Before I visited, I’d heard Sierra Vista’s food scene dismissed as consisting of mostly fast food joints. It’s not true. In fact, half the city’s restaurants are ethnic eateries.
The theory is that there’s a demand for culinary diversity because of the large population of well-traveled military personnel, both active and retired, that call Sierra Vista home, along with the many international visitors who flock to the region for its unparalleled bird watching.
Located at a four-season elevation above 4,600 feet, Sierra Vista is 75 miles southeast of Tucson in Cochise County with a population of 45,000. Ringed by the rugged Huachuca, Dragoon, Mule, and Whetstone mountains, Sierra Vista’s Spanish translation, “mountain view,” is apt. The San Pedro River runs just east of town.
Fort Huachuca, an active Army base and the area’s largest employer, is important to the city’s rich history. Back in 1877 the raiding Chiricahua Apaches were terrorizing the region. Samuel M. Whitside and Company B of the Sixth U.S. Cavalry were dispatched to provide protection to the settlers in the area, setting up a permanent U.S. Army post. Fort Huachuca became legendary as the headquarters for the nation’s campaign against Geronimo and home of the first black soldiers, dubbed Buffalo Soldiers, who battled Pancho Villa.
The Fort remains an important center for communication and plays a central role in intelligence training and unmanned aerial system operations. A free visit to either the Historical Museum or military museums requires a background check to obtain an access badge (done at the Visitor Control Center), but the red tape is worthwhile. Artifacts include a large fragment of the Berlin Wall, which, being so close to the U.S.-Mexico border, seems like a meaningful metaphor for our times.
The community that grew outside of the base has had a number of names since 1956, when Sierra Vista was adopted. Some old-timers know Sierra Vista by its former names: Buena, Overton, Garden Canyon, and Fry. What’s less known is its food. And the “Hummingbird Capital of the World” offers some great eats.
For starters, there’s the terrific shaking beef at Indochine (1299 E. Fry Blvd.), which is tucked into a modest strip mall. The tender cubed beef tenderloin is marinated and sautéed, served with rice, a tossed green salad, and lemon pepper sauce. I had a hankering for lemongrass, so I inquired if the kitchen could accommodate that into a starter. Voila! Refreshing tofu vegan rolls plump with colorful, shredded vegetables transparent through the springy rice membrane wrapper. That’s when the charismatic chef/owner Tony Pham came out to meet me. Turns out he grows some of his own produce and teaches cooking classes and demos. He also makes something I have never had: date tea. He guards the recipe, but it includes ginger and it’s delicious iced and deliciously addictive. Before I left, we huddled together over his computer, looking at pictures of his beautiful homeland’s landscapes and temples.
Pizzeria Mimosa (4755 E. Neapolitan Way in neighboring Hereford) is the kind of impressive place you expect to find in Scottsdale: all warm Tuscan-inspired brick and wood ambiance with an exhibition kitchen. I sampled some excellent dishes, including fermented black garlic pasta and the generously sized Monumento Pizza, named for the 2011 fire that blazed through town. Crushed tomatoes, mozzarella, Calabrian chile, roasted red peppers, garlic, and peppered salami atop a perfectly charred crust was so tempting my vegan friend had to have a bite, declaring it worth falling off the meat-free wagon. The gnocchi alla Tirolese with Gorgonzola cream, prosciutto, and wood-roasted mushrooms is an outstanding option for those who are more disciplined about their consumption. As if on cue, a couple from the next table stepped over to congratulate us on our excellent choices; turns out they are retired Army personnel and regulars. There’s also a gourmet shop stocked with imported sauces, pastas, spices, and wines.
Another place that earns high marks for authenticity—not to mention huge portions—is The German Café (1805 Paseo San Luis). It’s a bit off the beaten path, but you still might have to wait; the place is a bit cramped and quite popular. If you fancy a dark brew, though, you’ll have to visit the pub next door; the café doesn’t pour alcohol. But you might not miss it after getting your fill of schnitzel and spätzle (egg noodles), potato pancakes and sauerkraut and bock-, brat-, and currywursts.
After indulging, I craved some exercise. Sierra Vista offers outdoor opportunities to work off the calories you consume.
The Ramsey Canyon Preserve (27 E. Ramsey Canyon Road) is a lush and varied riparian ecosystem of semidesert grasslands and pine-fir forests, one of the most biologically diverse in the country. Here I spied wild turkey, deer, pygmy owls, and black bear. Well, only scat, but still, that was kind of thrilling. The adjacent Arizona Folklore Preserve (56 E. Folklore Road) often has musical performances, including Dolan Ellis, Arizona’s official state balladeer.
I also enjoyed visiting the museums on Fort Huachuca, which feature collections of the Post’s history from the Indian Wars through the Cold War.
But perhaps my favorite place was the beautiful Our Lady of the Sierras Shrine (10310 S. Twin Oaks Road). It’s a steep winding road to the top, but the reward is sweet. I don’t identify as a religious person, but I’m deeply spiritual. And this site is very moving, with the 75-foot Celtic cross and the 31-foot tall Virgin Mary—which, miraculously survived the devastating 2011 Monument Fire. I wandered the Stations of the Cross, my hair whipping in the wind. I gawked at the 360-degree panorama of sky islands. I snapped a picture for a Mexican family. I vowed to return.
In Sierra Vista, there’s nourishment for both body and soul. ✜
Suzanne Wright is a frequent contributor to Edible Baja Arizona, along with regional and national publications including AAA Highroads Arizona, Go Escape, Hispanic Living, Modern Woman, and Phoenix Magazine.