When my family landed in Tucson in the late '70s, my parents — who couldn't cook — opened a crepe restaurant, which was as darling as fusion is now. We're New York transplants and didn't have a clue about edibles, unless they included word "nitrates" or "deli." For us, food meant love, and we figured that would guarantee success because we were sending out platters smothered in affection, forgetting a restaurant is a business. Luckily, others have fared better. Fast-forward years later, and dining out is almost a competitive sport. Tucson, long considered the Venice Beach of Arizona with its laid-back vibe, seems to see a notable new eating establishment pop up weekly.
We've got casual grills, funky fusion, Sonoran everywhere. We have many cuisines that have yet to even have the dignity of a name. Tucson has an abundance of creative cooking going on — we've become a food magnet for the hungry, curious, and adventurous, with events like chef Ruben Monroy's upscale Mexican eatery, Elvira's, opening another outpost in downtown Tucson soon. Also new to downtown is our favorite Phoenician, Chris Bianco, who graced us last year with a Pizzeria Bianco on Congress Street. Still, there are some things that remain completely unique to Tucson. And that's why you should make the drive.
As for the group of restaurants on this list, nothing is fancy but everything is fresh, representing a current cross-section of Tucson. Za'atar, a Middle Eastern cozy family shop, wows with fresh baked bread and simple food cooked from scratch. Five Points takes global cuisines and turns them upside down in a groovy, chill atmosphere. And Hub is alluring, with comfort food, like ribs and mac and cheese, served in a sleek, family-friendly setting. Go retro with The Coronet, a little bit French and a little bit American, with every morsel elegantly served. As for Scordato's, they have dead-right perfect Neapolitan pizza crust for any aficionado. With high speed limits en route and lower temperatures upon your arrival (Tucson averages about five to seven degrees cooler than Phoenix), Tucson makes a good summer destination from the Valley — and a tasty one.
5 Points Market & Restaurant: On the outskirts of heavily food-ified downtown, 5 Points is in the thick of the mood-dining revolution, serving kooky fusion with locally sourced, high-end ingredients. Specializing in breakfast and lunch, 5 Points serves it up in a cool loft space. Don't miss the huevos rancheros, organic corn tortillas stuffed with pintos, eggs, and shredded sharp cheddar under a kiss of homemade chunky ranchero seasoned to perfection. Tuck into the Bandito Blanco, a potato pancake sleeping beneath layers of ham, poached eggs, and covered in a quirky three-cheese mornay sauce — a great food mash-up. The pork torta is lush and full of opposites — avocado aioli, pickled onion, and a kick of chutney, balancing sweet against just shy of bitter. It's my idea of a perfect sandwich, a standout even in these pork-centric times. The cup of spicy fruit gazpacho (a special) was a combo of berries, chiles, carrots, beets, celery, apple, pear, and lemon, with some serious punch. You come here for the fusion: of design, ambiance, and left-of-center food pairings. Desserts near the register tempt, and my guest and I happily made our way through a piece of polenta almond paste cake with orange zest frosting, as moist as it was rich. The Market in the back has plenty of produce, veggies, jams, and cold drinks. (756 S. Stone Ave., 520-623-3888, www.5pointstucson.com)
The Coronet: The Coronet has a flair for fine ingredients and the imagination to create with them, all within the bounds of the most gorgeously designed retro food emporium in the Old Pueblo. There's no place to turn in this brasserie that isn't carefully crafted, whether it's the black cantilevered windows above the vintage bar or the encaustic Mission tile in gorgeous shades of green. The same holds for the food, prepared with an urban twist and delivered with attentive service as knowledgeable as it is welcoming. The sausage wrapped in soft brioche with roasted root veggies is down-home rustic and sounds all the right notes of savory and sweet, while the seared fig tartine is served up with Humboldt Fog cheese, crisp bacon, red onion jam, and figs, escorted by a side of leafy greens, a flawless sweet edge to the salty bacon. Eggs Florentine are classic, a layered design of bread, spinach, ham, and perfect poached eggs all roofed in creamy Hollandaise complemented with tomato basil salad. The Coronet manages to keep it simple and not get in the way of the food, while the talented chef Erica Bostick and owner Sally Kane invent pairings without flavor overkill. A salad of sweet watermelon balls in a light lime-mint infusion offers a hint of tart without being overpowering. Save room for a helping of sugar aftershock. The cheesecake with a drizzle of berry compote wrapped in a thick graham crust is light and creamy. Serious attention must be paid to the chocolate mousse. It's a dense marriage of cake and fudge with soft peaks of Cointreau cream, crusted in chopped pecans. (402 E. 9th St., 520-222-9889, www.cafecoronet.com)
HUB: HUB'S rubric is booze, comfort foods, and fresh ice cream all under high industrial ceilings, exposed red brick, soft white leather banquettes, and old pine floors. This place offers casual dining with an American flourish, from chilled lobster rolls sided with slaw (not drenched in mayo) and fries to an appetizer of rich, crispy flash-fried Vermont cheddar curds served with sriracha ketchup to handmade pastries and a chicken pot pie chock-full of fresh veggies and white meat, not drunk on sauce. HUB also serves ribs, burgers, pastrami/corned beef sandwiches, and great salad combos. Portions are huge, so it's easy to split an entrée. Be sure to save room for the unusual homemade ice creams, including bourbon almond brittle, oatmeal cookie, and honey ginger. Sweet tooth still not satisfied? HUB just opened an ice cream parlor up the street. (266 E. Congress, 520-207-8201, www.hubdown.com)
Scordato's Pizzeria: No food is more American than pizza, even if it was invented in 1889 in Naples. Scordato's Pizzeria ranks at the top of Tucson's food chain — a must on any pizza tour. Here the crust is crisp and light but chewy on the inside, and high heat cooks it so fast it lightly chars the outer crust bubble. All the pyrotechnics are reserved for the quality fixings and food, while the décor and ambiance are on the side of simple and timeless. I've had nearly every pizza, from the Margherita with fresh mozzarella and basil in tomato sauce to the chicken meatball and ricotta with Fontina or the sausage and roasted cipollini onions. Be sure to order the warmed mushroom salad on Bibb lettuce with fresh vinaigrette; the lighter entrées are excellent, too. (4280 N. Campbell Ave., 520-529-2700, www.scordatospizzeria.com)
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Za'atar Restaurant and Bakery: Ari Badan opened Za'atar six months ago, serving the Greek-Lebanese-Turkish food he grew up eating, and it's all made from scratch. He bakes his own bread daily, football-shaped crusty, browned loaves and soft, light pita. Try the veggie combo plate for well-seasoned falafel, smoked baba ganoush and hummus with the right hint of citrus. The green lentil soup is hearty but not over-salted, while the grilled chicken shawarma arrives served on yellow basmati rice and is paired with Greek salad (olives/red onion/feta crumbles/cucumber/tomato) and a pitch-perfect vinaigrette. Try the Za'atar, a salad of herbs with chopped tomato, cucumber, onion, and chickpeas. A devotee of all things bread, I worshiped the mound of dough rolled out and topped with three Syrian cheeses that Badan called "sweet cheese." (There's also a meat and herb bread offered.) Take out or eat in but, beware, there are only a few tables. Ambiance is low-key and the food so good that the surroundings dim in importance. Cheap prices and growing word-of-mouth raves have lines forming throughout the day. (2825 N. Country Club Road, 520-323-4074, on Facebook as Za'atar Bakery)