A Field Guide to Dining Out in Tucson

Baja Cafe's Gerard Meurer in the kitchen.
Baja Cafe's Gerard Meurer in the kitchen.
Randi Lynn Beach

These days, Tucson is racking up some serious kudos in the culinary world. Besides being the only place in the United States designated as a City of Gastronomy by UNESCO, it's also garnering buzz with foodists in The New York Times and has been called a food destination city by New York Magazine.

One of central Phoenix's most well-loved late night spots, Welcome Diner, recently opened a second restaurant in Tucson, and while the Tucson location of Pizzeria Bianco may have shuttered, we think it’s about time that the Old Pueblo start making headlines for making great food.

Here’s a field guide to just some of the great eats waiting for you in Tucson. 

Breakfast (with a Tucson Bent)

Baja Café
2970 East Campbell
520-344-7369
Original location: 7002 East Broadway Boulevard
520-495-4772
bajacafetucson.com

The new Campbell Corridor location of Baja Café is a touch funky with a whole lot of flavor. Often packed by noon with lines on the weekend, the menu offers some creative breakfast options. Long known as a fancy breakfast staple, eggs Benedict is a specialty at Baja Café, which offers a lengthy list of flavor twists. Try the Coyote rendition with a toasted muffin, medium-poached egg, and a sheet of Hatch green chile, plus crisped jalapeño bacon, all topped with mouth-tingling house-made chipotle hollandaise. 

There are also a few south of the border dishes, including some El Salvadorian street food. The tomatillo pork pupusas have made their way into the local mainstream. Made from cornmeal, they’re grilled into a tamale cake, then topped with melted cheddar and queso fresco, all smothered in caramelized onion and moist pulled pork. It's topped with planks of crisp bacon, a slash of sautéed spinach, and poached eggs, then polished off with hollandaise and pico de gallo. 

And if none of that fits the bill, try the pancakes, French toast, sandwiches, and even a hand-carved corned beef Reuben — the last being made with two slices of rye, melted cheese, tangy sauerkraut, and a smear of Thousand Island dressing.

Baja Café serves local Yellowbrick Coffee, La Mesa Tortillas, and select items from local food stores. It's open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily. 

Frankie Santos, owner of Frankie’s South Philly Cheesesteaks in Tucson, at work in the kitchen.
Frankie Santos, owner of Frankie’s South Philly Cheesesteaks in Tucson, at work in the kitchen.
Randi Lynn Beach

Lunch

Frankie’s South Philly Cheesesteaks
2574 North Campbell Avenue
520-795-2665
frankiescheesesteaks.com

If you’re hungry for some real cheesesteak, the kind made famous Back East, then head to Frankie’s South Philly cheesesteaks, the eponymous joint owned by native Philadelphians Frankie and Deb Santos. Beloved in town, it’s spacious, casual, and relaxed, with mementos from Philly and plenty of glowing testimonials from loyal customers. Ordering is easy, as there’s a large menu next to the register.

The restaurant uses Amoroso rolls from Philly, all-natural Redbird chicken, and certified Angus prime beef. They even do their own butchering — 700 pounds a week — on the premises. Their beef is lean and sliced super-thin, grilled to perfection, and then served with cheese and caramelized onions melted so each bite offers a flavor burst. The restaurant's signature 12-inch cheesesteak ($9.55) with either American cheese, provolone, or Cheez Whiz comes topped with hot peppers or grilled onions and is completely mouthwatering.

Frankie is often on hand to demonstrate proper cheesesteak etiquette. He instructs: “The right way to eat a cheesesteak is bent at the waist holding it out to your mouth, since the overstuffing will fall in your lap.” 

The restaurant also serves chicken cheesesteaks, cutlets, pork sandwiches, hoagies, salads, and batter-fried cod. 

Wild Mushroom Tartine at Agustin Kitchen in Tucson.
Wild Mushroom Tartine at Agustin Kitchen in Tucson.
Randi Lynn Beach

Agustin Kitchen
100 South Avenida del Convento
520-398-5382
agustinkitchen.com

Anchoring the festive Mercado San Agustin, Tucson’s only public marketplace, Agustin Kitchen is an elegant space with insinuations of a French bistro, though the restaurant features modern American cuisine. With so many eateries heavy on the brick and hipster Brooklyn theme, this spot is bright, sleek minimalism draped in comfort. From the relaxed patio to the luxury bar to the lovely banquettes with white retro bead board on the ceilings, it’s a visual feast.

Two of the restaurant's well-known sandwiches are winners. In one, a soft yet sturdy brioche roll with moist shredded pork shoulder — think Carolina barbecue-style — is layered with apple and cabbage slaw. Then there’s the oversized herb buttermilk biscuit, stacked with a good half-inch of crispy fried chicken breast with a slash of peppadew mayo, house pickles, and a side of hot herbed fries. Try dipping those into Agustin's house-made ketchup, which offers both serious tomato flavor and a nudge of vinegar with just an edge of sugar.

They also do right by pickled veggies, with a collection of colorful carrots, fermented turnips, sweet beets, and dill tomato, all topped with a nugget of fresh goat cheese. A dessert of carrot ginger cake with a coating of cream-cheese icing is traditional at first glance. Often a good cake, usually not too sweet, and fairly common, here it’s driven up a notch with gingered pecan crumble, then anointed with Cointreau whipped cream and adorned with blackberry, mint leaf, and strawberry.

And when you leave, walk around. Head over to Estrella Bakery in the Mercado. They sell handmade chewy tortillas and house-made empanadas along with other excellent treats.

Roma Imports.
Roma Imports.
Randi Lynn Beach

Italian

Roma Imports
627 South Vine
520-792-3173
romaimports.com

The location of Roma Imports is a bit kooky, almost as if the owner took a store from Little Italy and dropped it in a funky little cluster of industrial warehouses. Which is all just part of the charm, once you find it. Part in-house restaurant, part takeout, it’s a Tucson food gem. Steady streams of customers order lunch at the front register from white menu boards featuring rotating specials.

There’s a long bank of stainless freezers that stock meatballs (beef or house-made chicken), many versions of lasagna, eggplant, shepherd’s pie, gluten-free pastas, spaetzle, pizzas, curries, goulash, raviolis, cannoli, and a varied selection of house-made sausage made fresh every two weeks. Owner Lilian Spieth’s personal history reflects the plethora of menu offerings. A Jew born in Calcutta, India, she moved to Israel in her teens and then spent her married adult years in Germany before settling in Tucson.

All the signature dishes are cooked preservative-free, using top-notch ingredients, and made from scratch, ready from Roma’s freezer to yours. It’s one of the best selections of takeout Tucson is lucky to have.

The back room is filled with long tables topped with those familiar red-and-white-checked tablecloths of old-fashioned Italian joints. Everything is family-style. The spaghetti and meatballs ($7.99), a classic, comes with traditional soft beef meatballs piled on pasta, all flavored with a rich, sweet, red marinara. The Roma Stallion ($8.99) is pork shoulder bathed in wine and herbs and slow roasted, then served with pickled veggies on Italian bread. The chunks of pork are savory against the slight sour of the slaw, and it’s love at first bite.

There are also shelves loaded with imported goods that hold the stuff of food dreams: Arborio rice, shaped pastas, anchovies, tuna in jars, canned tomatoes, and all manner of fixings for your own cooking.

The arugula, prosciutto, mozzarella, fontina, grana, and black-pepper pizza at Reilly Craft Pizza & Drink.
The arugula, prosciutto, mozzarella, fontina, grana, and black-pepper pizza at Reilly Craft Pizza & Drink.
Randi Lynn Beach

Reilly Pizza & Drink
101 East Pennington
520-882-5550
reillypizza.com

Urban elegance, 100-year-old wood floors, arched windows, exposed brick, and high ceilings all come together at Reilly Craft Pizza & Drink, a free-thinker's dream in a downtown historic building that once housed a mortuary. There's a great menu that roams from truffle fries and mussels to polenta, tagliatelle Bolognese, goat cheese mezzaluna, and a long list of pizzas. And given the artisan nature of the place, dishes will come and go.

Put several of the restaurant's sides together and it’s like an Italian version of dim sum. Take four large meatballs, tender as silk, surrounded by tips of toast, sitting on a cushion of fresh marinara ($9). The meatballs are blended with spices and cheese, cooked with the deft hand of a kitchen expert who knows how to bring out full flavors, be they in a vegetable or a meat. The roasted cauliflower risotto with a spray of grated cheese ($7) has many flavor notes, and the Brussels sprouts flaunt a hint of balsamic ($7). 

Then there’s the pizza, done up in Napoleon tradition.

The Margherita ($12) is a thin crust with a bit of crunch but is also chewy, baked in the pizza oven until it’s just singed on the outside rim. The sauce is robust tomato without being overwhelming, and the pie isn't drowning in cheese. Pizza, having been adopted by our culture as if it’s our very own invention, has so many categories and subcategories. Reilly’s does right by thin-crusted, artisan pizza.

The restaurant also includes the Beer Garden, which offers a full pizza menu and craft beer – rotating 40 different tap beers and up to eight tap wines, with both indoor and outdoor seating. 

The cheese crisp from Molina’s Midway in Tucson.
The cheese crisp from Molina’s Midway in Tucson.
Randi Lynn Beach

Mexican

Molina’s Midway
1138 North Belvedere Avenue
520-325-9957
molinasmidway.com

Molina’s Midway in central Tucson has been dishing out true Mexican food since 1953 and proving not all Sonoran cuisine is created equally. Long a favorite among locals, Molina’s is often busy with lines at lunch, but it’s spacious enough inside that it all moves fast. 

Do try the spinach enchiladas, one roofed with a creamy white Béchamel, the other crowned in a more traditional red enchilada sauce, then finished with a curtain of melted cheese. The greens are fresh and a bite of them with a swirl of cheddar is a tasty fusion of bitter and savory. The platters arrive with sides of rice and beans. No greater compliment can be paid in a town flooded with Sonoran restaurants than to swoon over frijoles. Here they’re velvety and properly spiced. 

The Carne Seca burrito, reconstituted dried beef simmered in a rich stock scented with garlic and chiles, is an Old Pueblo classic with just a hint of kick.

Molina’s atmosphere is a bit like stepping back into retro-land, with red brick rounding the arched doorways, colorful small paintings dusting the walls, and large, old-style booths. It’s Mexican comfort food that continues to live up to expectations. And don’t miss out on their albondigas – folks travel here weekly for them.

St. Mary’s Tortilla Factory.
St. Mary’s Tortilla Factory.
Randi Lynn Beach

St. Mary’s Mexican Food
1030 West St. Mary’s Road
520-884-1629

It’s always a point of pleasure when people from other cities highlight Tucson’s cooking heritage. Back in 2010, the Los Angeles Times singled out the tortillas at Saint Mary’s Mexican restaurant saying, “They’re the size of a medium pizza, as thin as a Communion wafer, and they melt in your mouth.” These are the crepe-like, hand-stretched, large flour tortillas St. Mary’s has been spinning out by the thousands since 1968 using an old Sonoran-style recipe.

Housed in a casually distressed converted bar with plenty of tables and ample parking, the restaurant is big enough to hold all the customers coming and going overloaded with bags of tortillas and takeout yet still small enough to feel cozy.

Great breakfast burritos stuffed with scrambled eggs, bacon, potato, and beans cause moans of pleasure. Or get the simple bean and cheese burrito, which is a thing of beauty. The restaurant sells pints ($4) and quarts of beans ($8), plus those famous wafer-thin tortillas by the dozen. Luis Salazar, who is part of the family that owns St. Mary’s, explains, “There’s a trick to those beans; it’s a simple trick. If you heat up your lard till it’s almost smoking, then add your beans and grind them, you’ll get the same flavor. We try to teach other people.” The tortillas are made with animal and vegetable shortening because, Luis explains, “It gives the best flavor and consistency.” 


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