Food Tales

These Restaurants Prove Why Tucson Was UNESCO's First City of Gastronomy

by Leora Novick
5 When you come to Tucson, come hungry. Photo courtesy of 5 Points Market and Restaurant.

After winning the title of the very first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2016, Tucson had a reputation to uphold. In the years since, the Arizona city has continued to thrive. The flavors of the Sonoran Desert and the Mexican heritage of many of its inhabitants blended with the Southwest style of cooking has created a multitude of flavors and restaurant options, from a vegan eatery whose tamales have a cult following to an heirloom wheat baker whose shop is sold out by noon every day. Whether you’re planning a weekend getaway or exploring Sonoran cuisine long-term, you’ll want to come hungry when you come to Tucson.

Tumerico

A local vegan eatery inspired by chef Wendy Garcia’s Mexican heritage and the surrounding Sonoran cuisine is a must, whether you’re vegan or a carnivore. Locations in the Tucson area include Tumerico Café on East 6th St. and the newer eatery La Chaiteria (Tumerico on 4th Ave. is temporarily closed) make it easy to grab a bite. The interiors are sparse, as the focus is clearly on the food, but the bold flavors more than make up for it. The self-proclaimed “scratch kitchen,” a term that describes restaurants that create everything from scratch (no pesky preservatives here!), serves a daily rotating menu based on seasonal produce, but the tamales are an icon for Tumerico regulars. Get the platter and enjoy the “powers” add-on of cabbage, salsa, cashew cream, beans, and rice.

Photo courtesy of Tumerico.
Photo courtesy of 5 Points Market & Restaurant.
5 Points Market & Restaurant Farmer's Market. Photo by Leora Novick.

5 Points Market & Restaurant

Located at the convergence of Five Points, a neighborhood named for its connection between five Tucson neighborhoods, 5 Points Market & Restaurant is already an institution in an area that is still emerging. On weekends, the eatery’s brunch offering is the most happening place in town. Bright, airy, and serving farm-to-table ingredients, you'll be hard pressed to find a better breakfast ambiance. On Sundays, brunch-goers have an additional incentive to visit: the restaurant’s hosted Farmer's Market in the park next door. Order huevos rancheros all week long and don’t miss the freshly squeezed juices. Planning a hike through the Sonoran Desert later? Stock up on trail snacks at the market in the back where you’ll be tempted by a variety of locally made products and produce.

Cafe Desta

Another Five Points neighborhood landmark, Cafe Desta is best visited with a group. The Ethiopian restaurant is a nice departure from the Mexican-influenced food you're sure to be eating during your trip, though the portions are just as large. Order the vegan signature plate, a collection of salads and spreads with chicken, lamb, or beef options for those that absolutely need their meat fix. Mop it all up with ambasha, the house-made bread, and a glass of juice fizz.

A feast at Cafe Desta. Photo by Jackie Tran.
Community baker Don Guerra. Photo of Leora Novick.

Barrio Bread

A 2019 James Beard Award Semifinalist (and Fathom contributor), Don Guerra is the most famous baker in Tucson (and quite possibly the entire state of Arizona). His one-room bakery has a line out the door every day, rain or shine, and he sells out by noon. His humble beginnings are local legend, from baking out of his garage to selling out of his van before graduating to his current location a few miles east of downtown. An educator for years, he continues that practice now through his own studies of heirloom wheat and through his community classes. Community is at the heart of everything he does, hence his self-proclaimed claim to be Tucson’s “community-supported baker.” A pioneer of the heritage grain movement, you can find dozens of varieties at his shop from Barrio Mesquite to Olive Fougasse. Just make sure to line up early.

El Charro Cafe

The oldest restaurant in the United States run by the same family, El Charro gets a bad rap as a tourist trap, but, at the end of the day, it is famous for good reason. True, there can be lines for a table, but this is Tucson, not New York, and things move quickly. While the wait may be tedious, the service is not. Friendly locals move quickly and efficiently, and it’s not long before you’ll be enjoying the Carne Seca platter, featuring their signature Sonoran sun-dried beef. For those that lean more plant-based, the restaurant has a designated vegan menu with hard to find options like chimichangas and empanadas.

Cocktail almost too pretty to drink. (Almost.) Photo courtesy of El Charro.
Nachos for everyone. Photo courtesy of El Charro.
Sichuan wings. Photo courtesy of Welcome Diner.

Welcome Diner

Legend has it that owner Sloane Mcfarland purchased this space through a Craigslist ad. Formerly the historic Chaffin’s Diner, Mcfarland put the space through a substantial renovation before unveiling as the midcentury style sequel to its Phoenix namesake. The result is a Googie-style 1960s diner-meets-bowling alley, with food and drink that are decidedly modern. The scratch kitchen serves seasonal touches and fresh takes on diner cuisine year-round. The restaurant is temporarily closed while they wait for construction in the area to be finished, but hopefully it will be open when you visit.

Red Light Lounge

The bar and restaurant located inside The Downtown Clifton hotel is the ideal spot for hobnobbing with locals. Highlights at the neighborhood watering hole include Night Cap, a savory blend of mezcal, cacao bourbon, amaro and bitters. Pair that with a large plate of loaded lounge fries and jackfruit carnitas, hold the cheese, and get ready for some great under-the-radar recommendations on the city.