There’s no question Tucson is full of great places to eat. To pay homage to awesome restaurants, a group of us has decided to showcase our favorite dishes from downtown and beyond.
This isn’t a “top 10” list or even a “best of” for a particular genre of cuisine. Read from top to bottom or skip around. You’ll find different voices speaking from different palate perspectives featuring different types of food. Rhyme? Reasoning? Who needs them?! You’re more likely to find thyme and seasoning that whets your appetite instead. See what we did there? We’re having too much fun already. Let’s get on to food!
When I hear that a kitchen carefully makes items in-house with local produce, I am always intrigued. Time Market—located near the University of Arizona campus on University Boulevard between Fourth and Euclid avenues—is one of those places. After hearing enough rave reviews from friends, I had to give it a try.
Tradition and flavor are blended into each of their menus: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I came in for lunch and gravitated toward their wood-fired pizza. Pizza is a delicacy here, as in the Shiitake—made with shiitake, mozzarella, walnut, and caramelized onion purée, plus rosemary, sea salt, and EVOO. The pizza’s thin crust invokes hints of New York style, but the desert sunset peeking through the pillared windows brings you right back to Tucson.
Time Market also offers an array of craft beer and wine available for pairing with any meal or artisan appetizer—think hummus plate with house-made flatbread and quinoa tabbouleh or roasted beets with toasted pistachios and goat cheese. Although, next time I go back, I’ll be bringing a book to enjoy while sipping a freshly brewed cup of joe and exploring their breakfast offerings on the patio. MD
Reilly Craft Pizza & Drink
Rigatoni with Vodka Sauce
I decided to give Reilly Craft Pizza & Drink a try after a few of my friends recommended it for the 10th time, or so. To my surprise, I discovered a speakeasy and beer garden in addition to a dining room. Reilly proved to have it all—including handmade pasta, which I now think should be added to their name because it’s that good. I ordered rigatoni with vodka sauce, and after one bite, which burst with authentic flavors of basil and grana cheese, I felt my taste buds had been transported to Rome. I reminded myself I was in a downtown Tucson restaurant. With pasta this perfect, the restaurant should be named Reilly Craft Pizza & Drink & Handmade Pasta. Keep in mind, the pasta is only available during dinner, so choose your timing wisely. MD
The Blacktop Grill
Having had several questionable and boring experiences with food trucks, I was skeptical about trying The Blacktop Grill, a venue I’d happened upon. But my fears were unfounded. The food I received was a savory, and divine combination of flavors—on a hot dog. I became an instant return customer, and have spent many evenings tracking down this truck to get a perfectly grilled dog dressed in fresh, top-notch ingredients.
The Blacktop Grill is an award-winning local eatery with a Facebook page that keeps fans updated on where they’ll be parking (often near a brewhouse so you can enjoy a drink with your meal). My go-to choice is El Elotero—a quarter-pound dog wrapped in thick, salty bacon, topped with fire-roasted corn, chipotle lime sauce, cotija cheese, and enough spice to clear your sinuses.
If you’re not a hot dog person, try the quesadillas or vegetarian options. You can ask for a gluten-free corn tortilla, or play around with ingredients to fit your needs since it’s all made to order. With their homemade sauces and freshly baked buns, The Blacktop Grill serves up the taste you want from a food truck. NK
I’m usually good with secrets, but I need to let this one out. This unmarked speakeasy of authentic Italian pizza places is a hidden gem. The light and airy decor lets the food get all of the attention it deserves. It’s hard to not like pizza, but the sourdough crust and fresh toppings at Anello are special. The Bianca has a kick of chiltepin pepper hidden under creamy, fresh mozzarella, ricotta, olive oil, basil, and roasted garlic that jumps out on your taste buds like a kid who’s been found while playing hide-and-seek. HW
The Little One
Truth be told, I don’t remember what exactly I’ve eaten at the cash-only Mexican eatery The Little One (formerly known as Little Cafe Poca Cosa). Does that stop me from whole-heartedly endorsing it? Talking about it in every Tucson restaurant conversation? Loving it? Returning again and again? Absolutely not! Why? Because I know that when I order the Plato Poca Cosa (a surprise plate of three menu items of “whatever the gals in the kitchen feel like giving you”), my palate will be graced with perfectly seasoned, succulent, tender meat, inventive sauces, maybe a creamy, sweet green corn tamale, and/or some other unexpected situation that has me thoroughly enraptured by food. It is here at The Little One that I recommend simply ordering food—anything. OH
Zesty, warm, and messy are the words that come to mind to describe Sausage Deli’s masterpiece called the Omar. The combination of the salami and turkey with the pepperoncini peppers, mustard, and Italian dressing, all inside a warm sub roll, is so much more tantalizing than how the sub looks. But since Sausage Deli has been around since 1978, they know a thing or two about crafting outstanding sandwiches. Grab extra napkins and don’t be embarrassed if anyone sees you picking up every last morsel from your plate. And even if you aren’t a pickle person, I guarantee you’ll love the ones they include on the side. Delicious! HW
Cast iron eggs
On recommendation one morning, I headed to Cup Cafe, inside Tucson’s famous historic 1919 Hotel Congress, and sat down to order the almost-as-famous Cast Iron Eggs: Two poached eggs with ham, leeks, shallots, covered in gruyere cheese, sprinkled with herbs, and served in—what else—a mini cast iron pan. My friend had said it was oh-so-good and also huge. Never afraid of consuming a full day’s worth of calories in a single meal, I dug right in.
Oooooh! Rich, gooey, did I say rich? Cheese, cheese, and more cheese, baked to crispy-edged perfection. Somewhere underneath all that gooey richness were two perfectly poached eggs, chunks of ham and tasty shallots, all sprinkled with a healthy splash of chopped fresh green herbs. The dish was served with a coffee mug full to the brim of perfectly crisped home fries, and a crispy toasted English muffin, helpful to scoop up some of that cheesy goodness. Sad to say, I couldn’t finish the meal in one go—but that just meant I had spectacular snack for later. CS
The Bombo’ Combo’
You don’t need to know a password to get to this speakeasy of lunch spots, you just need to follow your nose to Bombolé. Maybe there was a sign that I didn’t notice when I walked in front of the Pioneer Building, but what I did notice was how my hunger pangs suddenly stood at attention as I caught the luring scent of spices wafting out the door.
Once inside, I found the selections of the day along the left side of the cozy space, and seating with about a dozen patrons happily enjoying the marriage made in heaven of Latin American and Indian cuisines. I went for the Bombo’ Combo’ and picked the Butter Chicken Empanada, Daal (curried lentils), Honduran Cabbage Salad, Bombolé Cilantro Sauce, and an Iced Masal Chai. I kept asking my friend questions to force him to continue to tell me stories so I wouldn’t have to stop devouring my flavorful meal. If I had been dining alone, there’s an excellent chance I would have licked the inside of the little cup the Bombolé Cilantro Sauce came in. Yum!
I almost don’t want to get the word out about this soon-to-be-not-so-secret place, but I want to make sure Bombolé stays in business so I can keep going back for more. HW
À la carte
After reading Heather’s description of the Indian-Latin fusion food from Bombolé, I made a date with a buddy to try it out. I had planned to order the Bombo’ Combo’, but didn’t want to limit myself to just one empanada. I ordered à la carte and got the Matar Paneer and Butter Chicken Empanadas, paired with the Daal (curried lentils) and sauces of mint chutney and Tikka Masala. Though not usually a big eater, I devoured this meal. After the first empanada, my stomach said, “We’re good here,” and my tastebuds answered, “We can jog it off later, mate. This spice is too good to miss!” OH
The Dry Guilin
My expectations were neither here nor there when my husband suggested we head to Noodleholics for lunch one Saturday afternoon. I figured the carbo load might send me into a napping tailspin, but I’m always up for trying new places in town. When we arrived I realized it was where Tork’s Cafe used to be on Grant and Palo Verde. We ordered at the counter, took our number, and sat at our table. Then I noticed a woman hard at work in the kitchen at the pasta machine. Realizing that the noodles were made on site added bonus points. The tally really started to add up when my generous bowl of The Dry Guilin arrived and I smelled its heavenly aroma. The rice noodles mixed with the spicy dark sauce, bok choy, peanuts, crispy pork, and shrimp combined into a jackpot of flavors. Instead of feeling sleepy after my belly was full, I actually felt energized by the fresh ingredients. I surely will go back from more. No wonder it’s called Noodleholics! HW
When I signed up for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) a few years ago, I had no idea I was entering a culture with a token food: açaí bowls. It turns out açaí bowls are almost as celebrated among BJJ practitioners as the flying armbar. The more friends I made, the more enticing pictures of this frozen treat wound up on my Facebook and Instagram feeds. The desire built. I just didn’t know where to get them. Then, one day, it happened.
I was on a Jiu-Jitsu retreat in Scottsdale and found a source near my hotel: Original ChopShop. Obviously, I had to stop. I ordered the PB+J Greek Yogurt açaí bowl, and it was magnificent! The next day I returned with a friend, repeated the delicious experience, and shared my açaí sob story about how deprived I’d been. At that point, she gave me a paradigm shift. In kinder words, she basically said, “Dummy! There’s an açaí shop in downtown Tucson within a four-minute walk of your office: Berry Divine.”
I was delighted. At the next opportunity, I power-walked straight to the little eatery already knowing what I wanted (because: the internet)—Summit Bowl. This dish features a frozen, real-fruit açaí blend that includes peanut butter (an Oakley magnet), cacao, protein powder, and cashew milk. It was artfully crowned with granola, strawberry slices, cashews, honey, and shaved dark chocolate. And I’m sure this will somehow step up my BJJ game. OH
Pad Thai wrap
I try to bring my lunch to work every day, but by Friday I’ve usually run out of whatever slop I made to get me through the week. Luckily, there’s no shortage of lunch options within walking distance of my downtown office. But the burden of choice is a thing. I’ll find myself walking up and down Congress, Broadway, and Pennington weighing pros and cons. Today, I knew I’d be meeting up with a friend later for burgers, so I wanted something with vegetables. I walked past a taco spot and considered calabacitas, but I knew once I got to the front of the line I’d want carnitas. I walked past a Thai place, but it was a beautiful day and they didn’t have outdoor seating. Then I walked past Urban Fresh. Specializing in vegan, raw meals, smoothies, and juices, they have a small seating area out front, so I could enjoy my food and the weather.
Thai on my mind, I went for the Pad Thai Wrap—almond pâté, cucumbers, red peppers, rice noodles, carrot, basil, sunflower shoots, and shredded lettuce wrapped in a chipotle tortilla. The result was tangy, slightly sweet, crisp, and, indeed, fresh. It was essentially like eating a large, delicious salad for lunch, but the tortilla added the heft I needed to get through the rest of my work day. The owners were warm and welcoming, and I think I’ve found my new Friday lunch go-to. LH
The body is a wondrous, mysterious, and sometimes bossy thing. The other day my body, subject to the same forces that control the tides and the seasons, needed chocolate. And where better to go than the recently founded chocolate factory and café, Monsoon Chocolate? Their menu has many offerings, sweet and savory, chocolate, and otherwise, but after looking over my options—gorgeous bonbons, rich brownies, clever choco tacos—I knew I had to go with the hot chocolate. Made in-house with chocolate derived from the highest quality beans, and blended to creamy perfection with vegan-friendly coconut milk, their hot chocolate is about as far from watery packet options as you can get. Topped with a house-made marshmallow, this chocolate masterpiece, enjoyed in the ambient light from the café’s floor-to-ceiling windows, completely satisfied all demands. LH
Oakley’s Blue Mediterranean
Is there such a thing as the perfect pizza pie? It’s hard to say, but I think I’ve come pretty darn close to the pinnacle. Fired Pie is a casual and trendy create-your-own pizza restaurant that seems to have been designed by a high-end graffiti artist. It’s a space that might inspire you to get in touch with your edgy side as you make one bold ingredient selection after another. I’d like to share with you my own top inspired creation, which involved a journey of testing, shaping, and customizing over a series of visits. Here we go…
Crust: House-made dough
Sauce: Pesto + tomato
Cheese: Gorgonzola + mozzarella + a little more gorgonzola, please?
Meats: Pepperoni + yes, please, a little more would be great, thank you!
Veggies: Sun-dried tomato + artichoke + kalamata olives
Herbs: Basil + cilantro + oregano
Special request: Parmesan on the crust
I absolutely hope you enjoy this special creation of mine, but also have every confidence in your creative ability. Don’t limit yourself. OH
The B Line
Blackened Mahi Mahi Burrito
I hadn’t been to The B Line on Historic Fourth Avenue for at least a couple of years, but I was in the neighborhood and wanted something healthy and filling to eat. The cozy and casual setting instantly felt familiar, as if no time had passed at all. I perused the chalkboard menu and stopped when I saw the Blackened Mahi Mahi and remembered how delicious it was when I ate it on my last visit. The kick from the Cajun spices and the creaminess of the coleslaw blended perfectly with the achiote rice and homemade creole sauce. Plus, I never knew which flavor would dominate in each bite so every forkful was a surprise. Since I’m still thinking about how tasty the burrito was, I’m certain I will make it back again sooner than later—even if I just go to drool while I watch the desserts spin in the carousel. HW
The Coronet’s tomato salad
A seasonal delight, it’s true
Tomatoes juicy, ripe, and red
Sweet harmony of textures new
Without them, I’d as soon be dead
Yes, seasons come and seasons go
And with this change comes fresh delights
But grilled halloumi, don’t you know,
Turns the wrongs of summer into rights
Tossed with seeds, cilantro, and love,
This humble salad has some cukes
Like something sent from up above,
In its essence there are no flukes
Fall will come, I won’t complain
But in my heart, tomato salad, you shall remain LH
The Bite at American Eat Co.
Bacon and Bleu Slider
“I’m not a foodie,” I told myself. “OK, except for that one exceptional restaurant… and that one entrée at the other really nice spot… and obviously that amazing cheese from Denmark.” That’s how it went for years. I got a reality check with a Bacon and Bleu Slider at The Bite, one of the restaurants within American Eat Co. I realized I actually am one of those people who can enjoy stellar food to the point of evangelism. This creamy, smooth, mild-bite blue comfortably mashed and partially melted against bacon stacked with lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle sitting atop a hot burger patty featuring just the right amount of char… made me realize my taste buds can recognize food as art. I felt like I’d just been given a superpower. OH
Find Instagram-worthy plates (and bowls) at OBON Tucson, where a taste of Japan is waiting for you. From steaming ramen to steamed buns stuffed with crab, pork belly, or fried chicken, and signature sushi rolls to the bright and fresh poke, there is something for every sushi-enthusiast. Treat yourself to fun and intriguing cocktails like the Japanese Cowboy or One Night in Bangkok, or indulge in house-made pineapple sake. If you can take your eyes away from your meal, see how many lucky cat statues you can spot around the beautifully decorated dining room. If you’re not afraid of a little heat, I recommend the fukushu rolls featuring spicy salmon and tuna topped with sriracha, spicy mayo, and rice pearls. LL
Maynards Market & Kitchen
Maynards Market & Kitchen is the perfect spot for an al fresco dining experience—the only question is if you’ll stop by for breakfast, lunch, or happy hour. Decadent variations of classic toast or oatmeal breakfasts—not to mention the assortment of baked goodies–will start your day off right. Inspired salads dressed in light and bright vinaigrettes will fight to pull your attention away from the cheesy, meaty, saucy sandwiches such as the spicy cubano. Join the wine club when you come in for your dinner reservation—you’ll love tasting the expertly selected robust reds and crisp whites year-round. I love grabbing a caprese sandwich for lunch during the workweek—the gooey mozzarella, juicy tomato, and fresh pesto filling pairs nicely with the crunchy, salty chips. LL
We eat every day!
We’ll add to this dish list as inspiration strikes, so make sure to check back in to discover more of this delicious downtown.