In case you haven't already heard, Tucson has a lot more to offer than drunk college students and mouthwatering border cuisine. In fact, our neighbors to the south are fostering an impressively compelling restaurant scene and, with it, a stage for captivating cocktails.
Here are five places where you’ll want to dodge the well drinks and do just the opposite — drink well in Tucson.
Obon Sushi Bar Ramen
Less than a year old, Obon has made the kind of splash most new restaurants dream of. It helps that the restaurant is located along one of downtown Tucson’s busiest drags, and while nigiri and sushi are what Obon set out to be known for, craft cocktails could be what impress you most. Matt Martinez, formerly of one of Tucson’s first craft cocktail bars, Scott & Co., leads the push with deep Asian inspiration and a knack for playful creations. One drink is a take on a Disneyland Dole Whip and another is a spicy michelada — except the beer, mixers, and spice are Japanese instead of Mexican. For something truly unique, try the Tokyo City Ice Water, a witty riff on the Kansas City Ice Water, usually made with gin, vodka, lime juice, and 7-Up. The Tokyo City version swaps gin and vodka for shochu and flavors of aloe and calpico, a tart and milky lactic-acid soft beverage, which serves in place of the lime.
About a 10-minute drive east of downtown Tucson, you'll find the historic Broadway Village plaza. And while the exterior boasts Spanish Revival architecture, the interior of the plaza’s go-to cocktail bar, Sidecar, looks more like a hip coffee shop than a place where you'll rack up an bloated bar tab.
Except you will be tempted to rack up a bar tab. And it’s doable. The cocktail list is tightly manicured, so if you don't see something that tickles your fancy, ask Sidecar operator Niccy Brodhurst for a suggestion. Try something “sour and up” first; for example, the Oaxaca Dry Sour, which blends small-batch mezcal and gin with a house-made salted lime cordial, dry vermouth, absinthe, and a habanero shrub. If you like your booze brown instead, go for the Kentucky, in which bourbon anchors flavors of punchy grapefruit and hops.
Batch Cafe & Bar
You didn’t know you needed a spot that offers both batches of doughnuts and batches of whiskey, but once you've been to Batch Cafe & Bar you're going to wonder how you ever lived without it. The doughnuts are innocently flavored — sprinkles, matcha, breakfast cereals, maple — so the bourbon selection, which offers about 100 or so to choose from, is pretty serious in comparison. Let the whiskey purists struggle to make the right choice while you grab a cocktail, instead. Any of the mules will do — there’s even a Tucson mule — but it’s the Arizona Old Fashioned you’re after. Mesquite wood-smoked Whiskey Del Bac, local bitters, and prickly pear syrup get candied jalapeño as garnish. It’s a complex representation of Tucson’s local flavor.
Tough Luck Club
The century-old building that houses Reilly Craft Pizza, which opened its doors in 2012, was once an old bag of bones. In a past life, the building was a funeral home, and it featured a cremation room in the basement. Only recently did the team upstairs breathe life into the bottom floor. Now it’s Tough Luck Club, Tucson’s pre-eminent craft cocktail bar. It isn’t another speakeasy slinging the familiar classics (though it can do them quite well), opting to go out on a limb instead to put the bar's house creations front and center. The Day Late, Buck Short includes bitter orange Torani amer and creme de cacao, then gets a boozy boost thanks to a healthy dose of scotch. And then there’s the Hey Bruddah, Where You Be? that goes banana-split-meets-tiki by blending overproof white rum and aged rum with dark cherry liqueur, banana liqueur, and cashew orgeat. It’s a little weird, but you'll probably love it.
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Whatever Penca initially set out to accomplish, it's clear that, through both the food and drink, this restaurant embraces its role as Tucson’s ambassador of borderland cuisine. The drinks are honest representations of agave distillates and Southwestern flora, and the menu is filled with hit after hit. Take the Cuarenta Casas cocktail, which takes the green and earthy-tasting sotol, mixes it with lemon and honey, and infuses the drink with the sacred Mexican leaf, hoja santa. For garnish, a sprig of aromatic creosote is balanced across the cocktail's rim. It’s like an herbaceous, spirit-driven lemonade cut with desert rainwater.
Another drink, the Jicaro, boasts Mexican corn-infused mezcal, sap from the maguey aloe plant, lime juice, and orange bitters. And if you’re taking it easy after a boozy start, do yourself a favor and order the tepache by the glass. It’s a lightly fermented pineapple beer Penca makes themselves, served over ice with a splash of Modelo Especial for effervescence, and spicy, red angostura bitters dashed over the surface. A glass of that, some crunchy popped hominy and crispy chicharrones is the perfect recipe for an afternoon well-spent in Tucson.