Five Sonoran Specialties to Taste on Your Next Trip to Tucson

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Flight Network Foodie  

It’s no secret that Tucson is a hotspot on the Mexican food radar. The city claims to have the “best 23 miles of Mexican food” north of Mexico, and UNESCO recently recognized it as a World City of Gastronomy – the first in the United States. Tucson eateries serve up a regional variation of Mexican food known as Sonoran style. It’s influenced by the Mexican state of Sonora directly to Tucson’s south but has an American flare rooted deep in this Sonoran desert town.

“This is the purest form of Sonoran food,” said Chris DeSimone, a local radio personality who runs tours to showcase the area’s cuisine. “Once it hits New Mexico, it becomes New-Mexicanized.”

These foods are not fancy, and neither are the places that serve them, but they’re worth seeking out for a true taste of Tucson.

Sonoran hot dog

Photo: Christina Newberry
Photo: Christina Newberry

Split open a bolillo roll baked fresh in town and stuff it with a bacon-wrapped wiener. Top the whole thing with beans, onions, tomatoes, sauces, and whatever you add from the self-serve condiment buffet and you’ve got yourself a Sonoran hot dog. Sound like a mouthful? It is, and you’ll need a few paper napkins to get through it. It’s worth the mess you’ll make of your face.

Try it at: El Guero Canelo

Chimichanga

Essentially a deep-fried burrito, this uniquely southwest dish is the source of local controversy. That’s because restaurants in both Tucson and Phoenix lay claim to its invention, while others say it came straight from Mexico. Whatever its origins, the chimichanga has become a Sonoran speciality. Although it’s usually stuffed with meat, vegetarian versions are available – as are dessert versions stuffed with apple pie or apricot jam.

Try it at: El Charro Cafe

Raspado

Photo: Christina Newberry
Photo: Christina Newberry

This sweet summer treat is the Mexican version of a snow cone. Featuring shaved ice,  syrup and vanilla ice cream or sweetened condensed milk, it’s topped with fresh local fruit, nuts or Mexican candy. For a more Tucson twist, try tamarind syrup or top it with chili powder and lime.

Try it at: Oasis Fruit Cones

Cheese crisp

A large, thin flour tortilla covered in cheese, the cheese crisp is like a crunchy Mexican pizza. Toppings can include meat, shrimp, or vegetables, but the classic version is straight-up cheese, sometimes with green chiles. Sound like it might lack flavour? Keep in mind that the tortilla is usually crisped by frying it in butter.

Try it at: El Merendero, topped with shrimp

Mesquite-smoked whiskey

15-Hamilton2
Photo: Christina Newberry

While mesquite-smoked whiskey may have no influence from Mexican food, it belongs on this list as a uniquely Tucson spirit made, according to distiller Stephen Paul, “as a reflection of the Sonoran desert.” Whereas Scotch whiskey’s barley is malted over a peat fire, Paul malts the barley for his Whiskey del Bac with local mesquite, giving it a smoky flavour straight out of the southwest.

Try it at: Hamilton Distillers. Online reservation required.

About the Author: Christina Newberry

Christina Newberry is a Vancouver-based freelance travel and lifestyle writer. When she's not travelling, Christina can be found in her community garden plot or exploring Vancouver's unique neighbourhoods. Connect with her atchristinanewberry.com.

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