Get a Taste of Tucson

Get a Taste of Tucson

Photo by Creative Commons

From bacon-wrapped hot dogs to creosote beer, this sun-drenched Arizona city is a study in good taste.

Saguaro-studded foothills surround the JW Marriott Starr Pass, a resort tucked between Tucson Mountain Park and downtown Tucson. The city’s lights sparkle in the distance at night, when stargazing opportunities abound across the secluded property. By day, guests follow nearby trails past chollas and prickly-pear cactus clusters, along mesquite-covered hillsides, and onward to one-of-a-kind desert adventures.

Primo, the resort’s Mediterranean restaurant, features views of this dramatic landscape. It also overlooks a lush garden where two-time James Beard-winner Melissa Kelly and her culinary crew grow fig and pomegranate trees, herbs, heirloom tomatoes, and other vegetables adapted to the arid location and short growing season.

For a destination set in the Sonoran Desert, Tucson features a surprisingly robust — and internationally respected — culinary scene. The city received America’s first UNESCO City of Gastronomy designation in 2015, earning recognition for the area’s 4,000-year-old agricultural heritage and innovative programs built upon that legacy. Popular annual events such as Tucson Meet Yourself (commonly called “Tucson Eat Yourself,” thanks to an abundance of participating food purveyors) and the Agave Heritage Festival spotlight local flavors.

Visitors can learn more about the region’s agricultural evolution at Mission Garden, where tepary beans, wild corn, white wheat, and other plants grow on the site of an 18th-century walled garden that was once part of Tucson’s San Agustín Mission. The team here raises fruit trees, pollinator gardens, and native plants traditionally used for therapeutic purposes in addition to vegetables.

Tucson-based Native Seeds/SEARCH, co-founded by MacArthur Fellow and conservation scientist Gary Paul Nabhan, also preserves and promotes regional biodiversity. At the nonprofit’s seed library and store northeast of downtown, users can check out indigenous seeds to raise at home, then harvest and return fresh seeds at the end of the growing season. The shop stocks local snacks and gift items, as well.

To sample additional Southwestern flavors, order seasonal dishes by James Beard-winner Janos Wilder at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails. Area gardeners and farmers supply ingredients for the elevated American entrees here; desserts might incorporate sauces made of mezcal or spicy jalapeño-chocolate combinations.

For a more casual experience, consider the Welcome Diner on Broadway Boulevard. Housed in a restored, Googie-style building, this retro-cool spot serves hearty Southern fare made with regional elements. Expect playful flavors such as Game Day (Guinness-infused chocolate ice cream with chocolate-covered pretzels) and Sweet Cream Honeycomb at The Screamery, a scoop shop with four Tucson-area locations.

The city’s brewers tap into the local ingredient trend, too. For a recent batch of Saison de Juhki, John Adkisson and friends of his Iron John’s Brewing Company hand-harvested flowers from desert creosote bushes. Other releases have integrated dried chilis, masa from freshly picked corn, and palo santo, a tree native to neighboring Mexico. Borderlands Brewing Co. sources local prickly pear for its light, citrusy wheat beer, while Pueblo Vida Brewing’s Straight Talk IPA incorporates Sonoran white wheat from a farm about 20 miles away.

Public Brewhouse pours beer a few minutes from Pueblo Vida, in an old brick building just steps from Tucson Bike Tours. Jimmy Bultman started the company after trading his cubicle for a life of travel, which included meeting his wife while walking from Mexico to Canada. Today, Bultman leads a leisurely pedal through Tucson’s historic neighborhoods and dynamic Fourth Avenue district, sharing stories of the city’s past and introducing riders to the Sonoran hot dog. This bacon-wrapped, Mexican-American mash-up comes nestled in a toasted bun and smothered with beans, onions, tomatoes, mustard, mayonnaise, and spicy jalapeño salsa.

It’s one of many must-try items on any Tucson tasting tour.

When You Go

JW Marriott Starr Pass:  W. Starr Pass Blvd., 520-792-3500,

Mission Garden: 946 W. Mission Lane, 520-955-5200,

Tucson Bike Tours: 215 N. Hoff Ave., Suite 101, 520-488-4446,