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Best Tucson Restaurants

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Fajitas, enchiladas, tacos and burritos are what many outsiders believe to be Southwest cuisine. Yet, tomatoes are not the foundation, chiles are, and flour tortillas are for gringos. All these basics are certainly found in great supply throughout the Tucson area. But there’s much more to local cuisine than that—witness the recently famed Sonoran hot dog, a quirky manifestation of cross-cultural food that blends a slightly larger than usual hot dog, wrapped in bacon, mounted in a Sonoran bread roll, slathered with salsa, cheese, condiments, and accompanied by a roasted chile. On the fine-dining scene, inventive local chefs have started making occasional use of native ingredients such as mesquite flour and saguaro fruit, and classic “Mexican” food is going upscale with gourmet enchiladas and tamales. But steak cooked over a mesquite fire remains the traditional ranch cuisine standard, and huevos rancheros is the still-classic breakfast. Summer’s low season entices many Tucson chefs and restaurateurs to go on vacation; check the websites for possible August closures.

McClintock's Restaurant

Neighborhood:

Saguaro Ranch

Price: Expensive

Atmosphere is the key attribute of this tony fine-dining bistro in the Saguaro Ranch luxury residential development. Arched gateways greet visitors, desert sunsets light the outdoor patios with fiery colors, candlelight and the glowing fireplace flicker in the evening air. The stone building is vaguely reminiscent of territorial ranch style, but it’s completely new. The menu’s “rustic modernity” focuses on pork chops with roasted apples, lamb with an Asiago polenta cake, quail stuffed with ciabatta and other new American dishes. Reservations required; closed Mondays in summer.

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McClintock's Restaurant  

Harvest

Neighborhood: Oro Valley Price: Moderate

The menu at Harvest is engagingly eclectic—mulligatawny stew and pho consommé, red pepper ravioli and braised pork ribs—paired with a firm commitment to utilizing local ingredients. The ribs, for example, come with prickly pear mole, and the beef is all sustainably raised, from local ranchers. The highlight of the dessert menu is jalapeño bacon cheesecake. You don’t see that every day, do you? The lovely outdoor dining section has won prizes for its romantic atmosphere.

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Harvest  

Cafe Poca Cosa

Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Moderate

The mainstay of fine-dining Southwest cuisine in Tucson for more than 20 years now, Suzana Davila’s downtown bistro is high-style enough to warrant a celebration dinner, but laid-back enough that you’ll see diners in shorts and sandals. The eclectic décor features vivid carnelian walls, leather banquettes and modern Southwest art. The menu, changed twice daily, reflects Davila’s upbringing in Guaymas, with traditional Sonoran ingredients such as pasilla, guajillo and chilhaucle chiles, with shrimp, chicken, fish and pork resting amid redolent sauces that only begin with the famous chile-chocolate mole. If you want tomato-drowned boring tacos, this is not the place. Closed for a month every summer beginning in mid-July.

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Daisy Mae's Steak House

Neighborhood:

West Side

Price: Moderate

The proliferation of national-chain steakhouses has not passed Tucson by, but this local institution powers on. Housed in a low-slung ranch-style building, with dollar bills tacked on the walls around such steakhouse mainstays as longhorn racks, this restaurant’s menu is no-nonsense: steaks cooked outside over a mesquite fire, pork chops, chicken and Western-style dry-rub ribs with baked potatoes, chips and salsa, and salads. The atmosphere is determinedly casual—don’t come here in anything resembling a suit, please.

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Daisy Mae's Steak House »

Blue Willow

Neighborhood:

Midtown

Price: Moderate

Home-style health food is the draw at this 30-year-old Tucson institution—meatloaf made with grass-fed beef, for instance, and scrambled eggs with corn tortillas, green chilies and salsa. The spinach/three-cheese lasagna is a favorite, and the grilled sweet-potato sandwich is much heartier than it sounds. The shaded outdoor courtyard of the stucco bungalow is pleasantly atmospheric, but informal.

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El Charro Cafe

Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Moderate

Family-owned Mexican restaurants are no rarity these days, but this one dates back to 1922, and thus earns the distinction as the oldest in the nation still operated by the founding family. Diners thus find such traditional favorites as albondigas (Mexican meatball soup); salsa made with chiltepin, the wild native chili of southern Arizona; red-chili beef tamales; and enchiladas in tomatillo mole. You’ll also find more-inventive modern recipes, such as seared salmon in adobo (dark red chili) sauce. El Charro has five locales, each a bit different, but all cozy, with traditional Mexican styling, such as wrought-iron decorations, sombreros and paintings of Old Mexico. The original, downtown, is situated in the city’s historic El Presidio district, at the heart of the city.

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El Guero Canelo

Neighborhood:

South Tucson

Price: Budget

Handmade tortillas and Mexican sodas (such as the hip Mexican version of Coca-Cola, sans corn syrup) distinguish this erstwhile taco stand now grown into two large eateries. Despite the relatively sleek surroundings at the second location, the menu hews true to Sonoran food—menudo (tripe stew with posole and chiles) is on the weekend breakfast sheet, for example. New-wave cuisine here is represented by Sonoran hot dogs: El Guero and BK’s are the two prime sites for this Tucson specialty. The new north side location is at 2480 N. Oracle Rd.

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El Guero Canelo  

BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs

Neighborhood: South Tucson
Price: Budget

Carne asada means, literally, cooked meat, and that’s the fundamental menu mainstay at this popular South Tucson eatery. It’s originally a taco stand, but what tacos—they grill their chicken and pork over mesquite for a fine smoky flavor. Having helped inaugurate the Sonoran hot-dog craze, BK’s won the Travel Channel Food Wars segment devoted to this Tucson delicacy. Atmosphere is modest (a drive-in with tables scattered about), but that just adds to its rustic charm. There’s also a new location at 2680 N. 1st Avenue, in Midtown.

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BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs  

Ghini’s French Caffe

Neighborhood:

Midtown

Price: Budget

OK, French food is not exactly what you’d expect in Tucson. Nor is this small bistro’s strip-mall location glamorous or even appealing. But when you want a change from huevos rancheros, the breakfasts here are Tucson’s best alternative: French toast is rich and moist here, as opposed to the cardboard one usually finds. Nearly a dozen omelets range from triple cheese to Marseillaise, with anchovies, tomatoes and garlic. Ghini’s local commitment means the bacon is mesquite-smoked, the art is from a local gallery, and the breads, croissants and most baked goods come from Ghini’s La Baguette Bakery. The outdoor patio overlooks the parking lot, but, hey, it’s the food that counts.

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Ghini’s French Caffe  

Raging Sage

Neighborhood:

Midtown

Price: Budget

Tucson’s best coffeehouse roasts its own coffees, focusing on mellow, shade-grown Central American varieties, and offers an expansive cabinet of home-made scones, muffins and other pastries to accompany its coffee and tea. The compact stucco building is not far from UA, so the indoor tables are sometimes fully occupied by 20-somethings studying. The nifty outdoor courtyard is shaded by two large citrus trees, and there’s free parking out back.

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