About Regional Flavor
Long before Arizona became a state, Tucson was a capital of Sonoran-style Mexican fare. That tradition continues, from street food (try the crazy Sonoran hot dog!) to traditional green corn tamales and artisan tacos to chefs’ high-end interpretations (at Café Poca Cosa). South of Tucson along the border are culinary gems that reflect not only Mexico but also the quirky, colorful personality of settlers who came to find their fortune or get away from the rest of the world. Phoenix is a newer city and its eateries tend to be more stylish (although here, too, the Mexican food can be extraordinary); and to the north, around old Route 66, is a legacy of diners, cafes, and casual restaurants where travelers are made to feel at home.
Arizona Regional Specialties
Tucson's favorite street food is a dizzying package. An all-beef frank, wrapped in bacon and grilled, gets garnished with pinto beans, chopped tomatoes, onions, mustard, hot jalapeno sauce, and a squiggle of mayonnaise, then planted in a big soft bun and sided by a mercilessly hot roasted pepper.
Fresh corn on the cob is essential for green corn tamales because when the kernels are scraped off, enough juice comes with them to make a moist, full-flavored tamale filling. Roasted chilies are laced into it (often with cheese), and the combo is tightly rolled inside a green (not dried) corn husk that is steamed until the taste of earth and fire within are exuberantly married.
In the rest of America, pico de gallo – "nip of the rooster" – refers to the sort of chunky salsa cruda that ignites tacos and is such a good dip for chips. In the city of South Tucson it has another meaning altogether. In this case, the nip of the rooster is a gorgeous bouquet of giant chunks of watermelon, coconut, pineapple, mango, and jicama that get spritzed with lime juice and liberally sprinkled with a red-hot chili-powder mix. The spice delivers a lip-tingling punch and does wonders to elicit all the sweetness from the fruit it seasons. It adds up to a heady culinary collusion that marshals taste buds to attention.