At a time when most of us are cursing our Canadian weather, the sunshine-filled American Southwest looks pretty darned appealing. While Arizona tourism is hotter than, ahem, the desert right now, Tucson had managed to keep a low profile.
In 2015, the Old Pueblo emerged from its cocoon as the first North American city with a UNESCO City of Gastronomy designation. Sure, Tucson, has great food, but the distinction goes way beyond best bites, honouring the destination’s culinary history and Mexican and Native American traditions.
While its agricultural heritage stretches back more than 4,000 years, in many ways, Tucson’s food story is only just beginning. The designation has triggered a gourmet boom, with breweries like Crooked Tooth Brewing Co. serving up sours in a 1950s-style body shop. From carne asadas cooked over mesquite flames to El Guero Canelo’s James Beard award-winning Sonoran hot dogs – a pimped-out sausage loaded with pinto beans, tomatoes and jalapeno sauce – the city’s past and future are intertwined in a myriad of delicious and surprising ways.
As you go from restaurant to bar, you’ll notice that Tucson’s community ties are closely linked – taste Monsoon Chocolate’s coffee truffles, made with Exo Roast Co.’s blend, or order a sandwich inside the iconic Hotel Congress and bite into Barrio Bread.
When you finally decide to throw the napkin in, you’ll find plenty of ways to burn those cultural calories against a mesmerizing backdrop of succulents. The southern Sonoran Desert has enough cacti to fill every hipster café in Toronto, but that’s as prickly as things will get during any hospitable southern sojourn here.
Tito and Pep
A fifteen minute cab ride out of the downtown core might seem unnecessary, but you’ll thank us the moment you step inside this bright little bistro on Speedway Blvd. Chef and owner John Martinez whips up a menu that draws influence from the multicultural history of Tucson and from his travels around North America and the Caribbean. The mesquite-wood-fired grill plays a hand in most of the food here and is constantly surprising the palate with dishes like the roasted carrots, served cold and with labneh, and the grilled pear and radicchio salad, both of which make a strong case for adopting a plant-forward diet.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Forget audio-tours – this living museum is a 98-acre zoo, aquarium and botanical garden rolled into one, with more than 230 animal species and 1,200 varieties of plants, including lots and lots of the prickly persuasion. Take a stroll among the succulents in the cactus garden, feed stingrays and catch a glimpse of coyotes and bighorn sheep. Our favourite part of the trip was the drive from downtown. Stop at one of the lookout points en route and take a cactus selfie with a stunning view of the gorge in the background.
After teaching K-12 students for seven years, Don Guerra decided it was time to educate the masses about artisanal baking. What started off as a converted garage-bakery at his home has grown into a brick-and-mortar location where Guerra bakes 100 artisanal Tucson loaves at a time in his oven. Join the lineup of carboholics who wind their way around the block to secure some of his Sonoran heritage wheat bread. Or get your fix at a handful of downtown restaurants like the Exo Roast Co., the Cup Cafe inside the Hotel Congress and La Mesa Tortillas.
Located inside a former tortilla factory, sits this award-winning purveyor of craft chocolate bars, desserts and beverages. It’s not just the aesthetic of this bean-to-bar café, with its tiled floors, that looks like the inside of a Style at Home magazine. The stunning chocolates made by owner Adam Krantz could be mistaken for precious jewels. Order the Mexican hot chocolate that uses a blend of local chiltepin chilies.
Tucson Bike Tours
If you’re looking to explore more than just the inside of a taco, a bike tour is a great way see the city. Jimmy, the company’s sole tour guide, escorts cyclists to attractions like Rattlesnake Bridge, with pit stops for murals and mango empanadas. A nine- to 11-mile tour, might seem like an endeavour, but Tucson’s flatness and the cooler winter climate meant that even us fit fam rejects were never out of breath.
There are career pivots and then there’s Stephen Paul, who made the switch from crafting authentic, handmade furniture to producing whiskey. While drinking scotch and barbecuing with mesquite (a plant native to the area), he masterminded a plan to make a single-malt whiskey with the distinct terroir of the American Southwest. Hamilton Distillers makes a selection of American single malt spirits called Whiskey Del Bac, malting their own barley then mashing, fermenting, distilling, barrelling and bottling in-house. Take a tour of the distillery and sip on samples in the tasting room – or try a Whiskey Del Bac-spiked ‘eegee’ (a frozen slushie Tucson staple) at bars like Owl’s Club,
a converted funeral home.
Downtown Clifton Hotel
Live out your Wes Anderson dreams at the Downtown Clifton, a former motel that has been transformed into stylish lodgings on the edge of Barrio Viejo. The 1948 hotel holds onto its vintage charms dearly, with retro drapes and saddle blanket bedspreads, but the chic furnishings and local artwork round out the contemporary desert vibes. Stop by for ‘Sonoran Modern’ bites and craft cocktails at the Red Light Lounge.