24 Hours in Tucson, Arizona | chicago foodie girl

11.20.2017

24 Hours in Tucson, Arizona

While the majority of my visit to Arizona was centered in the Phoenix area, I did have the chance to make my way two hours south to the funky, artsy, and foodie-oriented city of Tucson for a quick 24-hour tour. As soon as I mentioned to my friends that I was headed to AZ, those who have visited or lived there immediately mentioned three places that should be on my must-see list: Sedona (because it's gorgeous), Flagstaff (because there are actual seasons), and Tucson (because it's totally my type of town). As much as I would have loved to check out all three places, there just wasn't enough time. However, my friends were totally right on track with Tucson - while I enjoyed the entire trip to AZ, I totally fell hard for the little southwestern city with its fun street art, low-key vibe, and thriving multicultural food scene.

In some ways, Tucson is a bit of a hidden gem in the food world. When we think about foodie destinations in the U.S., there are the large city power players with tons of celebrity chefs (e.g. New York, L.A., Chicago, NOLA) and there are the smaller cities with a huge draw (e.g. Asheville, Aspen, Portland). For some reason, Tucson is undeservedly often absent from those best of/must-visit lists. However, not only does the city have a deep and vibrant food history, incredible Mexican food options, numerous independently owned restaurants and local artisanal producers, a booming craft beer and wine scene, and two James Beard Award winners, it's also the only place in the United States to be designated a City of Gastronomy by UNESCO. How cool is that?! Tucson is not just a spot for sun-worshippers (I've heard they have close to 300 sunny days per year!) - it is also most definitely the place for foodies.

We started our 24 hours of food exploration with a stop at Barrio Bread, a neighborhood bakery offering gorgeous artisan bread made from locally grown heritage grains. This popular spot produces 500-600 loaves per day and is often sold out by early afternoon. Owner/founder Don Guerra is passionate not only about baking but also about education outreach and food security; he is committed to working with local farmers and partners who focus on feeding and strengthening the community.

Barrio is known for its crusty breads with a beautiful crunch and a soft and chewy interior. As a sworn carbaholic, I went crazy for everything in the shop - every loaf from the Birote to the Cinnamon Raisin to the Super Seed Whole Wheat was so perfectly done! I especially loved the nutty, slightly sour, and subtly sweet Pain au Levain.

How gorgeous is that crust?!

After Barrio, we headed over to Exo Roast for a coffee break. Of course, although we were all stuffed with delicious bread, we couldn't resist sampling the Kimchi Egg Sandwich: Sonoran kimchi, farm eggs, local cheese, wild arugula, and chili oil, served on Barrio Bread. The sandwich paired perfectly with the rich, semi-sweet, and slightly spicy (and easily some of the best coffee I've ever had!) Chiltepin Cold Brew: Mexican coffee brewed with chiltepin peppers, truffle chocolate, and a dash of cream.

Shrub: Prickly Pear syrup and white balsamic served over sparkling water

I loved the look and feel of Exo - it's in an old warehouse space with a funky, industrial chic decor (I totally need a door like this!). It is such a great space to hang out, watch films, or listen to live music.

We slurped down our fantastic coffee and then started out on a walking tour of the neighborhood (en route to our next food stop, of course!). I especially loved Fourth Avenue, a long stretch of fun boutiques, bars, restaurants, cafes, and art.

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The first destination on our walking tour was Boca Tacos y Tequila, one of the most popular taco joints in the area. The vibrant and wickedly hilarious Chef Maria Mazon offers 25 varieties of tacos made the traditional way (i.e. no cheese or sour cream); she is passionate about introducing diners to real Mexican food through her inventive flavor profiles, evident in everything from the salsas to the tacos to the cocktails. She grinds chiltepin peppers for her rotating varieties of salsas, including flavors such as watermelon sriracha, banana habanero, Honeycrisp apple, blueberry, basil and serrano peppers, and cucumber (my favorite!).


Carajillo: Yellow Brick Nitro Cold Brew with Liqueur 43. If you follow me on Instagram or Twitter, you may remember me waxing poetically about a life-changing cocktail. Sharp, warm, complex, and slightly sweet... this, my friends, is the cocktail that trumps all others for me. 🙌


Boca Balls: Chipotle mashed potatoes rolled in Panko bread crumbs and fried, served with Boca dipping sauce. I was still pretty full from our earlier bread adventures and told myself I would only take a bite.... two minutes later, I had totally demolished one of these babies and was looking longingly at another.


Camaron: Lime butter and chipotle marinated grilled shrimp. So flavorful and perfectly done!

We continued our walk down Fourth Avenue and landed next at Ermano's Craft Beer & Wine Bar, a trendy and gorgeous spot with a robust lineup of craft brews from local breweries, a tasting room, and a curated wine list, Again, I loved the vibe of this place - it's a combination of warm, inviting, and modern. Keeping with the general feel of Tucson, it's also very laid back; as much as I love living in Chicago, I really enjoyed the slower pace and more chill attitude. Even at the more crowded popular spots, there wasn't the frantic hustle and bustle vibe you find at most of the downtown Chicago restaurants.


Sonoran Meat & Cheese Board: Forbes Firecracker brat, house bacon, Jalapeño jam, smoky cotija, compound butter, goat cheese, fruit, mozzarella, chimichurri, and pickled vegetables


Look what I stumbled upon on the way to our next stop - yes, this just made me love Tucson even more! 💜

Next, we made our way over to Pueblo Vida Brewing, ranked Arizona's best brewery. Owners Linette and Kyle are not only passionate about brewing high-quality craft beers but also they have their roots firmly planted in the tenets of sustainability and connection to the local community (and they're some of the nicest people in the craft beer world I've ever met!). Their brews are IPA-focused, but the ten taps allow them to offer a variety of options so that everyone can find something they love - even a beer neophyte (and slight hater) like me. 

After sampling the Hefeweizen and Harvest, a pale ale with prickly pear, I finally found a beer I actually liked (again, I am soooo not a beer person): the Breakfast Stout, brewed with cold pressed coffee from Yellow Brick Coffee (sensing a theme here?).

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At the end of our afternoon of drinking and sun, it was finally time for our last stop in the downtown area: the ridiculously cute Isabella's Ice Cream. Founded on the principles of social and environmental responsibility, the ice cream is all made in their family-owned creamery using local ingredients that are non-GMO certified. These totally adorable trucks run exclusively on electric power and use solar panels to power the built-in freezers.

 Mint Chocolate Chip in a waffle cone


Coconut Ash and Sonoran Coffee (my favorite!) in a fresh bubble waffle

After finishing with our foodie walking tour, we checked into Lodge on the Desert, a charming hacienda-style hotel with a lovely view of the Santa Catalina Mountains. It might not seem much to those of you who don't live in the flatlands, but being able to look out the windows and see actual mountains is still quite thrilling to me!


We took a much-needed short break/sobering up time and then headed down to Cielos for an evening of contemporary seasonal cuisine focused on Southwest ingredients crafted by Chef David Solorzano. We kicked off our meal with this incredible Tartare: hand-cut flat iron filet, soy, caper, whole grain mustard, charred onions, black garlic aioli, tatsoi, crispy taro root, and pickled quail egg.

Bone-In Pork Loin with Charleston red rice, braised heirloom carrots, caramelized Brussels sprouts, and Spanish chorizo

Flat Iron Steak with charred onions, pepper flakes, seasoned broccolini, potato purée, and a braising reduction

Pan-Seared Cascabel Crusted U-10 Scallops with forbidden rice, mint pea pistou, red chermoula, benne seed cracker, and charred bok choy. Anyone who knows me knows it's more likely than not that if I see scallops on a menu, I will order them. Needless to say, I've eaten a lot of scallops in my life and I've gotten to the point in which I am super picky about the quality and preparation. These scallops were *phenomenal* - I cleared my entire plate and then thought about them for days afterward. While I enjoyed our entire meal, the scallops really pushed it over the edge for me.

Before heading back north to Scottsdale the next morning, we stopped by Cup Cafe at the eclectic and historic Hotel Congress for breakfast. The hotel/bar/club is a popular music venue in downtown Tucson and most notably the site where John Dillinger was captured and tried (he was later killed in front of The Biograph in Chicago).

I immediately gravitated toward one of my all-time favorite breakfast dishes: Chilaquiles Verde with super tender braised pork, eggs, corn tortilla, tomatillo sauce, asadero and cotija cheeses, and cilantro.


We also sampled the super cheesy and flavorful Cast Iron Baked Eggs (their most popular breakfast dish): poached eggs, ham, leeks, shallots, gruyère cheese, cream, and vegetables.

On our way out, we had the chance to climb up to the rooftop, which gave us an awesome view of the iconic Hotel Congress sign, as well as downtown Tucson. It was a lovely and fitting ending to our 24 hours of exploration.


Thanks for your awesome food and fun vibes, Tucson! I'll definitely be back for more!

Exo Roast Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
Disclosure: I received a complimentary trip and services to facilitate this post. Review and all opinions are my own. 

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8 comments

  1. Thank you for all the recommendations and when I do make it to Tucson, I will check them out

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    1. It's such a fun place! I definitely need to head back down there to do some more exploring!

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  2. Visit Tumerico for breakfast or lunch the next time you're in Tucson! It's fantastic!

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    1. Just took a look at the menu -- it looks fantastic! I'm definitely adding it my to-visit list for next time!

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  3. Born and raised in Tucson--your reviews tell me I have some tasty exploring to do!

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    1. I wish I could have spent more time there -- I loved the vibe of the downtown area!

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  4. Next time you are in Tucson, take a day to tour the wineries an hour's drive southeast of town and stop by Apple Annie's for fresh baked apple or peach pie from fruit picked at the farm.

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    Replies
    1. That definitely sounds like something I need to do!

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