What To Eat in Arizona
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.
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.
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Modern food in a vintage Arizona waystation makes Indian Gardens a best bet for healthful meals, fresh-pressed cider, lattes, and great sourdough bread.
Seth Appell, coffee master at Old Bisbee, roasts some of the best in the West. It's mail-order, but complementary espresso is available.
Juniper Ridge Saloon is a quick border run from the semi-dry state of Utah, serving fresh bar food as well as fine adult libations.
Hap's is a Phoenix BBQ where meats are rubbed with spice and slow-cooked with smoke. Lamb and chicken are the two outstanding dishes.
Steak sandwiches and hamburgers are grilled over mesquite coals in Bun Huggers, a happy Arizona Route 66 restaurant with colorful frat-house decor.
A Phoenix neighborhood Mexican food stand with patio dining, Rito's serves exemplary Sonoran dishes: burritos, tacos, enchiladas, tostadas and chimichangas.
A bustling café in an otherwise unremarkable Flagstaff strip mall, Brandy's is a #1 breakfast destination for locals as well as travelers along Route 66.
Looking around Phoenix for breakfast prepared with kitchen expertise and using the best from-scratch ingredients? Put Matt's at the top of the list.
Creative hot dog variations are the specialty of this clever Phoenix restaurant. If Short Leash doesn't have a wiener you like, you don't like wieners.