” has nothing to do with caramel; it’s Tucson’s take on the quesadilla. Two flour tortillas are layered with meat and cheese, then grilled, almost like a flat panini. You can sample this savory snack at Tacos Apson, a local joint in South Tucson. Park yourself at the counter and order your caramelo filled with carne asada (flavorful grilled beef), chicken, or pork al pastor (a combo of pork, spices, dried chilies and pineapple). Then, help yourself to toppings from the salsa bar — including pickled carrots, shredded cabbage, and several varieties of salsa — and enjoy.
Green corn tamales
While you can find tamales across the southwestern United States and throughout Mexico, Tucson’s most distinctive masa (dough)-wrapped bundle is a variety known as “green corn.” It takes its name from its wrapper; it was traditionally steamed in fresh green corn husks, rather than the more common dried ones. At the Tucson Tamale Company, a bright orange strip-mall café not far from The University of Arizona campus, the freshly made green corn tamales are filled with gooey cheese and mild chilies, making a substantial — and scrumptious — vegetarian lunch.
On a hot Tucson day, you’ll crave something refreshing. That’s when to hunt for a raspado. This frozen treat starts with shaved ice that’s topped with chunks of pineapple, mango, strawberry, watermelon, or your choice of fresh fruit. It’s drizzled with fresh fruit syrup, as far from a neon-sauced snow cone as Tucson is from the Indian Ocean. For extra creaminess, add a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Ask Tucson locals where to find the best raspados, and they’ll direct you to Sonoran Delights, a modest Mexican eatery with a sunny streetside patio, just west of Downtown. Another friendly spot, the simply-named Juice N’ Fruit Raspados, is in a South Tucson strip mall; try their pineapple raspado with toasted coconut. Mmmm.
In many countries, snackers nibble mouthwatering meat-filled empanadas, but in Tucson, these pastries are transformed into toothsome baked turnovers. A favorite flavor is calabaza (pumpkin); imagine a tartlet stuffed with a savory-sweet pie filling. You’ll frequently find guava, caramel, mango, apple, or pineapple varieties, too. Look for these treats at local Mexican pastry shops, including El Rio Bakery on North Grande Avenue and La Estrella Bakery Inc. in South Tucson; the latter is a short drive (less than 10 miles) from the airport, convenient if you’d like to fly home with some distinctive tastes of The Old Pueblo.
Photos Courtesy of iStock and Carolyn B. Heller