To understand Tucson’s culinary scene, you have to go back 4,000 years.
The surrounding Sonoran Desert is the most biodiverse region in North America, and the Santa Cruz River, which runs through Tucson, is the longest continuously cultivated area in North America. The predecessors of the Tohono O’odham tribe, the Hohokam, settled along the river and developed irrigation canals to water their “three sisters” crops of corn, squash and beans. “Generations after generations have come to the banks of the Santa Cruz River to plant and harvest their food,” Janos Wilder, James Beard Award-winning chef and president of Tucson City of Gastronomy, told The Week. “The river was the only place to get water over the centuries.”
There is a misconception that nothing can grow in this arid desert, Wilder said. Instead, crops, plants and animals have adapted to survive, which “creates astonishing diversity.” He moved to Tucson and opened his first restaurant there in 1983, and discovered a multitude of ingredients growing outside his front door, from prickly pear to yellow meat watermelon to cholla buds. Since then, he has “focused 100 percent on Tucson when planning menus” and is “looking back at the food and agricultural heritage of where we live, and moving forward to determine how you use these products and great ingredients in new and different ways. It’s a celebration of where we live and all those who came before us.”
Wilder is one of many Tucson chefs who emphasize local ingredients, and this local way of cooking has caught the attention of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO ). In 2015, Tucson was named the first World Food City by UNESCO in the United States, for its indigenous and Mexican culinary traditions, and today the organization Tucson, city of gastronomy certifies restaurants, retailers, caterers and artisans who use heritage ingredients, promote sustainability and give back to the community.
These leaders have “serious purpose and a sense of discovery and curiosity,” Wilder said. Many are immigrants, whose food comes from their roots in Mexico, Central America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
Where to Eat in Tucson
BOCA Tacos and Tequila is a salsa lover’s dream, with new varieties served daily. (Ingredients range from traditional tomato to the unexpected, like raspberries and bananas.) It’s a modern Mexican restaurant helmed by chef Maria Mazon, a 2022 James Beard Award finalist and former “Top Chief”. Although the menu is mainly composed of gourmet tacos, it also offers a torta, a salad, a burrito and a “banh mi quesadilla” which combines Mexican and Vietnamese flavors.
La Indita offers a true Tucson experience: the owner and her husband have Tarascan and Tohono O’odham heritage, and this is reflected in the menu. The chicken mole “sings both the fruitiness and the bitterness of Chiapas cocoa beans”, Jackie Tran from Bon Appétit ” wrote, and the Tarasque taco has an “unusual mix of spinach and nuts but feels nostalgic at first bite.”
HAS Tito and Pep, the main attraction is the wood-fired mesquite grill, used for almost every dish. The restaurant described itself as offering “Tucsonan” food, and that includes queso fundido with mushrooms and beef chorizo; summer squash salad with queso fresco, pepitas and cilantro; grilled octopus with salsa macha; Shrimp from the Sea of Cortez with masa balls and seafood broth; and mesquite-grilled pork chop with poblano, nectarine and local wheat berries.
Wilder recently launched his new business, Studio Janos, where it offers private dining for up to 12 people. Guests can create their own menu or allow Wilder to prepare a six-course meal using foods and flavors from Tucson’s heritage. He cooks in front of the group and describes each dish as it is served. In this space, Wilder can “present everything I learned living in Tucson,” he said.
Preserving a culinary heritage
For 40 years, Native seeds/RESEARCH has found and preserved local Tucson area seeds, many of which are rare or endangered, in order to conserve the region’s biodiversity. The nonprofit organization sells Sonoran seeds, sauces and spices, as well as gift items such as Zuni carvings and Tohono O’odham pottery, with proceeds going toward seed protection and seed distribution to Indigenous families and local community gardens.
Eat the world in Tucson
Throughout the year there are celebrations of Tucson’s culinary culture, including the Agave Heritage Festival, Savor Food and Wine Festival, Tucson Craft Beer Festival, and Tucson Meet Yourself, a folk life festival. Founded in 1974, Tucson Meet Yourself is a way for local dancers, musicians and artisans to come together and connect with the community. A big draw is the Tucson eat your own part of the event, a global affair featuring Puerto Rican, Argentinian, Chinese, Mexican, Colombian, Caribbean, Taiwanese, Peruvian, Polish, Laotian, Filipino, Ukrainian, Greek, Indian, Venezuelan, Turkish, Afghan and Vietnamese cuisines.