If your idea of good Mexican food is the Taco Bell drive-thru window at midnight, it's time to take a trip to Tucson to see how real Mexican food is done.
Delicious, authentic and innovative Mexican food is a point of pride in this town, so it comes as no surprise that some of the country's best Mexican food restaurants can be found in Tucson. The hardest part is choosing a place to eat first!
Cafe Poca Cosa, one of the most highly-regarded Mexican food restaurants in the city, elevates the combo platter to new heights with Chef Susana's fresh and inventive take on Mexican classics.
One venerable Tucson food tradition is the Mexican food buffet, especially at breakfast time. You'll find a great Sunday buffet at Casa Molina. Get here early and dig into freshly-made rice, beans, and assorted breakfast entrees.
If you're in the mood for hot, tasty Sonoran-style Mexican comfort food, head to South Tucson, where El Guero Canelo pushes out tasty tacos, burritos and the iconic Sonoran Dog at a breakneck pace.
Calle Tepa in midtown is a relatively new kid on the block, but this fast-casual restaurant is quickly making a name for itself, thanks to a hearty selection of freshly made tortas, tacos and quesadillas featuring fresh sheep's milk cheese.
Finally, for a mariachi-blasting good time, head to Guadalajara Grill, where the salsa and guacamole are always made fresh table-side, and traditional Mexican food dishes such as mole poblano and chile rellenos are cooked with fresh ingredients and signature flair.
Casa Molina has been family owned and operated since 1947, and it's a special place. The furniture was made by Gilberto Molina Sr. from mesquite and pine, and the backlit glass plates ringing the room are direct from Mexico, lending even more authenticity to cooking that's about as traditional as it gets. Albondigas soup and menudo are winners, and hearty appetites will love the variety of the Tampequena Dinner which plates together a cheese enchilada, chile relleno, grilled rib-eye steak, beans and guacamole for a sumptuous feast of many flavors and textures. The Sunday lunch buffet is a great deal ï¿½ the food is plentiful and amazingly fresh, especially the taco bar, which has every conceivable taco ingredient, and then some. (520-886-5468)
El Guero Canelo
The Contreras family of Tucson opened a small hot dog stand back in 1993 that dished out hot and tasty carne asada and the now-famous Sonora dog. Today, that small hot dog stand has evolved in a mini-empire, with three Tucson locations of El Guero Canelo giving locals and visitors an authentic taste of Tucson and Sonora food culture. The Sonora Hot Dog has been featured on Food Network and numerous publications, a hot dog wrapped in mesquite-smoked bacon and topped with copious amounts of grilled onions, beans, mayonnaise and--if you dare--jalapenos. If that sounds a bit much for you, try the restaurant's winning selection of burritos, quesadillas and tacos. ((520) 882-8977)
Poco & Mom's
Poco & Mom's dishes out traditional New Mexican-style plates that are as delicious as they are spicy. You'll find luscious enchiladas, huge chimichangas, mouth-watering machaca, and a variety of savory tacos and burritos, and classic chile verde. If you can't decide what to order, try the New Mexican combo plate, which includes a green chile enchilada, a red chile shredded beef taco, a chile relleno (topped with a creamy sour cream green enchilada sauce) and a side of rice and beans. For breakfast, try the Silver City special, hashbrowns topped with famous Hatch green chiles, Machaca and fried eggs. It's hearty and delicious. ((520) 325-7044)
The original La Indita Restaurant featuring her unique recipes opened in February of 1983. Some of you may still remember when it was a small hole in the wall located downtown on South Scott Street. Only 16 people at a time could eat there. But the food was so good that the customers kept coming back for more. So with a short 2 1/2 years, a new and bigger location of Fourth Avenue was selected and became the new home for La Indita in July of 1985. The secret success of our menu at La Indita lies in our dedication to using only the highest quality and freshest ingredients available and our commitment to producing freshly prepare meals daily in our kitchen. This combined with Maria Garcia's "a little bit of this and a little bit of that" recipes, helped create the perfectly delicate, tasteful and uniquely delicious Tarascan Mexican-Indian style of home cooking that our customers love. (5207920523)
Tucson Tamale Company
Tucson Tamale Company's slogan is "unwrap happiness." Well said. With more than 30 different types of tamales, from meaty and spicy to hearty vegan treats, Tucson Tamale Company is your source for authentic and creative tamales in the Old Pueblo. The menu is eclectic and fun. Try the green corn tamales, a house favorite, or the Arizona, which is stuffed with chipotle beef. The Tucson Tamale Company has something to please every palate, including a large selection of vegetarian and vegan tamales. There are also delicious breakfast and dessert tamales so you can start your morning--and finish your meal--just right. ((520) 305-4760)
Inspired by the colorful streets of Tepatitlan, Jalisco in Mexico, Calle Tepa is Tucson's latest and greatest Mexican cafe. In a city full of great Mexican food, Calle Tepa manages to stand out from the pack for its great take on Jalisco street food, fresh ingredients, and attention to detail. Here is everything you would want from a fast-casual Mexican food cafe: homemade recipes, made-from-scratch salsas, and pillowy tortillas cooked in front of you. There is even an al pastor juicing on a rotating spit. Brought to you by the folks behind Tucson's Guadalajara Grill, Calle Tepa offers a homespun take on great Mexican food. ((520) 777-5962)
Taqueria El Pueblito
This unassuming eatery is home to some of Tucson's most beloved tacos and burritos. Come here for the carne asada, barbacoa, al pastor and other classic Mexican food staples that . All the meats are grilled to order and tacos come generally piled with the seasoned, savory meat of your choice, plus your choice of toppings. The salsa bar is stocked with homeade salsa verde, and mild, red and hot varieties. The burritos are generously proportioned and stuffed with your choice of meats, or enjoy the creamy simplicity of a classic bean and cheese. Excellent value and compelling flavors make this a must-try neighborhood eatery. ((520) 339-9336)
Cafe Poca Cosa
Chef/owner Susana Davila creates her own unique spin on Mexican cuisine, featuring techniques and ingredients borrowed from several regions. Poca Cosa began a few blocks away from this location, and the tiny original is still open for breakfast and lunch on weekdays. At this location, the menu changes daily, but the specialties include fantastic chicken with spicy-rich mole sauce. The menu is printed on a portable chalkboard in both English and Spanish, which servers take from table to table. If you can't decide, order the Plato Poca Cosa and the chef will choose one beef, one chicken and one vegetarian entree for you to sample, each one more delicious than the next. (520-622-6400)
El Charro Cafe
The original El Charro, founded in 1922, is the oldest Mexican restaurant in Tucson; the original owner, Monica Flin, is said to have invented the chimichanga. The restaurant also claims the impressive title of oldest Mexican food restaurant in the country continually operated by the same family. That heritage remains strong today with a commitment to fresh, authentic Sonoran cuisine and Tucson-style Mexican food. Stop by the adjacent cantina, with its pleasant outdoor seating, and enjoy one of the finest margaritas in town. Then, have classic meals such as carne asada or carne seca beef marinated in lime and garlic. A small gift shop inside sells an assortment of Southwestern gifts. Reservations suggested on weekends. (520-622-1922)
Salsas made fresh at your table, live mariachis seven nights a week, and some of the best margaritas in town make Guadalajara Grill one of the liveliest Mexican food spots in town. The Guadalajara Grill makes their tortillas fresh daily, as well as their own nacho chips. The ambiance is friendly yet casually upscale, making this a perfect spot for a romantic date, special occasion or simply a leisurely business lunch. Handmade fresh corn and flour tortillas and dedication to authentic ingredients and flavors make this restaurant stand out from the pack. For a festive atmosphere and straightforward take on traditional Guadalajaran cuisine, Guadalajara Grill is a winner. (520-323-1022)
About Patricia Escarcega
Patricia Escarcega has lived in the Arizona desert since she was a teenager. She works as a writer and editor in Phoenix with her four dogs and two cats.
She received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona and is working on a novel about growing up in the 1990s.
Read more about Patricia Escarcega here.