When I moved to Tucson, I was obsessed with getting across the border and into Sonora. Every little bit of extra time and money I had went to getting myself to the place where the tropics and the desert intermingle—which for a young, budding botanist, was the very definition of heaven. It was where I had my first real taco and my first sip of bacanora.
My life these days is focused on another obsession—the place I live. Because I spent so much time learning about Sonora, I didn’t spend much time in my own state. This is something I am making up for these days, as my job takes me all over Tucson and Arizona. I am learning what an incredible place my home is.
My obsession with eating is about more than just food. Let’s face it. A chimichanga might have a few forms. But it’s basically a chimichanga. It is the associated culture—the people, the landscape, and the shared moment—that make eating around Baja Arizona so much fun.
During Tucson’s first jazz festival in January, I finally got the chance to have dinner at Caffe Milano (46 W. Congress St.). Tucked in a small but hopping downtown location, the restaurant is run by the Italian owners who purchased the restaurant a couple of years ago, and they still work in the hustle and bustle every night. I respect owners who work in the trenches.
Katy, my girlfriend, had been to Italy just a few months earlier, and guided me toward the carbonara. What a perfect food: pasta with bacon, cheese, eggs, and black pepper. Washing that down with a glass of Umberto Cesari MOMA Rosso I thought: If I died right now, it’d be just fine. And to think we followed that up with some authentic jazz music? Is this Tucson?
Proper (300 E. Congress St.) has been offering something special on the first Monday night of every month. You can find them the day before, combing the booths at Heirloom Farmers’ Market at Rillito Park. Market Monday is their attempt to serve a restaurant dinner with as much food sourced locally as possible. Reservations are only $35 for a three-course meal. The night we went, we started with roasted baby beets with cotija, red quinoa, aged balsamic, and smoked maldon salt. That was followed by braised Walking J Ranch chuck with whipped Yukon potatoes, sautéed greens, broccolini, and rosemary jus. We finished off with honey panna cotta topped with a cookie flavored with Maya Tea black tea. The restaurant was packed; some of the patrons were those people who produced the food on the menu. This happens once a month and I hope Proper keeps this community-building event going.
Many of my outings double as business meetings. Kingfisher (2564 E. Grant Road) is well known as a place where great collaborations start. At the suggestion of a friend, I ordered and plowed through the grilled fish sandwich. It’s a perfect lunch with the slaw and the shoestring fries. Kingfisher is not just a great lunch; open until midnight, with cool lighting and occasional live jazz, it’s a nice place for a late dinner or a drink or date—not just a business meeting.
Benson is exactly the distance from Tucson where I need to stop and eat. From the freeway
one might think that all Benson has to offer is Walmart and Circle K. But there are some great little places tucked in that town. And sometimes when you are on the road, all you really want is a simple hot dog. Wild Dogs (705 W. Fourth St.) is not a pretentious place. They just make great dogs. One afternoon on our way to Bisbee, we devoured a Reuben dog, a slaw dog, and some garlic fries. The food came fast and disappeared fast, and on the road, this simple offering makes you wonder why anyone would ever stop at a Circle K for anything besides gas. As an aside, they almost always have old movies playing on the television in the dining room—if you are going to only watch a minute of a movie, it might as well be one you’ve seen.
South of Tucson
I have to admit; until very recently I thought South Tucson included a lot more than the 1.2 square miles it actually occupies (it is completely surrounded by the city of Tucson). For example, I thought Perfecto’s Mexican Restaurant (5404 S. 12th Ave.) was within the “Pueblo within a City.” Indeed it is not. But city lines aren’t going to alter the esteem I have for this part of the Hispanic corridor of Tucson, populated by carnicerias, restaurants, and shops that make you think you might be in Nogales, Sonora.
I made my way down to Perfecto’s for lunch recently—I had shrimp ceviche tostada, a birria chimichanga, and posole. It is one of many small, family-run businesses in the region. If you are looking for new lunch options, add just a few more minutes to your travel time and explore south.
In My Home
I love to enjoy the food of Baja Arizona in my own kitchen, assembled from ingredients I have procured from wandering about. One of my recent favorites was a tostada we made from corn tortillas from Anita Street Market, bratwurst from The Jojoba Beef Company in Kearny, beans from Arevalos Farm in McNeal, paprika queso fresco from Chiva Risa in Hereford, tomatoes from Sunizona Family Farms, and of course our own chicken eggs. If you think that is a lot of miles between ingredients, it pales to the number of miles that all those same ingredients would add up to from a normal grocery store. And I love it that I know all those people who provided those ingredients. ✜
Jared McKinley is the associate publisher of Edible Baja Arizona.