This article was created in partnership with Visit Tucson.
In December of 2015, Tucson snagged the United States’ first UNESCO World City of Gastronomy title, joining cities in Brazil, China, Colombia, Japan, Lebanon, and Sweden.
Baja Arizona looks—and tastes—like nowhere else in North America, with a rich culinary heritage that spans 4,000 years and a border that encompasses distinct Mexican and Native traditions in both food and drink. Our culinary scene has long had a loyal local following, but now the secret is out and we’re attracting national and international travelers to our tables.
Farmers and ranchers are the backbone of our agricultural legacy; chefs and mixologists continue the tradition, tweaking recipes using indigenous ingredients such as chiltepins, cholla buds, prickly pear syrup, mesquite flour, tepary beans, and White Sonoran wheat in creative concoctions.
Ready to experience why Tucson deserves this prestigious designation? Here are a few of our favorite places to explore Baja Arizona’s borderland cuisine.
Archeological excavations at the foot of Sentinel Peak (also known as “A” Mountain) revealed that the Santa Cruz River floodplain has some of the longest history of continual cultivation in North America. A re-creation of the Spanish Colonial walled garden built by Father Eusebio Francisco Kino in the 17th century, Mission Garden is nurtured by volunteers of the nonprofit Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace. Located just west of downtown near the site of the former San Agustin Mission, it features an heirloom orchard and gardens with crops that have been rooted here for thousands of years. Trace the history from the Early Ancestral period, through Native, Spanish, Mexican, Chinese, and Territorial Anglo-American periods. In addition to the flora and fauna, you’ll enjoy winged company: birds and butterflies. At Grande Ave. and Mission Lane. TucsonsBirthplace.org.
Native Seeds/SEARCH is agricultural gold. Cofounded three decades ago by author, educator and ethnobiologist Gary Paul Nabhan, Karen Reichhardt, Barney Burns and Mahina Drees, Native Seeds/SEARCH safeguards an extensive collection of open-pollinated, non-GMO, desert-adapted seeds from throughout the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico, many of which are found nowhere else on earth. With a bit of planning, you can visit the Seed Bank at the Conservation Center. The retail store stocks an amazing selection of seeds, regional cookbooks, along with locally sourced beans, moles, salsas, and teas, and artisan crafts including baskets, kitchen utensils, mugs, and t-shirts. There are often demonstrations—a recent one featured Mata Ortiz potters—and workshops. 3061 N. Campbell Ave. NativeSeeds.org.
San Xavier Co-op Farm Store
When making a pilgrimage to the splendid “White Dove of the Desert,” the Mission San Xavier del Bac, don’t miss the farm store at the San Xavier Co-op Farm. Situated on the Tohono O’odham nation, the farm has sustained itself for generations using a sophisticated irrigation system pulling from the Santa Cruz River. Herbicide- and pesticide-free hay and feed are staple crops, as are dried beans and corn, in addition to fresh seasonal produce like summer and winter squash. The mesquite cookie mix, roasted green chile rub, honey, and pickled veggie jars—think cabbage and okra—made by tribal members make great gifts. Look for seasonal workshops on topics like beekeeping and wild harvesting. 8100 Oidak Wog. SanXavierCoop.org.
Tucson Village Farm
A collaboration between the Pima County Cooperative Extension and the University of Arizona, with support from local businesses, nonprofits, and schools, Tucson Village Farm has been recognized by First Lady Michelle Obama for its successful efforts to connect young people (starting at the tender age of two) to the land, teaching them to grow and prepare healthy food. In 2010, it was a dirt lot; now it serves more than 20,000 youth and adults annually with year-round instructional programs and immersive, play-in-the-dirt summer farm camps. The farm occasionally offers a U-pick market on Tuesdays from 5-7 p.m., when surplus produce is available. Check their Facebook Page to find out what’s in season. 4210 N. Campbell Ave. TucsonVillageFarm.arizona.edu.
Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market
Operated by the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, this market is vital in providing greater access to local, healthy food to underserved citizens in the region. It also connects agricultural producers with residents and visitors every Thursday afternoons year-round. Named by Farmers’ Almanac as one of the nation’s ten best farmers markets, it’s held in the vibrant Mercado San Agustin, a great place grab a coffee—or glass of wine—and hang out. In addition to just-picked produce and organic meat, vendors offers freshly baked tortillas, jarred salsas, and roasted chiles. Live music and cooking demos—solar cooking, anyone?—add to the fun. 100 S. Avendia del Convento at the Mercado San Agustín. Runs Thursday 4 – 7 p.m.; winter hours (October-April), 3 – 6 p.m.
Manzo Elementary Farmers’ Market
Manzo Elementary School students—preschoolers through fifth graders—grow fresh fruits and vegetables in the school gardens at the “greenest elementary school on the planet,” according to the Center for Green Schools. Every Wednesday, the students sell their harvest to family, friends, Barrio Hollywood neighbors, and the public at this market which operates during the school year. They also sell to local restaurants. “Buying local doesn’t get any more economical—or cuter—than this,” says Blue Baldwin, Manzo’s ecology program coordinator. Once a semester, kids harvest tilapia from their aquaponic system. Depending on weight, each fish sells for the bargain price of $3-5, perfect for fish tacos or ceviche. 855 N. Melrose Ave. Runs Wednesday, 1:30 – 2:30 p.m., from mid-September through mid-May. GoManzo.com.
Header image by Debbie Weingarten from the piece Community Spotlight: Native Seeds/SEARCH.