Tucson’s Mexican food is one of its top attractions. Tucson is unique in that it was officially part of Mexico until 1853, and it has more recent ties to Mexico than any city in the United States. Just an hour’s drive north of the border, “the old pueblo” (as locals affectionately call it) arguably has the best Mexican food outside of Mexico. For many visitors, sampling it is a requirement.
You can just eat a meal at one restaurant, or spend days exploring a whole bunch. But first, you need to decipher the menu.
The basic ingredients of most traditional meals are tortillas – round, flat, unleavened pancakes made originally of corn (maize), but now often made from wheat flour as well. They are served as a side with stews and soups, or filled in a variety of ways.
A taco is a tortilla (usually corn) folded in half, stuffed with a choice of meats, fish, or refried beans (baked beans fried in lard until they have a mashed consistency), and topped with lettuce, cheese, and salsa (a hot sauce of tomatoes, peppers, and onions). Tacos are small and you’ll need two or three to make a meal.
A burrito (often called a burro) is a large flour tortilla rolled into a tube and stuffed with a choice or mixture of meats, shrimps, potatoes, chiles, beans, rice, scrambled egg, cheese. They tend to be big – one can make a meal.
Chimichangas were reputedly invented in Tucson, when the owner of the city’s oldest and best-loved Mexican restaurant, El Charro, accidentally dropped a burrito into hot oil and stifled a curse, changing it to “chimichanga”. (Think “Oh, shh-ugar!”) The deep-fried burrito became a hit.
Continuing with the rolled tortilla theme, enchiladas are thinner and smaller than burros, and are baked, often with a mild green or red chili sauce. These dishes are served with sides of rice and refried beans.
Corn tamales are a time-consuming holiday tradition but you’ll find them year-round on restaurant menus. Ground corn dough is filled with a variety of meats, cheese, or vegetables (watch out for whole olives with tooth-breaking pips), wrapped in a corn husk and steamed. Many restaurants remove the corn husk before serving.
A roasted mild green chile stuffed with cheese and cooked in a light batter becomes a chile relleno, often the choice of the vegetarian in your dining group. Avid carnivores opt for fajitas, a plate of chicken or beef strips grilled with onions and chiles and served with rice, beans, and tortillas on the side. Menudo, a beef tripe soup, is traditionally recommended as a hangover remedy.
A recent and hardly traditional addition to the Mexican food scene is the delicious Sonoran hot dog. Budget hounds will love this inexpensive dog best sampled BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs or El Guero Canelo both of which vie for best Sonoran hot dog titles, and serve other dishes as well. Another good choice for those watching their pesos is Nico’s, of which there are several around town, and some are open into the wee hours. One is found on Tucson’s restaurant row.
Taco fans should not miss Boca Tacos y Tequila with a street ambiance and Tucson’s best variety of tacos and tequilas. For a more upscale taco experience, head up into the Foothills to Blanco Tacos & Tequila. Seafood lovers should head to Mariscos Chihuahua, with various locations.
When president Bill Clinton visited Tucson, he ate at Mi Nidito in the heart of South Tucson, ground zero for the old pueblo’s Hispanic population. Further north, El Minuto is a popular choice for down-home Mexican cooking. Downtown, the most exclusive setting is Cafe Poca Cosa, with a chalkboard of rotating specials.