Is Tucson the best city for Mexican food in the US?
Surrounded by cattle ranches and desert, Tucson, in Arizona, is home to a large Mexican-American community — many of whom have roots in the state of Sonora, just south of the border.
Pretending to nurse a long-finished cup of coffee, I lurk on a bar stool inside Tucson’s Mercado San Agustin, my eyes trained on the small sweet shop across the way. I’m starting to feel like a predator stalking its prey. My mark? The Sonoran coyota: a flaky, golden-brown pastry that can be filled with anything from whole cane sugar to caramelised goat’s milk.
The woman working the counter at Dolce Pastello has told me a fresh supply will be here shortly. Having already polished off a few coyotas here yesterday, I shamelessly eavesdrop on her phone conversations to learn exactly when I might score some more. At some point, I’ve surmised, a call will come from a coyota-bearing man in the car park, who’ll need help getting inside.
Until then, I watch and I wait, determined not to fall prey to the market’s other distractions: the earthy scent of fire-roasted chillies wafting from the taco shop with the queue out the door; the hypnotic spirals of powdered cinnamon adorning the rice milk horchata in so many shoppers’ hands; and the periodic whir of the machine heralding fresh batches of shaved ice, each mound a blank canvas for the rainbow of lime, mango, pineapple and tamarind syrups behind the counter.
The scene is actually a microcosm of the very thing that’s brought me back to these dusty southwestern borderlands and to Tucson, home to the so-called ‘best 23 miles of Mexican food in the US’. I grew up in this southern Arizona university town of around 550,000 people and, while some of its charms — like the mountain ranges that cradled our saguaro-studded valley; the sunbaked adobe houses that lined the Barrio Viejo; and the creosote that suffused the desert floor after every biblical monsoon — weren’t lost on me, the quality of the cuisine never quite registered before I headed east for college and adulthood.
I’d never even heard of coyotas — or countless other local specialities — until sudden foodie fame struck the area in 2015, when UNESCO named Tucson a City of Gastronomy, the first such designation awarded anywhere in the US. Various factors impressed the judges, starting with native crops that date back 4,000 years, but the local Mexican food was surely the clincher.
I didn’t grow up entirely unaware of Tucson’s Mexican food scene, of course, nor of its roots in the state of Sonora, just across the international border, an hour’s drive south. Like many Tucsonans (around 40% of whom claim Mexican heritage), I was reared on a Sonoran staple: flour tortillas, some shellacked in bubbling cheese, others folded around rice and beans, best eaten straight from a still-steaming bakery bag.
“The flour tortilla is the marker of Sonoran identity,” says anthropologist Maribel Alvarez, director of the National Folklife Network and associate dean for community engagement at the University of Arizona’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. And while I love this concept, the tortillas of my childhood were mostly mass-produced, soggy supermarket versions, rather than the stuff of rhapsody. So, to taste the real thing, I’ve come to Anita St Market. This family-run shop — the kind of place you might struggle to find if its aroma weren’t so heady — serves some of the biggest tortillas in town. Measuring 14 inches across, as shown on the diagram behind the counter, they’re the size of large pizzas. These rounds of flour, water, vegetable shortening and salt — known as sobaqueras — are stretched the full length of the artisan’s arm to reach suitably epic proportions. Then, after a couple of minutes on a blazing griddle, they emerge airy, chewy, stretchy and ever so subtly blistered.
There may come a time when — like the man next to me, who’s driven across town for the red chilli and potato burro (similar to a burrito) — I can exhibit enough restraint to order a filling and wait for assembly. But not today. Instead, I go for the plain, griddle-to-gullet version of the house tortillas, each soft, steamy bite a near-religious experience — although perhaps not the sort the conquistadors once had in mind, as Maribel tells me.
“The Spanish, from the first arrival, brought wheat with them for one simple reason: the Eucharist. You couldn’t do mission work without bringing wheat,” she says. But then, you see wheat begin to express itself in culinary tastes — first in the flour tortilla — and it still defines the region’s cultural identity.”
Indeed, thanks in part to Sonora’s warm winter days and periodically drizzly winter nights, the state still produces the majority of Mexico’s wheat today.
These borderlands are also very much cattle country. And while some working ranches near Tucson remain (imagine weathered, wooden corrals run by cowboys on the desert-like outskirts of town), the Mexican side is home to the serious beef business. Sonora ranks among the top cattle-raising states in Mexico, and has the sartorial sensibilities to match. The gentlemen’s vaquero style — “big buckles, creased jeans, beautiful leather boots, sombreros,” says Maribel — is still going strong, having descended from the 19th-century charro (a traditional horseman).
Taking inspiration from that image, a woman named Monica Flin opened El Charro cafe in Tucson in 1922 and, in so doing, founded what would become the city’s — and the nation’s — oldest Mexican restaurant in continuous operation by the same family. Housed in the 19th-century building that was once Monica’s home, the Downtown location (one of four El Charro outposts in the city) is a local landmark. Almost every Tucsonan has celebrated one occasion or another here. As if to underscore the point, the table next to mine on the palm-flanked patio is filled with at least a dozen reuniting University of Arizona alumni. But while most have likely come for the signature carne seca (the Sonoran-style marinated lean angus beef that’s currently suspended and sun-drying overhead in a custom-built cage), I’m here for something else: an indoctrination into the cult of caldo de queso.
A fiery, milky broth that’s a blend of cheese, potatoes, chillies, tomatoes and onions, this Sonoran classic has managed to elude me until now. Only during Tucson’s recent rise to gastronomic stardom did I start hearing about the dish, most notably when Gustavo Arellano — the famously food-obsessed Los Angeles Times columnist and author of Taco USA — declared the city’s caldo de queso his ‘favourite soup of all time’. When my order arrives, I tell myself to make it last, but one spoonful of the creamy, melty concoction and I can’t stop. The bowl is practically empty by the time the waiter returns with the iced tea refill I requested not even three minutes ago. I wait until he leaves again before tipping the last few drops into my mouth.
As it approaches its centenary, El Charro continues to evolve, most recently in partnership with another local icon: Don Guerra, owner of the heritage grain-championing — and UNESCO judge-dazzling — artisan bakery Barrio Bread. The result of this joint venture is Barrio Charro restaurant, an adobe-inspired outpost near the city’s very occasionally flowing Rillito River — and I’ve been told the tlayuda tostadas (toasted tortillas served with a variety of toppings) aren’t to be missed.
Pulling up to Barrio Charro, I notice a celebratory-looking crowd on the patio and, approaching the door, I spot an abundance of balloons, bouquets and presents inside. It transpires I’ve just gatecrashed the 75th birthday party of Carlotta Flores, the legendary matriarch of El Charro. Ever the gracious hostess, she ushers me in, insisting the event is an open-house affair.
I should probably be too ashamed to accept the tlayuda tostada she offers — and I should definitely be too ashamed to monopolise the honouree. But, before I know it, I’m devouring a bean-, cheese-, onion- and squash-smothered corn tortilla as Carlotta regales me with stories of her aunt Monica, El Charro’s founding chef, who married the same man six times, concealed margaritas in teacups during Prohibition and kept up a conversation with the resident parakeet while running the family restaurant.
In honour of those early days, I learn, El Charro will be bringing back a few vintage offerings for a special centennial menu, from costillas de puerco (marinated pork ribs) to pipián de gallina (chicken with a seeded mole sauce). The team have also been collecting stories from patrons and staff in the lead-up to the anniversary, including one about an almendrado (almond meringue) that was added to the menu in the 1940s, when an employee agreed to share her family recipe with Monica.
Meanwhile, at Boca Tacos y Tequila, chef Maria Mazon may not be commemorating a century in business, but she has plenty to celebrate. Having made the final five in TV cooking competition Top Chef: Portland, and having won the show’s fearsome Restaurant Wars challenge, she’s expanding her restaurant on Fourth Avenue to include Sona Tortilleria y Bodega, where she’ll sell Mexican kitchen supplies and tortillas to take home. Born in Tucson and raised in Sonora, Maria would have a loyal following even if she stuck to purely regional influences. Her macho taco, for example — a cheesy combination of carne asada (grilled, sliced beef) and Anaheim chilli that nods to her hometown of Navojoa — has the woman next to me ordering seconds before the first has even gone. But Maria’s addition of global influences is what sets her apart.
“On [Top Chef], I was adding fish sauce and sesame to a mole — if an old lady from Mexico City had seen that, she would’ve hit me with a wooden spoon,” Maria says. But it was this kind of risk-taking that helped propel her to victory. The same might be said of the dishes I’m devouring at her restaurant: tacos of grilled cauliflower in a madras curry, orange zest and coriander oil; a mushroom-based chorizo; and the famous, ever-changing flights of chips and salsa. Today, Maria’s signature chips are paired with everything from Mexican chipotle salsa to Asian peanut sauce. On the one hand, she says, “I’m going to give you a true Mexican experience — and that’s beautiful.” But, equally, she adds, “I’m going to make you a salsa that can be influenced by Indian cuisine, by Japanese cuisine or by Italian cuisine.” And that, I can confirm, is beautiful, too.
While Mexican desserts like tres leches cakes, orejas (puff pastry cookies) and conchas (sweet bread rolls) abound in Tucson, specifically Sonoran sweets are harder to find. But I’ve been determined to track down those coyotas. They’re a staple of the city of Hermosillo, three hours’ south of the border, yet elusive in Tucson. According to Maribel, “They’re still very much an artisanal industry in Sonora — and if you live in Tucson, you’re likely talking about someone bringing them to you from Hermosillo.”
I have, however, found a local vendor: Dolce Pastello. When I stopped by yesterday, owner Aide Almazan told me she had two kinds in stock: pineapple and pumpkin. For the record, I’m grateful for any coyotas, and the pineapple in particular was transcendent. Still, I’d been disappointed not to find the traditional cane sugar-filled variety — and when Aide said she’d try to get some in for me, my stalking began.
Finally, as I sit waiting, I see her phone light up with what has to be the long-awaited call: the man I need is outside, so I jump from my bar stool and accompany Aide to the carpark. The man, who just so happens to be Aide’s stepfather, doesn’t know what’s hit him as I take custody of the basket that his wife, baker Maria Ofilia Almazan Serecer, has sent him here with.
Apologising for my behaviour, I take my spoils to a countertop, where I paw through them like a jackal. Caramel? Great! Strawberry? Why not? More pineapple? I’ll take them. But the cane sugar is nowhere to be found. Then I look to the counter and see Aide has set some aside for me. Wasting no time, I peel back the protective plastic. Just past the rich, flaky surface, my teeth sink into the whole cane sugar filling. I’ve seen the ingredient — which looks a little like a solid lump of crystallised honey — in Mexican stores, but never imagined how pliant it could be, nor how ethereal it could taste. Had I known, I might never have left Tucson in the first place.
Five foods to try in Tucson
Sonoran hot dog: El Guero Canelo’s take on this snack — a bacon-wrapped sausage topped with beans, onions, jalapeño sauce, mustard and mayo, tucked into a soft bolillo bun — won an America’s Classics Award from the James Beard Foundation in 2018. It’s since become one of the city’s most iconic foods.
Horchata: This refreshing rice drink is served at Mexican joints citywide, but among the few to make it from scratch is Seis Kitchen, where the queue is often as impressive as the beverage. The horchata, blended after the rice has been bathed in cinnamon for 24 hours, is well worth the wait.
Carne asada: This thinly sliced and grilled (ideally over mesquite-fuelled flames) beef is the stuff of weekend gatherings in backyards and quick fixes at local taquerias. For the latter, head to local favourite Tacos Apson and order the taco de carne asada al carbon.
Tamales: Essentially just husk-wrapped steamed corn dough with whatever extras you choose, this is the kind of comfort food that everyone’s abuelita (granny) irrefutably makes best. At Tanias ‘33’ Mexican Food, the tamales stand out for both their flavour and range — options include a vegan hibiscus variety.
Raspados: Sometimes known as Mexican snow cones, these desserts tend to go far beyond just shaved ice and fruit syrup. Elevating the artform are such standouts as Oasis Fruit Cones, where the add-ons include condensed milk, chilli powder and tamarind sticks.
Recipe: El Charro’s caldo de queso
Roughly cut potatoes and melted cheese make this a soul-satisfying soup. It can be refrigerated for use the next day or frozen for later.
Takes: 45 mins
4 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
700ml beef or vegetable stock
8 fresh Anaheim chillies, or other mild chillies, roasted and finely chopped
1 medium white onion, sliced
300ml milk or evaporated milk
2 large tomatoes, coarsely chopped
115g cubed or grated longhorn cheese, crumbled Mexican cheese or grated cheddar
1. Put the potatoes and 1.2 litres of cold water in a 7.5-litre pan. Set over a high heat until boiling, then lower to a brisk simmer and cook the potatoes until soft, around 10 mins.
2. Scoop out the potatoes from the pan using a slotted spoon and set them aside. Add the stock to the potatoes’ cooking water and bring to a boil.
3. Add the chillies to taste (reserving some for additional heat later, if you like), along with the onion, milk and 1 tsp salt (or to taste) and simmer for 10 mins.
4. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more chilli, if you like.
5. Tip in the cooked potatoes and the tomatoes and simmer for around 10 mins more. To serve, divide the cheese between six warm bowls and top with the soup.
British Airways flies from Heathrow to Phoenix, Arizona, where you can hire a car for the 90-minute drive or take a 45-minute connecting flight. Carriers including American Airlines and Virgin Atlantic offer one-stop services from the UK to Tucson.
Where to stay
The Downtown Clifton hotel, with its in-house lounge serving modern Sonoran cuisine, has doubles from $139 (£101). JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa offers access to Tucson Mountain Park and has Mexican dishes on the menu; doubles from $294 (£214).
How to do it
Expedia has a week in Tucson in March 2022 from £962 per person, including room-only at Best Western Royal, Sun Inn & Suites and indirect flights with Delta/Virgin Atlantic.
Published in Issue 14 (winter 2021) of National Geographic Traveller Food (UK)
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