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In 2015, Tucson was named a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, after charred corn kernels were discovered in an archaeological site from over 4,000 years ago – giving the Arizona city the longest continual agricultural history in the United States. Of course, such an illustrious designation isn’t based on corn alone. The growing desert city is a unique mix of Southern, Mexican and indigenous ingredients. An "Arizona terroir"? Yes – many, in fact.
Even before the designation, local chefs were starting to incorporate more native and local ingredients, said April Bourie of the Presidio San Agustín del Tucson Museum’s food tours. The main difference is that now chefs, mixologists and food entrepreneurs of the little-big town are beaming with pride. Lines of local prickly pear syrups are showing up in cocktails; baker Don Guerra of Barrio Bread is selling loaves made with heirloom Sonoran wheat; farmer’s markets and gardens are teaching visitors how to roast sweet agave hearts and cook seasonal cholla buds from sustainably harvested native succulents.
From agricultural history to creative dining, Tucson is making a name for itself. “It’s like a big small town,” said Bourie. “People wave to each other and smile. It’s more relaxed than bigger cities like Phoenix or Los Angeles. But it’s got a lot of culture and history, and those things are important for us to value.” And to think, it all started with charred corn.
Exploring Arizona's Indigenous Ingredients
“Even before the first Mesoamerican crops such as corn and beans and squash arrived at least 4,000 years ago, the indigenous people, the Tohono O'odham, were harvesting wild foods from the desert thousands of years before that,” said Dr. Jonathan B. Mabry, a key figure behind the UNESCO designation along with anthropologist and ethnobiologist Gary Nabhan. Those wild foods included (and still include) cactus buds, fruits and pads.
On the hunt to discover the area’s Spanish roots, drive south to the San Xavier Co-op Farm, located next to the Mission founded by intrepid Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Francisco Kino. Padre Kino introduced old-world fruit trees including figs, pomegranates and quinces to the native people in the 1690s. “He may have also introduced citrus and he probably introduced grape vines,” said Mabry, “but his most important introductions were wheat and cattle because those were winter crops. So suddenly there were two harvests a year for the Tohono O’odham, which made all the difference for not starving in the Sonoran Desert.”
The Co-op Farm next to the adobe-built Mission sells flours from heirloom corn and smoky-sweet mesquite, cactus syrups, homemade preserves and dried cholla buds as well as fresh squash and other vegetables from the farm. “Cholla buds are the buds of wild cactus that have been foraged for thousands of years,” says Mabry. “In late summer, you can harvest the fruit from the same cactus.” The dried buds can be made into a tomato salsa or infused into a sweet-and-sour herbal tea while the fruit is made into sweet wine for O’odham ceremonies.
San Xavier Co-op Farm
8100 Oidak Wog, Tucson
Back in town, Native Seeds/SEARCH sells many of the same heirloom flours, cornmeals and seeds, as well as a collection of cookbooks, packaged white and blue corn posole, pure prickly pear juice, hibiscus syrups and glass bottles of chiltepin chile water made with the only wild chile native to United States – an incredibly hot, small circular pepper sometimes called the “mother of all chiles.”
3061 N Campbell Ave., Tucson
Where to eat in Town
Tucson’s Mexican, Central and South American influences are seen in its abundance of tacos, quesadillas, tamales, ceviches, and burritos. Try the Chicken tinga and poc chuc with chipotle crema and freshly roasted salsa roja at Seis Kitchen, the open-air courtyard and popular happy hour destination in the Mercado San Agustín.
Mercado San Augustin
130 Avenida del Convento, #130, Tucson
Always in the Mercado San Augustin, on the restaurant side, diners are appreciating cornmeal-crusted fresh nopales salads with avocado crema and tomato aioli and Arizona grass-fed filet mignon at Agustín Kitchen.
Mercado San Augustin
100 South Avenida del Convento Ste. 150, Tucson
Go to Downtown Kitchen and Cocktails for an amazing crispy calamari salad with Spanish peanuts and green chile vinaigrette followed by line-caught, barely flaking cabrilla in posole corn broth with roasted tomatillo salsa. Paired with a glass of natural wine or a cocktail like the Tucson lemonade (Whiskey, lemon juice, sage syrup and a hibiscus float) or Prickly pear mojito (rum, prickly pear syrup, mint and lime), it all goes down easy.
Downtown Kitchen and Cocktails
135 S 6th Ave, Tucson
You can also try an amazing dish of shrimp with Mezquite roasted Pima grits and hormone-and antibiotic-free chorizo gravy at Welcome Diner.
902 E Broadway Blvd, Tucson
On a Sunday morning, however, head to the Rillito Farmer’s Market to buy bags of flame-torched poblano, pasilla and sweet red peppers and to dig into beans, cheese and chicken-stuffed Venezuelan pupusas with cabbage and carrot curtido from Selena’s Salvadorian Food. Other market favourites include the roasted serrano tomato salsa from Mi Salsa, aged prickly pear balsamic vinegar from A Taste of Arizona and the organic Arizona Sweets (aka Diller oranges) from Desert Treasures – through the line for the oranges often requires a monk’s level of patience.
The Rillito Park Heirloom Farmer’s Market
4502 N 1st Ave., Tucson
Open every Sunday 8am-noon (Apr.-Sept.), 9am-1pm (Oct.-Mar.)
Where to have a drink
While upscale dining is relatively young here compared to other major cities, Tucson doesn’t lack for sophisticated snacking or sipping. At R Bar, adjacent to the Rialto Theater, sample a Pet Nat from Maine on tap, or choose a biodynamic wine from the shortlist. There are also microbrews and expertly made Old Fashioneds (with Arizona whisky, of course).
350 E Congress St #110, Tucson
You can also pick up a natural, biodynamic or organic bottle from the racks at Time Market and stay for a glass of Cava Brut Nature and a wood-fired pizza with house-made fennel sausage or a roasted chicken and tamal sandwich on sourdough at the bar.
444 E University Blvd., Tucson
You might not think of Arizona as a producer of excellent wine, but Sand Reckoner Winery is making believers of us all. At its tasting room in Tucson’s downtown arts warehouse district, taste the 2014 Red Tree Ranch Syrah, an elegant Northern Rhône-style wine made with grapes grown on a one-acre parcel of volcanic soil in the Chiricahua Foothills at 5,000 feet. The hands-off winemaking technique, cool winters followed by warm summers, and sandy loam and limestone soils result in a delicate wine that opens slowly. Other standouts include the 2015 Rhumb Line Tempranillo – a balance of spice, tannins and sweetness that doesn’t overflow into the fruit you’d expect from the nose – and the 2016 Vermentino, a glass of freshness that you’d imagine drinking on a Greek island while staring at Mediterranean waves.
Sand-Reckoner Tasting Room
510 N 7th Ave., #170, Tucson
If you prefer your spirits distilled, head to EXO Bar for a taste of Bacanora – “the moonshine of Sonora, Mexico,” says Mabry. The hard-to-find Mezcal has only recently become available for sale in the US. The bar also curates its agave-based liquors by region, rarity, type of agave and production method. Sip the El Jolgorio Arroqueno, described as an “elegant, smoke-enveloped fruit bowl” or the La Venenosa Etnica Tutsi, of which only 60 bottles were produced.
403 N 6th Ave.