The Most Essential Restaurants in Tucson
Tucson’s food scene is about as talked about as Phoenix’s... which means it’s not talked about at all. This is a mistake. Because whether you’re a visitor in town for a UofA game, a local looking to get to know the resto scene better, or are just passing through, you’ll soon find there’s a ton of great dining options waiting for you...
Best and biggest burgers: Monkey Burger
5350 E Broadway Blvd
Angus beef from Harris Ranch and buns delivered direct from Tucson’s very own Viro's Bakery add to the freshness factor of Monkey Burger’s thoughtfully crafted made-to-order gourmet hamburgers. The Sonora, a regular’s favorite, is stacked with bacon, Oaxaca cheese, shredded cabbage, and an otherworldly avocado salsa. Pace yourself, the burger makers here don’t skimp on ingredients. Bring your biggest appetite.
Best Mexican eats: El Charro Café
311 N Court Ave
The famed Mexican joint El Charro Café is the oldest operating family resto in the States, and it's been serving up authentic Mexican cuisine since 1922. The family of restaurateurs opened up a handful of other locations operating under the same name, but if you’re looking for the real deal, and a chimichanga the size of your face, find yourself a table at El Charro’s Downtown Tucson spot. The famous carne seca, a special type of spiced beef that’s prepared on location, is stuffed inside most of the cheese-heavy entrees. A plate of this stuff is worth putting off your diet until tomorrow.
Essential chain resto: Eegee’s
You can’t pass through Tucson without making a pitstop at the local favorite Eegee’s. Sure it’s got a weird, sometimes unpronounceable name, but this spot is famous for turning out frozen slushie-like drinks with real fruit served up in signature Styrofoam cups with a spoon and straw. From the flavor of the month to the long list of standby favorites (lemon!), the signature Eegee’s drink and menu made up of grinders, hot dogs, cookies, and pretzels have helped define the Tucson fast-food scene. We only wish all fast-food could be this good.
Best spot to pre-game a big game: Dirtbag’s Bar
1800 E Speedway Blvd
UA fans take their sports seriously. They also take their booze and food seriously. Dirtbag’s has been a community staple for more than 30 years, throughout the highs and lows of UofA sports history. Here you’ll find sandwiches too big to fit into your mouth, dripping, sauce-drenched burgers, cheesy nachos topped with spicy jalapeños, crispy chimis, and even a variety of healthier eats to go along with your vodka water. Getting tipsy and making some bad decisions at Dirtbag’s is basically a rite of passage for Wildcat undergrads.
Best pizza place: Magpies Gourmet Pizza
605 N 4th Ave
With a 21-year streak as Tucson’s best pizza joint, it’s no surprise Magpies earned a spot on this list. The Italian-style resto makes its dough and tomato sauces on site every day. With more than 20 ‘zas to choose from (that’s not including build-your-own pies) Magpies has secured a special, and well-deserved, place in Tucson pizza lovers' hearts. Notable pies include the Chicken Ranchero, covered w/ garlic ranch sauce, cheddar & mozz, herb-roasted chicken, red onions, tomatoes, scallions, and of course, bacon.
Best place for drinks: Agustin Kitchen
100 S Avenida del Convento
The West side’s Agustin Kitchen seamlessly blends American and French cuisine and at the helm is one of Tucson’s most popular and well-regarded chefs, Ryan Clark. Yes, the plates are both beautifully crafted and delicious (you can get everything from organic corn pot pie to fresh oysters), but Agustin Kitchen is making an appearance here for its long list of libations. Artfully crafted drinks like the Sonoran Old Fashioned, Wildflower Sour, or Miso Collins put a unique twist on popular cocktails. If you’re having trouble deciding (which you will), leave it up to your server and order the Bartender’s Whim, Agustin’s rotating drink special.
Top tamale shop: Tucson Tamale Company
2545 E Broadway Blvd
Looking for the best-tasting tamales you’ve ever had the honor of eating? Forget heading to the border, and look no further than Tucson Tamale Company. The nondescript exterior of the shop might make it seem worth skipping at first, but once you take that first bite, you’ll be planning your next visit. Adventurous eaters go for tamales that pack some heat like the super-spicy JoJo and the spicy Arizona. Not trying to fry your taste buds? Order a mild tamale like the Sonora or the Berkeley.
Best deli: Beyond Bread
3026 N Campbell Ave
Bread: it’s the stuff dreams are made of. And some folks make it better than others. Take the bread masters of Beyond Bread. They’ve perfected the loaf and created a yeasty empire of goodness. Tucson’s favorite bakery is also top dog when it comes to deli-style eats. Bart’s Bag, with turkey, Brie, tomato, and red onion sandwiched between slices of crusty baguette is like a little taste of heaven. Other faves like Rex’s Revenge with chicken, shaved Parm, lettuce, tomato, and drizzled Caesar dressing on focaccia bread might just make all of your lunchtime dreams come true.
Best Sonoran hot dogs North of the border: El Guero Canelo Restaurante Mexicano
2480 N Oracle Rd
With humble beginning as a hot dog stand operating out of a trailer (this was before food trucks were cool) in 1993, Daniel Contreras’ famous Sonoran hot dog was introduced to the world. The bacon-wrapped frankfurter is topped with chopped tomatoes, pinto beans, a pinch of onions, a line of basic yellow mustard, jalapeño sauce, and a squiggle of mayo. No ordinary hot dog bun will do, all of this is inside a Mexican bolillo roll. Don’t ask to change your order. You get what you order at Guero Canelo. You can’t mess with perfection.
Best breakfast spot: The B Line
621 N 4th Ave
Breakfast: it’s the most essential meal of the day. From homemade buttery biscuits, lox-topped bagels, and crepe cakes piled high to burritos stuffed full of eggs and spicy salsas, The B Line offers an unbeatable breakfast lineup. Located near the university, this breakfast spot draws in the college crowd searching for an escape from the boring dining hall. Breakfast isn’t all it offers either. The B Line is also known for its bean-stuffed burros and soft fish tacos.
Best spot to chow down on a plate of steak: Pinnacle Peak Steakhouse & Saloon
6541 E Tanque Verde Rd
Tucson is famous for its cowboy culture and there’s no other steakhouse that epitomizes that old-timey Western lifestyle more than Pinnacle Peak Steakhouse & Saloon. Regarded as “The Original Cowboy Steakhouse” this spot has been grilling up some of Tucson’s finest steaks, ribs, and burgers for more than 50 years. The menu, which boasts beef and more beef, features the legendary plate that gave this saloon its famed reputation, the cowboy steak. The short-loin cut is cooked over a mesquite log fire, giving the signature cut its signature taste.
Most diverse menu: Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails
135 S 6th Ave
There’s more to Tucson than sloppy burritos, corn-wrapped tamales, cowboy steaks, and the glorious Sonoran dog. These Southern Arizona eats are always a good idea, but when you’re hungry for something a little different from the traditional favorites DTKC has got your back. The Downtown eatery has put a unique American spin on a diverse selection of culinary traditions adopted from Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and Latin America. From grilled porchetta to clay pot fish stew to Southern fried chicken, Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails can satisfy your worldly appetite.
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Lauren Topor is a freelance writer who talks about Phoenix’s food scene ALL THE TIME. Follow her on Twitter for proof.