If you do an internet search of the “best authentic Mexican food in Tucson”, you are going to get pointed in the direction of some pretty amazing restaurants where the food definitely lives up to the hype but are so popular, that you probably are looking at a long wait. Definitely worth it if you have the time, but why not try some of the lesser-known, tried, and true local favorites, the unsung heroes of the Mexican food scene here in Tucson. You can trust me…I am an 8th-generation Tucsonan; my roots go back to Juan Cristosomo Ramirez who was a captain in the Army at the Presidio of Tubac, but that’s not what makes me an expert. I’m an expert because I have been enjoying this food. My. Whole. Life! Now here we go…vamos!
Best Sonoran Dog: El Guero Canelo
“Guero” as we say in our family is always the first stop on the way home from the airport when my kids come home for a visit. (And most likely, the last stop we make on their way to catch their return flight.) But first, you have to know what sets a Sonoran dog apart from a regular hot dog other than it must be experienced to be believed. Done well, they are a masterpiece; heck, even done poorly, they are delicious. A Sonoran dog is a hotdog, wrapped in bacon, (Yes! Wrapped in bacon!) grilled, and then nestled into a “bolillo” roll topped with beans, grilled and fresh onion, tomato, mayo, mustard with a drizzle of jalapeno sauce. Don’t forget to get a Mexican Coke and visit the accompaniments bar to get the grilled onion, jalapenos, and avocado sauce (my daughter’s favorite) to complete the experience.
Best Street Taco: Carne Asada Tacos at BK’s Tacos
A “street” taco is a small tortilla, usually, corn, stuffed with meat, and topped with onions cilantro, and salsa; you don’t usually see lettuce, tomatoes, or cheese in traditional street tacos. And BK’s, using traditional preparation, cooks the meat to perfection over a mesquite fire which takes these tacos to the next level. They even have a food truck that is a staple of the Tucson backyard party scene. Everyone makes sure to RSVP “yes” when invited to a celebration where they are sure they will arrive and see the BK’s taco truck pulled up. Carne Asada tacos are their main thing but the chicken and carnitas are also a thing of beauty.
Best Cheese Crisp and Margarita: Casa Molina on Speedway
This recommendation is a two-for-one. Casa Molina is located on the east side of town near where I grew up and I have been going there with my grandparents, parents, and kids for as long as I can remember. I don’t think we have ever not ordered a “cheese crisp, half chili half cheese”. Think Mexican pizza but oh so much better. You can get them with just bubbling cheese on a crisp tortilla or topped with roasted green Hatch chilies. I’m sure there are other toppings, but we are a family of purists. While there, if you’re game, order a margarita (or better yet, a pitcher of margaritas); they are a thing of legend. Buy me one and I’ll tell you some stories!
Best Mexican Seafood: Crudo, Mariscos Chihuahua, and El Berraco
When you think of the food scene in Southern Arizona, I’m sure seafood isn’t the first thing that comes to mind but visit any one of these three establishments and prepare to be enlightened. On a hot summer day, there is nothing like a cool refreshing “aguachiles”, fresh shrimp marinated in chili peppers, lime juice, salt, and cilantro, and mixed with slices of cucumber and onion. If it is fresh, crisp seafood with Latin flair that you are looking for, you can’t go wrong with any of these three restaurants. Crudo is located minutes from the inn in downtown Tucson; El Berraco is unique in that the restaurant itself is reminiscent of a shiny submarine and Mariscos has many locations throughout the city.
Best Tortillas: La Mesa Tortillas
Now, my kids all turned out to be pretty great humans but when it comes to tortillas, they are straight-up, unapologetic snobs. Nothing but La Mesa will do. As a matter of fact, as I write this blog, four dozen flour street-taco-sized tortillas are on their way to Germany to replenish my daughter’s stash. While you are there, you may want to check out their red chili beef. Hmmm…worth the trip for that alone come to think of it.
Best Green Corn Tamales: Leruas/El Torero
Green corn tamales are a regional favorite, a staple, and a featured dish at many a Christmas Eve dinner buffets, my family’s included. And unless you made them yourself or had someone who loved you enough to make them for you themselves, you would go to Lerua’s to buy them for your family celebration. Sadly, due to an infrastructure improvement project, Leruas has closed (hopefully only temporarily) but you can still get the same authentic tamale from the same family at their restaurant, El Torero, located only blocks from The Armory Park Inn.
Best Calabasitas (Traditional Sauteed Vegetables): The Little One
Once a satellite restaurant to the much larger fixture in the Tucson Mexican food scene, Café Poca Cosa, The Little One is the only Davila Family establishment remaining after they decided to close Café Poca Cosa’s doors not long into the pandemic. While Tucson mourns the loss of Café Poca Cosa, we can find comfort in a visit to “The Little One” when we are jonesing for some “calabasitas”, squash sauteed with onions, tomatoes, green chilies and topped with cheese. Bonus tip: their chips and salsa are some of the best in town!
Best Vegetarian Mexican Food: Tumerico
There is no other restaurant in town that even comes close to providing a true Mexican food experience for the vegetarian than Tumerico. I am an unabashed, card-carrying carnivore and find myself craving their Cuban jack fruit carnitas tacos and their Ropa Vieja Plate. There are also a plethora of vegan and gluten-free options available, so no one has to miss out on this one-of-a-kind dining experience.
Best Albondigas (Meatball Soup): El Minuto
There really are few things that make me happier on a cold winter day (and in Tucson, by cold, I mean maybe 50 degrees!) than a steaming bowl of Albondigas served with a hot, flour tortilla. And I thank my lucky stars that the best bowl of that regional favorite can be found only a short way from the inn at El Minuto Cafe. Albondigas is directly translated as “meatball” but for those of us that speak fluent Mexican food, the soup is referred to as simply “albondigas”. You will find lots of variations on the dish but I find their version pure and perfect…the meatballs are hearty, and the broth provides the perfect amount of heat with not much more fuss than some squash and carrots and rice.
Best Place to Stay for a Foodie Getaway
Turn your outing into a foodie getaway with a stay at our historic bed and breakfast in downtown Tucson. Each overnight stay includes a delicious Southwest-inspired breakfast, luxury amenities and so much more. So if you’re smart, you will avail yourself of my nearly six decades of perfecting the art of eating and head out to experience some of the best authentic Mexican food in Tucson!