To Find the Best Tacos in Tucson, You Need a Guide, a Bike, and Cash

Largely influenced by Sonoran tradition, tacos have long been part of this Arizona city’s culinary DNA.

woman holding a bicycle standing in front of taqueria pico de gallo
The author on her third stop with Tucson Bike Tours. | Photo courtesy of Erin Gifford
The author on her third stop with Tucson Bike Tours. | Photo courtesy of Erin Gifford

Tucson is home to more than 30 types of tacos, from carne asada to barbacoa to birria to pescado. You can find them everywhere, too—gas stations, strip malls, diners, casinos, and taco trucks are all fair game. Given the array and ubiquity, it’s no wonder two different Tucson locations ranked among Yelp’s Top Taco Spots in America for 2023. Tucsonans are so obsessed with tacos, though, that the list of best joints is entirely up for debate among locals.

Tacos came to Tucson in the 18th century when migrants from Mexico crossed the border into the United States to work the mines and railroads, bringing with them everyone’s favorite handheld food. And when UNESCO recognized Tucson as a City of Gastronomy back in 2015—the first-ever US locale to receive the honor—the organization specifically shouted out its Mexican and Native American influences. Tacos are undeniably part of the city’s culinary identity.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that for most of the last decade, the city has dropped a taco piñata on New Year’s Eve as part of a promotional event for Taco Bell. That could lead a reasonable person to conclude there’s no way these tacos could actually be that good. But don’t let the fast-food worship delude you; Tucson is the real deal, and its tacos have a ton of regional flair. Some cater to the more culinary adventurous, boasting fillings like grilled octopus and jackfruit carnitas. Others keep it simple and pay homage to the classic Sonoran style, using savory beef and flour tortillas. Meats are typically slow-cooked or mesquite-grilled. They’re seriously top-notch, too.

“If a Sonoran ever invites you to get carne asada, accept the invitation,” José Ralat, Texas Monthly’s taco editor and author of American Tacos: A History & Guide, told me.

a birria taco on red and white checked waxed paper alongside a pepper and a fork
The birria taco from Taqueria Los Chipilones, in Tucson. | Photo by Erin Gifford

For the best tacos, look to a professional

Last winter, I traveled to Tucson to run a half-marathon, after which my plan centered squarely on tacos. Since I could realistically only eat so many of them, I figured a professional could help me prioritize. I went with Tucson Bike Tours founder Jimmy Bultman, who promised to take taco enthusiasts on a 2.5-hour bike tour for a cool $75. A tall, scruffy guy in his early-50s, Bultman boasted a past that included stints as an outdoor trip leader and a kayaking guide, but his love for Tucson's tacos—and sharing said tacos with others—paralleled his love of nature.

Why hire a guide? Because Tucson's real-deal taquerias aren't exactly a cinch to find on your own. They don’t typically have websites; many have very small menus and are cash-only. You may not find them on Yelp, Facebook, or TikTok. And despite the fact that tacos generally popped on highly visual platforms, Ralat said it was only recently that he began to notice the "rise of the Instagrammable taco."

bikers peddling down the street in tucson, arizona
The taco-centric bike tour is 10 hours long and cuts through South Tucson. | Photo courtesy of Visit Tucson

Pedaling across South Tucson in search of tacos

On the day of the tour, I was first fitted for an aqua-colored Civia bike and a shiny lime green helmet. Minutes later, six or seven of us eagerly pedaled away in search of tacos. With our colorful bikes and helmets, we perfectly complemented Tucson’s vibrantly painted streets.

The 10-mile bike tour began with us cutting across Barrio Viejo, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Tucson. While pedaling down Sixth Avenue, which bisects the century-old set of blocks, we spied Sonoran row houses, adobe-style architecture, and trendy cantinas. It was also rife with art galleries and creative boutiques like Carly Quinn Designs, which specializes in hand-glazed tiles.

We parked outside of Los Chipilones, the first of four stops we’d make on Tucson’s south side. Equipped with a walk-up window for ordering, the family-owned joint was named after the famous chipilon (more akin to a hot dog, chipilons are folded flour tortillas stuffed with melted cheese and steak). Los Chipilones also had a full-service car wash on the other side of the restaurant, in case you needed to wipe down your windshield.

But we didn’t come looking for shiny hubcaps and sausages—we biked here looking for Jalisco-style birria tacos. At their most basic, birria tacos are crisp, grilled tortillas ladled with savory, vinegar-spiked beef or goat stew. According to Bultman, the tangy slow-cooked meat tacos were “kind of having a moment,” having made it across the border in the early aughts before exploding on the East Coast almost 20 years later. Even Taco Bell got in on the action, introducing its own take on the classic—the Grilled Cheese Dipping Taco—this past August.

There were just four types of tacos at Los Chipilones: carne asada, chipilon, pollo asada, and birria, with that last option being the clear standout. As an East Coaster, I had never heard of birria tacos, much less tasted one. But I could immediately understand why they’ve taken the world by storm: I would have happily plowed through a whole basket of them, but pacing was key as more spots were on the afternoon’s docket.

a sonoran hotdog in a styrofoam container being held out for the camera
A Sonoran hot dog from a place like Ruiz Hot Dogs is a must-try for visitors. | Photo courtesy of Visit Tucson

Next stop: Sonoran hot dogs

Okay, maybe just one hot dog. A little palate cleanser, if you will. Because just across the street from Los Chipilones, the same owners operated Ruiz Hot Dogs, a well-loved food trailer outfitted with metal tables and red vinyl bench seats.

It wasn't exactly what I had signed up for, but eating this Tucsonan treat was practically a requirement for every visitor. The curious Sonoran-style hot dog originally hailed from Hermosillo, the capital of the Mexican state of Sonora, taking the form of a bacon-wrapped dog plopped on a toasted bolillo bun and topped with pinto beans, diced raw onions, tomatoes, salsa, mayo, and mustard. It was basically heaven—especially when paired with an ice-cold Mexican Coke or Fresca.

Other area hotspots worth checking out include BK and El Guero Canelo, which won a James Beard Award in 2018 despite serving its prized dogs in an indoor, sit-down setting. As Bultman explained, “They should always come from a truck.” It's a matter of aesthetics for him.

Tacqueria Pico de Gallo tacos in tuscon arizona
Tacqueria Pico de Gallo is beloved for its yellow corn flour tortillas, as well as its fish tacos. | Photo courtesy of Visit Tucson

There's always room for a few more tacos

Taqueria Pico de Gallo was our third stop. We were breaking Bultman's rules a little—the restaurant (a.k.a. not a food truck) was painted a vibrant yellow with orange trim, while outside a bright teal fence and picnic tables beckoned hungry cyclists like us. But their shrimp and fish tacos were widely beloved, and even more so were their house-made corn tortillas. Bultman relayed that the cakey and delicious tortillas were made with yellow Maseca Corn Masa Flour, which was much preferred for its thickness.

Tacos Apson was our final stop. With two locations, it was one of Tucson's better-known taco-slingers—a fact that hit us as we were all admittedly starting to get full. Still, we managed to power through, sampling mesquite-grilled carne asada and rasurado tacos made from shaved rib meat. Bultman said he didn't know of any other place in town that grilled their ribs over mesquite quite like Tacos Apson.

But that didn't mean they couldn't also nail the classics. They were especially skilled in the art of carne asada, which has long been the go-to for Sonoran-style tacos. “It’s a beef culture,” said Bultman. “If you’re going to try a taco that’s typical of the area, that’s it. And those guys do a better job than just about anybody.”

By the time we finished our last bites at Tacos Apson, no one was eager to saddle up and bike the last few miles back to our starting point. Thankfully, the sweeping views across the mountains and the 70-degree January temps were delightfully refreshing. It was a lesson learned: When you’re ready for tacos in Tucson, the tacos are ready for you. Just be sure to come with an empty stomach, some cash, and enough time for a post-feast siesta.

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Erin Gifford is a contributor for Thrillist.