The best thing about Tucson is the food. No, seriously. I mean, there are lots of great things, but it is a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, which should tell you that the food is good. I’ve loved just about everywhere I’ve eaten in Tucson, and it was incredibly difficult to narrow down this list to my Top 5 – and there are still places here that I haven’t gotten to try!
Because I, a college student, am writing this, these are all $-$$ type restaurants. I don’t do a lot of “fine dining,” but even on a budget Tucson has some amazing food options! Here are a few of my favorites!
El Charro Café
As Tucson’s oldest Mexican restaurant, El Charro has been serving amazing food since 1922, and I think it may be my favorite restaurant in Tucson. There are two locations these days, but the original is just outside of downtown and also includes a small museum. The building is so old, in fact, that its basement is allegedly haunted, though as a history nerd, I felt the real appeal of the basement was the pictures of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata (Mexican revolutionaries). They also have the distinction of cooking their carne seca in the old fashioned way – drying it in the sun. The café today is known for its Sonoran specialties, though it was famous in the Prohibition Era for its tea…quila. Every meal I’ve had here has been phenomenal, and this is not somewhere to skip on a visit to Tucson. Be sure to make a reservation if you’re planning to visit! (The featured image at the start of this post is El Charro’s Tamale Temptation Trio.) Menu
Anywhere that sells tamales is a place that I like. Although my first encounter with Tucson Tamales was at the Tucson Festival of Books, they also have a few more permanent locations in the city. Tamales are one of my favorite foods, and I really love the ones they make here. There are several options for vegetarian or with meat, and you can also pick how spicy the sauce you get is – or you can skip the sauce. It’s my number one pick for tamales, and I love stopping by their stand for lunch at the book festival or anywhere else I see them. Menu
There’s not one specific place to get a Sonoran Dog, and you can often find them at a street fair or a food truck. My go-to place however is at El Güero Canelo, which currently has three locations around Tucson. A Sonoran Dog with horchata is the perfect meal here! Sonoran Dogs are a quintessentially Tucson food that you can only get in here. And yes, the idea may sound a little strange – pinto beans and pico de gallo on a hot dog? But trust me, it’s good. Just get out and try it, without asking for modifications if possible. What makes a Sonoran Dog good is the unexpected combination of stuff that actually really works. You still may not like it, but you still have to try one on a visit to Tucson. El Güero Canelo Menu
Baja Café is the preferred breakfast/brunch place at my apartment. It’s a little pricey, but the portions are huge, and you’ll probably have leftovers (unless you’re really determined not to, like me). From delicious Eggs Benedict to heavenly liege waffles and pancakes, you can’t go wrong with anything on the menu here! The first time I ate here with my roommates, we’d just finished a sunrise hike at Saguaro, and this made for a perfect post-hiking breakfast. It’s all so, so good! My preference is to order one of their combinations, which includes eggs, hashbrowns, your choice of ham, bacon, or sausage, and either pancakes, french toast, or waffles. It’s a lot of food, but you get a little of everything, which is what I like. Note: The menu varies slightly between locations, so I’m including a link to the Campbell menu as well as a link to their main website.
Fiamme Pizza Napoletana
Probably the fanciest pizza place I’ve been to outside of Italy, Fiamme serves authentic Neapolitan pizzas that are completely out of this world! Some ingredients like the flour, tomatoes, and mozzarella are imported from Italy, while other toppings are locally sourced. The founder of the restaurant also regularly competes in “the World Pizza Games in Las Vegas, NV and the Campionato Mondiale Della Pizza in Parma, Italy,” neither of which I knew existed before finding out about Fiamme. There are other things on the menu besides pizza, of course, namely some amazing apps like the Bruschetta above. And they offer gluten-free and vegan options, so you can still enjoy some phenomenal pizza even with dietary restrictions. Menu
Okay, I know I already listed my top five restaurants, but pizza is great. As a college student, I eat a lot of pizza, and I can’t write about food without mentioning my favorite local spots for pizza. And yeah, most of the time, we order from Hungry Howie’s or Domino’s, but if you’re exploring around the city and want something local, you can’t go wrong with these!
So this is one that I don’t think makes it onto most people’s lists, but I really love it. It’s part pizzeria, part market. If you have what my friends like to call my “bougie tastes” (A.K.A. if Turkish dates and homemade ricotta on a pizza sound good to you) this is the place! It’s right on the corner of 4th Ave, and it also has the market I mentioned where you can buy fancy cooking oils and jams. In my opinion, it’s at least worth a visit, and even if you don’t want to try one of the weird (but delicious) pizzas that changes day-to-day, they also have plain cheese or pepperoni. It’s a fun little hipster place, and personally, I just really like the vibe here. And it’s fun to have an excuse for ending every sentence with “Old Sport.”
I’m in college; I eat a lot of pizza. This place is also a block away from campus, so it’s fair to say I’ve been here a few times. Like Gatsby’s they have some kind of weird combinations…though maybe not quite so extreme. Pictured above is the Potato Bacon pizza. While Gatsby’s is more of a chic, hipster kind of weird pizza, No Chos has more bar-type food. Speaking of, for anyone under 21, don’t plan on having dinner here on a weekend. Besides the delicious pizza, No Anchovies is also a bar/club that has a bouncer outside during certain hours to prevent me from getting my Mac&Cheese pizza. As long as you avoid club hours though, the pizza and prices are great! Menu
More of an actual restaurant, Sauce has a few locations around the city and a variety of pizzas. This is a great place to go with friends for a low-key lunch or dinner where you can all split a pizza. They have several different pizzas (though not as many as Fiamme) as well as lots of appetizers and non-pizza things like paninis, soups, and salads. Really it’s just a delicious, fun restaurant to visit for some classic pizza. Menu
Honestly, this is one of my favorite places I have eaten ever. I’m not including it above though because it’s currently closed, and it’s unclear when or if the restaurant will re-open. Basically, this is an Egyptian place that is AMAZING. All of the food is fantastic and you can sit at a table or at couches on the floor (my preference). It’s a whole experience and just so fantastic that if it does open again, it would be my top recommendation in Tucson.
Another of my favorite restaurants that has closed, The Fix was famous for its Mac ‘n Cheese, and I’m writing about it because I want it to re-open. Until they closed, I was here every week, and I think I tried everything on the menu, well the Mac&Cheese part of the menu. I never once ate a salad here, though I did enjoy their cookies. The Mac ‘n Cheese here would have every topping imaginable, and it was just awesome!