From a new plant-based Mexican eatery to a recently launched dining spot where the flavors of the Southwest flame across the wood-fired grill, Tucson — the United States’ first UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy — serves up plenty of exciting eating experiences. And we’re declaring that before you even begin to graze through the city’s burrito scene, brunch at its funky diners or indulge at its resorts.
Here’s our plan for where to eat now in this Arizona metropolis.
How to Kickstart Your Morning
One of the nicest times of day in this desert city is the crisp early morning, so get out of bed with the sun and linger over a leisurely breakfast.
If you’re close to the city center, join the neighbors who gather at homey 5 Points Market and Restaurant for fresh-squeezed juice, huevos rancheros topped with pulled pork and the colorful breakfast salad layered with arugula, butternut squash, roasted poblano peppers and over-medium eggs. Don’t miss fresh-baked scones, which might be made with local peaches.
For a taste of nostalgia, head for Welcome Diner, a quirky 1960s building with a swooping modernist roof. This popular breakfast and lunch spot is known for eggs Benedict served on a housemade biscuit, crispy fried chicken and the vegetarian-friendly Three Sisters Burrito bursting with tempura-battered zucchini, roasted corn and local tepary beans. And save your fork: there’s cherry pie.
Stop into another local favorite, Prep & Pastry, just for baked goods — decadent creations include the “dossant,” a doughnut-croissant hybrid that may be piled with berries and gooey dark chocolate.
But while you’re there, you can’t miss out on the Savory Breakfast Bowl, layered with poached eggs, quinoa, roasted vegetables and tahini, or the hearty Cast Iron Duck Confit, a skillet of braised duck, spinach and potato hash amped up with dried cherries and topped with eggs and goat cheese.
Where to Lunch in the Sun
At midday, explore the developing Mercado district, where tiny boutiques have set up shop in a collection of shipping containers at Mercado San Agustín Annex. Take a seat in the sunny courtyard for lunch at Agustín Kitchen, known for meal-sized salads, burgers and sandwiches.
Over on funky Fourth Avenue, The Boxyard is another cool epicurean hangout also housed in a collection of shipping containers. Here, Percheron Mexican Grill stuffs decadent burritos with steak and mozzarella cheese, then wraps them all in bacon. Wash it all down with a Tucson-made craft beer like Dragoon Brewing’s West Coast IPA or Victory or Death IPA from MotoSonora Brewing, which you can enjoy in one of the courtyard bars.
If you’re more in the mood for vegetables, head to Tucson’s north side to Charro Vida in Casa Adobos Plaza. Run by the same family who launched El Charro Café (the city’s first Mexican restaurant) back in 1922, this cheerful, window-lined dining room done in desert-inspired turquoises and oranges focuses on vegetarian versions of Mexican classics, from plant-based burritos and enchiladas to unusual hemp and nopales (cactus) tamales served with beans and rice. The creamy, cinnamon-scented hemp milk horchata is excellent, too.
Take a Break with Local Treats
While you’re out and about, stop for refreshments at Monsoon Chocolate, one of the Southwest’s only bean-to-bar chocolate makers. The extra-rich drinking chocolate is made with coconut cream (both creamy and vegan-friendly), and the hand-painted bonbons are as visually stunning as they are delicious.
Also look for unusual bars like white chocolate infused with mesquite or blended with blue corn, which would make uniquely Tucson souvenirs — if you don’t devour them before you get home.
Another must-order drink is chiltepin cold brew at EXO Coffee Shop & Roaster. This milky, refreshing iced coffee treat is spiced with local chiltepin peppers for a gentle kick.
Get Creative in the Evening
Book a table for sunset at The Grill, the fine-dining room at Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Hacienda Del Sol Guest Ranch Resort, where you can enjoy your meal along with expansive views across the desert hills. Begin your night with a glass of wine — the cellar stocks more than 800 bottles — then try a warm salad of Brussels sprouts and squash or a classic Caesar. Meaty scallops grilled and served over shrimp risotto are a good choice or opt for a tender steak.
A casual, creative destination is newcomer Tito and Pep, a lively, midcentury modern space, where a parade of inventive plates come from the wood-fired grill. A signature dish is whole grilled trout, filleted and stuffed with a purée of cilantro and Mexican oregano, served over sautéed Swiss chard. Other popular plates include grilled octopus, grilled pork chops with quince and wheat berries, and simple roasted carrots with tangy labneh (yogurt), pomegranate and fresh herbs.
Be sure to plan for dinner at one of Tucson’s top Mexican restaurants: romantic, candlelit Penca in the city center. You might dig into queso en hoja santa, gooey melted cheese wrapped in an herbaceous leaf and served with fresh tortillas; see which ceviche is on offer; or try a sampling of several moles, the traditional chocolate-based sauce from Oaxaca. Then look for mains like robalo, a flavorful white fish paired with lentils, squash and an herb salad; or chamoro en pipian rojo, lamb shank in a savory pumpkin seed sauce.
For dessert, there are freshly made churros with chocolate dipping sauce, a sweet finish to your Southwest dining adventures.