Summer Guide: Trek to Tucson

Tucson is cool. That's "cool" in the literal sense — Tucson is a bit higher in elevation than the Valley and tends not to push the mercury level quite as high (it's generally 5 to 10 degrees cooler) — and in the figurative sense. Home to more than just the Sonoran Desert Museum and a world-class college basketball program, Tucson is packed with quirky destinations and it's less than two hours from the Valley.

EAT

• The Tucson Tamale Company (2545 E. Broadway Blvd., 520-305-4760, www.tucsontamalecompany.com) opened last year in an old strip mall on Broadway, near the old Pima County Democratic Party headquarters. It has quickly earned a reputation as the best purveyor of masa-filled corn husks in southern Arizona. This isn't a typical tamale joint. It's more a dedicated tamale factory with some tables and charming, locally made art lining the walls. Think of a Mexican restaurant designed with the exacting eye of an engineer (in fact, the proprietor is a former IT professional). Both meat and vegan options are available. The menu changes constantly, but the Arizona, with slow-roasted sirloin and chipotle, and the Wisconsin, with four types of cheese, are consistent favorites.

Downtown Tucson: Darn cool.
Jamie Peachey
Downtown Tucson: Darn cool.
Jamie Peachey

• Until now, only locals have known about Roma Imports (627 S. Vine Ave., 520-792-3173, www.romaimports.com), and even they have a tough time finding this tiny Italian bakery/deli/importer/caterer. Once you sample a hot Italian sausage sandwich from the deli, or taste one of their spectacular tiramisus, you'll be thankful you made the voyage. The helpful staff will happily instruct you on the virtues of the many olive oils available. Ask about the special feasts they prepare on holidays, solstices, and other special occasions.

• Biosphere 2 is kinda played out as a tourist destination. Gelato, on the other hand, will never go out of style. So if you're heading up to Oracle to visit this overblown greenhouse (from Phoenix, take I-10 East to exit 185 on Highway 387 to Highway 79 to Oracle Junction on Highway 77, and look for the Biosphere 2 signs), or if you're just looking to take a long drive up north, stop by Frost Gelato (7131 N. Oracle Rd., Suite 101, 520-797-0188, www.frostgelato.com). The master chef, Nazario Melchionda, is an Italian import who received a rare work visa based on his extraordinary ability in the art of gelato. Dozens of flavors await you, and free samples are available. Frost even offers catering should you decide to plan a spontaneous gelato picnic party.

SHOP

Caravanserai opened this spring, just off Fourth Avenue in downtown Tucson (408 E. Seventh St., 520-207-3304, www.caravanserai-tucson.com). The proprietor specializes in fair-trade crafts from around the world, but primarily from Morocco, India, and Southeast Asia. Looking for an authentic Moroccan tagine dish or dyed leather lamp? Or perhaps a set of vegetable finger puppets knitted from Andean alpaca? Every item in this tiny shop has a story, and the owner, an avid traveler and former graduate student in India, will happily regale you with them.

• Walking into Bohemia (2920 E. Broadway Blvd., 520-882-0800, www.bohemiatucson.com) is like stumbling into a Peter Gabriel video. This emporium of clothing, knick-knacks, and fine art exhibits sells the work of local artists. Looking to enliven your patio? Take a look at Bohemia's substantial collection of esoteric art furniture, like an exquisite set of chicken-shaped garden benches. Have something smaller in mind? Examine their array of Battlestar Galactica-themed T-shirts, handbags made of recycled materials, or magnets that pay tribute to the signage of departed Tucson landmarks. Bohemia is one of those shops packed with items you never knew you needed.

• A fixture in south Tucson, Le Cave's Bakery (1219 S. Sixth Ave., 520-624-2561) has been open since 1935 and serves some of the best Mexican pastries you'll find north of Sonora. It also makes cakes to order. Housed in an inauspicious white building in an industrial area on the cusp of Tucson's colorful barrio, this is the place for a uniquely Southwestern sugar fix. Assuming you haven't already stuffed yourself with Indian fry bread during the inevitable voyage to the San Xavier del Bac cathedral, that is. The cathedral (1950 W. San Xavier Rd., 520-294-2624, www.sanxaviermission.org) is one of the oldest Catholic missions in the country and well worth visiting.

PLAY

The Loft Cinema (3233 E. Speedway Blvd., 520-322-5638, www.loftcinema.com) is a local non-profit theater that runs arthouse fare, grindhouse kitsch, and Rocky Horror sing-alongs. But on the first Friday of each month, the Loft becomes Tucson's own version of the Gong Show. Local cartoonist Max Cannon, creator of Red Meat, hosts the event. The ground rules are simple: Anyone can submit a 15-minute film for viewing, but each participant is guaranteed only three minutes of screen time. After that, they are thrown to the mercy of the raucous, largely intoxicated audience. If they call for the gong, your film is over. Don't fear: Each film is subject to constructive criticism from Cannon and the audience. Okay, they mostly spew jokes and insults, but the occasional constructive remark does surface. Even if you're not a wanna-be Tarantino, First Friday at the loft is a great place to get drunk and loud in a quasi-artistic setting.

• Perched atop Mount Lemmon, northeast of Tucson, the small community of Summerhaven (from I-10, head east on Grant to Tanque Verde, then turn left on Catalina Highway; follow it to the Mount Lemmon Highway and watch for the signs) was devastated by wildfires in 2003. But it has rebounded with great success, thanks to the generosity of Tucson residents. Enjoy the significantly lower temperature (30-40 degrees cooler than Phoenix, on average) and the excellent hiking trails. Or if you're feeling less athletic, go to the Mt. Lemmon Cafe (open only Friday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., 12976 N. Sabino Canyon Pkwy, 520-576-1234, www.mtlemmoncafe.com) to enjoy some of the tastiest pie in the area.

• Right next to the Pima County Legal Services building is a hip taco joint called Chileverde (20 N. Stone Ave., 520-792-8226). During the day, the Tucson legal elite meet there to eat carne asada and talk shop. But at night, Chileverde mutates into Centro, a stylish discotheque. The owners cleverly convert the alley behind the building into an ultramodern patio and dance floor. The Centro logo is projected high up the side of the legal services building, acting as a beacon for the nightlife crowd. Centro features both local and guest DJs, and a wide variety of electronic music. Leave those baggy pants at home; Centro is a classy place, and the dress code (collared shirts and slacks for men) is enforced.

• A longtime fixture on hip Fourth Avenue, Plush (340 E. Sixth St., 520-798-1298, www.plushtucson.com) is the perfect spot to catch Tucson bands as well as touring national acts. The bars at this intimate lounge are well stocked with beer and high-quality spirits. The place radiates a gentle, unpretentious lounge lizard vibe. There are free shows early in the week; ticket prices generally range from $5 to $8 for bigger acts, and most shows feature two or three bands. On any given night you might see the next Kings of Leon or White Stripes.

The Shelter (4155 E. Grant Rd., 520-326-1345) opened when Kennedy was president, and if you were to walk into this central Tucson bar today, you'd think he was still in the Oval Office. The walls of the Shelter are lined with JFK tchotchkes, from velvet paintings to conventional portraits to eerie plasticine bas-reliefs with embedded, glowing eyes. There's a pool table and a lengthy list of specialty drinks. Grab a booth, bring some friends, order an Alien Secretion (Malibu, melon liqueur, and pineapple juice) or a Tea Bag (Stoli strawberry, raspberry liqueur, cranberry juice, and fresh lime), and enjoy one of the Steve McQueen movies that play on the bar's TV.

STAY

Most people casually acquainted with Tucson know about Hotel Congress (311 E. Congress St., 520-622-8848, www.hotelcongress.com), but few know about Roadrunner Hostel (346 E. 12th St., 520-628-4709, www.roadrunnerhostelinn.com), a bungalow for the budget-conscious located just off of Fifth Avenue, south of Congress. The Roadrunner is a converted private residence built at the turn of the 20th century. The walls outside are covered in murals and ceramic collages, provided by itinerant artists in exchange for free lodging. There's dorm lodging at $20 per night, and private rooms are just $40. The kitchen supplies free waffle breakfasts and enough coffee makers to support a traveling jam band, plus extended entourage. Located minutes from the Rialto Theater and Hotel Congress, it's the perfect layover spot for Valley dwellers who want to catch an evening show.

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