We’re lucky to witness an era where every month it seems that there are several new options for eating, not just in Tucson, but all over the borderlands. In part, that’s due to the repurposed and new buildings that accommodate new audiences, bringing a diverse array of people downtown.
But long before those with investment capital decided our region—both Tucson and the broader borderlands community—was interesting and worth some dollars, we enjoyed a tradition of talented gastronomical artists expressing their art with or without an audience, often nested at hole-in-the-wall locations. I have made it my mission at Edible Baja Arizona to explore both the old and the new so I can share with our audience how I fill my considerable appetite—hence the name “hungriest foodie.” I owe the moniker to Tim Steller of the Arizona Daily Star, who used it to describe my gastronomic explorations in a column last year.
Cafe Marcel (344 N. Fourth Ave.) opened in 2008, right when the world economy tumbled. It is easy to miss, even strolling by on foot, but it’s worth the stop. When you decide to treat yourself, reserve the whole morning and make sure you like your dining companion. They take their time to craft fine European-style crepes, both savory and sweet. Ingredients are fresh and made to order. Insider tip: Give yourself time for a nap afterward.
Caffé Milano (46 W. Congress St.) has been tucked in the middle of bustling and growing downtown for a decade and a half, and serving great food all the while. New ownership took over about a year ago and the changes are all positive. Caffé Milano survives due to a solid lunch crowd, but I highly suggest hitting them up for dinner. If you go, I’d say go all the way with an appetizer, primi piatti, secondi, and dessert (and a bottle of wine). This is the real-deal Italian. In addition to providing authentic Italian cuisine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, chef Fulvia Steffenone (known as La Fufi) has made it her mission to give away all her secrets and teach you classic Italian cooking. She has started a new cooking school located at the Community Kitchen at Mercado San Agustín. For more information, call 520.628.1601.
I spent three weeks in New York City this past summer; my girlfriend and I must have eaten at a dozen ramen shops. Since then, we have been obsessed. In Tucson the best we’ve found so far is on the northwest side at Ikkyu (2040 W. Orange Grove Road). They have three styles: shoyu (soy based broth), tonkotsu (pork based broth) and miso. My favorite is the tonkatsu ramen—though it seems like a cream-based broth, the creaminess comes not from dairy but rather from pork fat—no wonder I love it so much. Ikkyu has a full Japanese menu and, given the work required to make it, ramen is only offered Thursday through Saturday.
I really, really love ramen and phō. But recently I was reminded of another absolute favorite soup from Thailand: tom kha gai, or Thai coconut chicken soup. Bai Thong (4853 E. Speedway Blvd., Tucson) works hard to source from several importers for their ingredients to make good tom kha gai. The availability of ingredients like lemongrass, galangal (a root related to ginger but bigger and fleshier), and kaffir leaves (from a variety of citrus rare in the United States) make keeping this great soup on the menu a challenge. Somehow, they manage just fine. This soup has a magical sort of flavor that only Southeast Asia could produce. The soup is savory, but the aromatics from the lemongrass, kaffir leaves, and galangal raise the flavor to a higher plane.
A few years ago I lived in Barrio Anita, a neighborhood situated between I-10 and the train tracks south of Speedway Boulevard. I discovered my new home on a spontaneous weekend bike ride through the west side of town and, I swear, one reason I ended up moving was for the Anita Street Market (849 N. Anita Ave.). Run and managed by its third generation, Barrio Anita is a favorite of plenty of well-nested Tucsonans. They produce some of the best tortillas and tamales in town. The food is better than many well-known Mexican restaurants, and often much cheaper. Though it is technically a restaurant, eating there feels more like having a meal with your nana. The adobe building of the market is not much different than most residential homes on the street. You can also stock up on ingredients like chorizo, queso fresco, or chiltepines.
Over the years, I have made another tiny little eatery a habit, especially when nursing hangovers. Located south of downtown, but north of South Tucson, the ambiance of Birria Guadalajara (304 E. 22nd St.) is unassuming, and much like restaurants found all about Sonora. Though the restaurant is brick-and-mortar, it feels almost like a food truck; you order at a window and sit on a covered patio outside. For birria and cabeza tacos, it doesn’t get better. For rough mornings when your head throbs and your stomach is queasy, the menudo is not only delicious, but also practically medicinal.
Since I keep thinking about soup (must be the long-awaited chill in the air), I should mention Tooley’s Cafe in the Lost Barrio (299 S. Park Ave.). There are many reasons to love Tooley’s, especially at breakfast time. But for me, it is the posole that brings me back over and over again. Posole is like the Mexican version of pho. Both are hearty soups, often both are topped with fresh cilantro. The hominy, chile, and cumin are what make this soup such a perfect breakfast in Tucson. After your soup, check out rest of this little secret neighborhood (they don’t call it “lost” for nothing). There are lots of alluring and artisan retail shops and businesses within a couple blocks of each other.
Tubac has a few new eateries ready to nourish you while hopping around its maze of shops and galleries: Soto’s PK Outpost (14 Camino Otero) was originally located in Nogales. Serving primarily Sonoran cuisine, their fajitas are to die for. Also in Tubac, The Goods (24A Tubac Road) is a sandwich and smoothie bar that has a little something for everyone.
Bisbee has a new option for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The young owners of The Quarry (40 Brewery Ave.) describe their fare as “locally sourced comfort food.” Meatloaf, pot pie, and braised lamb shanks have already made this place a local favorite.
In downtown Tucson, at the corner of Fifth and Broadway, a promising new restaurant is bringing something to town that’s totally new, er that is …old. Barrio Cuisine (188 E. Broadway) will feature contemporary Native American cuisine grounded in the traditional roots of both the Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui tribes. It looks like they should be open sometime in November, but we will be patient. ✜
Jared McKinley is the associate publisher of Edible Baja Arizona.