My favorite thing about Tucson is its designation by someone, somewhere, as the Mexican Food Capital of the World. Seriously! (Think about that for a second!)
As a family we enjoy trying different world cuisines frequently, but Lordamercy, as delicious as Chinese, French, Italian, and others may be… there is simply nothing to beat the divine flavors of a truly authentic Mexican meal. If you agree and would like to explore the infinite possibilities of Mexican food in Tucson, read on!
Taco Bell, which is only called “Mexican” by idiotic restaurant websites, is in many American towns the only pseudo Mexican fast food available. Tucson, incredibly, also suffers from the odd Taco Bell. When it’s fast and cheap Mexican you need, please consider the following substitutes, each of which blows Taco Bell and its ilk completely out of the water:
- El Guero Canelo. The “Cinnamon Blond” has a few spots in town, including its unique, semi-outdoor original restaurant on South 12th Sonoran style hot dogs are popular with the locals. I love their carne asada (grilled steak) tacos and burritos, however. They serve up the most amazing quesadillas, too, and feature a salsa bar loaded with the most mouth-watering salsas I have ever savored north of the border.
- Nico’s also has a few taco shops around town. Nothing here is going to qualify as 5-star dining, but the scrumptious treats, which nearly overflow their Styrofoam containers, are bountifully covered with tasty yellow cheese. Stop here for breakfast, lunch and/or dinner and eat like a native!
- Practice your high school Spanish at La Birrieria Guadalajara. Seriously, when I was there back in the 90’s, the order taker spoke no English. Ni modo. You can say “Burrito grande, por favor,” right? The sole stand of this cheap Mexican food mecca is to be found in the central part of town on 22nd
- I have yet to try Aqui Con El Nene but I know trustworthy folks that have, and they rave about its quality, taste and great prices. Not to mention stuffed potatoes!
My kids would kill me if our first stop after flying to Tucson wasn’t Chickenuevo. It’s only a few blocks from the airport directly on the way into town. Chickenuevo’s roasted chicken is just like the kind I enjoyed when I lived in Mexico – simply sublime. The side dishes are so-so, but do try the roasted jalapeno served with your plate!
I should mention now that I utterly disdain the concept of high-end Mexican food. I’ve never found any that can beat your average hole-in-the-wall for incredible flavor. Please check listings on Yelp or Travel Advisor if you wish to find such outlets in Tucson. Having said that, I’m happy to move somewhat upscale towards splurge territory. Accordingly, I hereby offer additional Mexican food outlets that offer a bit of atmosphere in addition to yummy food:
- Elvira’s has been in action somewhere in Northern Mexico/Southern Arizona for as long as I can remember. Their food is a bit on the stuffy side but it is still incredibly delicious. They couple good food with a truly memorable ambiance. If the budget allows it, by all means GO!
- Mexican food is the staple at La Parrilla Suiza – don’t be fooled by the restaurant name’s translation of “The Swiss Grill” – this is a wonderful place to eat grub like you’d find in Mexico City. I am particularly fond of their chilaquiles, which are tortilla chips smothered in a rich red enchilada sauce and melted cheese. Their alambres de res (beef) or pollo (chicken) are also amazing. You can enjoy them together as the best combo plate on the planet – #17 on their menu.
- There are various “Molina” or “Molinito” restaurants scattered about town. Try googling the one term or the other and add “near me” when in Tucson to find your nearest iteration, which will be called Casa Molina, El Molinito, or Casita de Molina. Whichever you choose, I heartily recommend the cheese crisp, which is a large flour tortilla covered with cheese. Another local delicacy is the carne seca, which is beef that has been dried in the Tucson sun and rehydrated with spices. Order it here in a burrito, and thank me later.
- Poco and Mom’s serves up delectable New Mexico style Mexican food. Its Tanque Verde location is located in a cute southwestern-style shopping center directly on the way to either Sabino Canyon or Mount Lemmon.
- If there’s one delight Tucsonans take almost as seriously as Mexican food, it’s steak. Both are served up in blissful harmony at downtown’s highly-rated Charro Steak. I would strongly advise non-carnivores to examine the menu online ahead of time.
Tucson. But it’s a dry heat, man! If you travel here in the summer, Tucson’s “low season,” you’re in luck. Prices are lower, the streets are less crowded, the evenings are glorious, and there is, I hope, good swimming for you to enjoy somewhere. The Old Pueblo, facetiously called The Armpit of the Universe during the warm season, is a terrific year-round destination; it’s never really too cold or too hot to do anything fun.
The Sonoran desert terrain, of which Tucson forms part, is so striking, so different than anything else on earth thanks to its towering Saguaro cactus, its unique desert critters and southwestern style architecture. This ain’t at all the barren Sahara. One of the most glorious aromas on earth is the scent of the desert creosote after a summer monsoon rain. But if you’re here virtually any other time, what are you waiting for? Go on… take a hike!
The best thing to do in Tucson almost any time of year is, in my opinion, hanging out at the pool. It doesn’t matter if it’s your grandma’s neighborhood pool, your stuffy hotel pool, or the city’s lone waterpark, The Breakers (which is technically in Marana, a suburb northwest of Tucson). My teens even enjoy swimming at Tucson’s extremely economical public pools, which often have a waterslide, diving board, or both, along with fun local kids to share a splash with. Staying cool and beating the heat is where it’s at.
The best Aquatics Center in the area, hands down, lies within another of Tucson’s suburbs, Oro Valley. And of course, really lucky teens staying at an area resort never really have to get out of the pool. Of the many resorts in Tucson, we prefer to splurge at the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort. This gorgeous Tucson hideaway has a waterslide, lazy river, splash pads, hot tubs, and two separate and distinct sparkling pools for when sharing a large body of water with your little sister Chaedynne is Just. Not. Happening.
My kids and I aren’t into shopping much, probably because so many shops are boring corporate clones of one another no matter where you go. Fortunately, Tucson is blessed with an edgy yet historic district of unique shopping and dining experiences, easily accessed by taking the tram from either downtown or the University of Arizona Main Gate area. This easy to amble shopping district is known as Fourth Avenue. The people watching here is amazing. There is no better place in town to play a rousing game of Who can count the most facial piercings? Reward the winner with a delicious treat from 500 North Fourth Avenue’s Chocolate Iguana.
If arts & crafts is your bag, or ever was your bag, or you wish it were your bag, or you just think little things are cute no matter what – I heartily suggest you stop by the blessedly air conditioned Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures. It seems that a cadre of dedicated folks have made a hobby of decorating miniature doll houses and figurines. Sounds like fun, but what’s truly remarkable is how the museum visitor is encouraged to examine these small structures up close, thereby essentially immersing him or herself in another place — or time — in 3D. A room that especially enchants young children features a magical array of miniature fairies and folk tale characters.
Bordering Saguaro National Park East, you’ll giddy up in style at Houston’s Horseback Riding. Trail rides with Houston’s are available no matter your horseback riding skill or experience. The vistas out here are simply phenomenal, and you’ll surely see incredible wildlife that doesn’t venture beyond the sticks. If you’re staying in Tucson for at least a week or so in the summer, why not sign up for one of their horsemanship camps? Whatever you do at Houston’s, you’ll learn a lot and have fun riding their sweet horses.
One of the most awesome day trips you’ll ever take lies right on the edge of suburbia within the northeast side of Tucson. Sabino Canyon is here, in the Coronado National Forest; it’s absolutely gorgeous, easy to get to and features hikes in levels anywhere from challenging to easy enough for your little brother. Stop first at the Visitor’s Center to learn more about the local flora and fauna, grab a tram into the belly of the beast if you like and get ready for an exhilarating adventure into a sublime desert panorama. Cool off with a dip in a refreshing, natural pool.
Day trips are agreeable enough, but why not grab a tent and some s’mores supplies and rough it for an evening somewhere in the Coronado National Forest along the Catalina Highway, also known as the Mt Lemmon Scenic Byway? This incredible road up the Catalina Foothills (the most imposing peaks you see when you’re within the city limits) traverses through several natural biomes on your way towards the summit, culminating in alpine forest at the top. Get this: the southernmost ski area of the country is right here, above the sweltering desert valley! Even if you don’t hit the slopes, there is plenty to do, such as ride the ski lift or admire the sky island vegetation during a long hike. Future astronomers need to check out the University of Arizona’s mountaintop SkyCenter; everyone should find an appealing spot on the Byway to pull over and enjoy a night under the desert stars.