Culinary adventures around Tucson

Heading into my visit to Tucson to create an upcoming episode of Fringe Benefits I had some pleasant expectations: warm air, sun, mountains, cowboys, cactus clinging to my boots.  I’m happy to report that the city and surrounding areas delivered all that and more – including some culinary delights that I did not expect.

The food around Tucson takes its inspiration from historic and cultural roots including Mexican and Native American cultures. The city is growing, and attracting people from all over the country and world, each bringing with them ideas and influences on food.

For authentic Mexican, El Charro Café in downtown Tucson is a must visit.  The restaurant claims to be the oldest Mexican restaurant in the United States in continuous operation by the same family.  This factoid might explain why the décor and food feels comfy and homestyle, like a visit to someone’s living room. Local guide Anne Maxon suggested I try the Cheescrisps with Jalapeno.  The dish was just as it sounds  – crispy and cheesy. Served like pizza with a spicy kick. I liked it.  Next up I dug into the Pescado Tropical – cod with a tomatillo citrus salsa. The fish was nicely cooked, the sauce added just enough flavor and it all went down well with a house margarita.

El Charro's Cheesecrips
El Charro’s Cheesecrips

South of the city, in Tubac, AZ, I discovered Elvira’s. Chef Ruben Monroy recently moved this local favorite from Nogales, Mexico, to nearby Tubac, AZ.  Monroy creates inventive dishes inspired by his life and training in Mexico. The food is traditional – with a twist. I loved the guacamole laced with pomegranate seeds, and the mole was flavorful, intricate and delicious. The décor is bright and eccentric, adding another element to the Elivra’s experience. 

I discovered some interesting street food during my visit to the Mission San Xavier del Bac, just south of downtown Tucson.  Vendors set up shop under tents woven from spiny twigs. Here, using open grills, a woman cooked up what she called an “Indian Taco” for my lunch. Composed of fry bread topped with beans, cheese, tomato and tomatillo salsa. The whole thing folded up like a thin slice of New York pizza, and managed to get all the food groups (and then some) into one mouthful. Different and delicious.

Elvira's Mole and more
Elvira’s Mole and more

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