By Nicole Underwood / NewsBreak Pima County, AZ
(Pima County, AZ) Exploring the beauty of the Southwestern desert is a desirable endeavor for any traveler. But, how much do you know about Southwestern food? In Pima County, named after the Pima Indians indigenous to the area, many new cuisine adventures await those curious to explore — locals and visitors alike.
Centered around Tucson — the second largest city in Arizona — Pima County is the third-largest metropolitan area in the Southwestern U.S. It is home to many rural restaurants — scattered hidden gems that span the desert landscape. The main anchors of the restaurant scene, however, reside in Tucson.
Let’s start with the familiar. If you seek classic cuisine, you may default to a quality Sonoran hot dog, a staple that Southwesterners are delighted to sink their teeth into. If you’re not in the know, here’s a brief education: this unique style of hot dog cuisine originated in the 1980’s Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora, Mexico. The creation consists of a hot dog wrapped in bacon, grilled, and served on a bolillo-style bun. The hot dog is typically topped with pinto beans, onions, and tomatoes.
The top-rated spot to get your Sonoran dog fix is El Guero Canelo, who received the James Beard Foundation “America’s Classics” award in 2018 and now boasts three Tucson locations. Still, most vendors and restaurateurs get more creative from here to offer their signature style to this Southwestern classic dish. If you desire other hot dog options, gander over to BK Tacos, Aqui Con El Nene, or El Sinaloense, all of who take considerable pride in their Sonoran hot dog game and are worth trying out.
One area you may be disappointed to discover along your cuisine journey is the lack of vegan and vegetarian options compared to the plethora of meat-forward locations. But, never fear - the meatless options you have to choose from are significant. One such recommendation is Latin-inspired vegan and vegetarian cuisine by Tumerico.
With two Tucson locations and Postmates and Uber, Eats options, you can enjoy an array of vegan cuisine (vegetarian options, too) with traditional Mexican dishes like enchiladas, tacos, posole, and huevos rancheros until 8 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday. Their fresh, organic, and pure ingredients support local farmers while also giving you a sense of a home-cooked meal with every bite. Visit their website for a full menu and hours.
Continuing, let’s venture outside the Tucson bubble. While this city arguably boasts the most options in a small radius, Pima County is home to other beautiful cities like Oro Valley, Marana, and even Ajo, near the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Take a moment to learn about the small city of Ajo, which is the Spanish word for garlic and is also named using the familiar word in place of the similar-sounding O'odham word for paint (oʼoho).
After the copper mine boom in the 1880s, the town was practically abandoned. At one point, however, its peak population of 7,049 was comparable to Tucson in the 1960s. Today, Ajo is a sleeper town, home for young families and retirees, or travelers longing to enjoy the quiet, serene beauty of the Sonoran Desert with its surrounding saguaros, ocotillos, and wildlife. This is where the magic of Ajo sings and where one can find flavors not found in any other part of the world.
To truly get a sense of the rural desert, visit the Ajo Farmers Market and Cafe, started in 2009 by the Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Embracing the vision of a healthier, greener city, this unique farmer’s market is true to its roots. This social enterprise supports 20 local farmers, wild food harvesters, nearby artisans from Ajo, the Tohono O’odham Nation, and the surrounding areas. Visitors and locals can enjoy a celebration of cultural foods and a small marketplace that supports local microbusinesses. Enjoy their prickly pear-glazed chicken sandwich or red chilaquiles from the café, grab a gift from their market, or collect some local produce via their CSA program.
Lastly, it would be remiss not to suggest a straight-forward, traditional cuisine that has stood the test of time. Round out your food exploration with La Estrella Bakery, an authentic panadería (bakery) in the heart of Tucson. Since 1986, their famous pan dulce has brought the spirit of Mexico to the Southwestern region to celebrate culture in every bite. With over 15 options of sweet pan dulce options and a robust, savory menu that includes an assortment of bread, tamales, and Menudo, your cuisine curiosity will be complete at La Estrella.
Want to top off your journey with refreshing horchata? Make your way over to Seis Kitchen, located in Tucson and Oro Valley. This regional Mexican cuisine was recently highlighted in National Geographic, highlighting the “best Mexican Food in the US,” and celebrated their horchata as an impressive beverage “worth the wait."
Explore your palate in Pima County with these options, and let us know your favorite dish.