Ever since Tucson began receiving international honors for its rich culinary heritage and agricultural history (in 2015, it became the first U.S. city officially designated a UNESCO City of Gastronomy), the world has been taking notice.
In February, London’s Daily Telegraph highlighted Tucson in an article touting Arizona as “the surprising U.S. state that’s a dream come true for foodies.” In March, Time’s “World’s Greatest Places 2023” issue saluted the “revolutionary” cooking that put Tucson on its list, singling out the Arizona-grown heritage grains of Barrio Bread’s James Beard Award-winning baker Don Guerra.
But Tucson’s cuisine isn’t limited to its own home-grown specialties. There are also plenty of international flavors that can be sampled within our own city. From Turkish shish kebab and Peruvian lomo saltado to Jamaican curry chicken and Mexican raspado desserts, you can have the experience of dining around the world without ever leaving Tucson. Here’s just a sample.
Rollies Mexican Patio
4573 S. 12th Avenue
2526 E. Sixth Street
Raspados El Paraiso
5917 E. 22nd Street
Naturally, Mexico is the country best represented in the Old Pueblo, a Mexican town itself until that ol’ Gadsden Purchase deal. Rollie’s Mexican Patio owner Mateo Otero said he learned to cook from his grandfather, who worked as a chef in Tucson from the 1960s to ’80s and taught him the “Sonoran Chicano” style of cooking.
“In Mexico, they do things a little different,” said Otero, who remembers tearing off pieces of big tortillas to make what would later be called soft shell tacos.
Rollie’s signature dish is its namesake: rolled tacos filled with either chicken, potato or birria with different chilies and spices. “A favorite is our Nana’s Taco — basically it’s a ground beef patty and you fill the tortilla up and deep fry it and then you stuff it with lettuce and cheese and peas. I don’t know where the peas came from, but they’re delicious.”
For a vegetarian spin on Mexican cuisine, there’s Tumerico, with two locations (the second is at 402 E. Fourth Avenue). Chef Wendy Garcia counts as her signature dishes a vegan chilaquiles — “a Mexican-inspired dish made with house made corn tortilla chips, salsa verde, Tumerico vegan carnitas, or jackfruit, and tofu scramble” — and her Cactus Bowl, featuring locally grown cholla buds, tepari beans, cactus and mesquite chili sauce.
Top off either with an authentic Mexican dessert from Raspados El Paraiso. Their raspado is essentially a Mexican snow cone livened up with fresh fruit and sweet cream along with a flavored syrup. The Food Network singles out their Tostiverduras: “They’re made by slicing open a bag of tortilla chips lengthwise and then stuffing it with cabbage, diced cucumber, tomatoes, lime, Chamoy, chile powder and the hot sauce of your choice.” Postre delicioso!
Reilly Craft Pizza & Drink
101 E. Pennington Street
Fentonelli’s Pizzeria & Bar
7262 N. Oracle Road
The many tastes of Italy are neatly represented by a pair of restaurants run by the same executive chef: Tyler Fenton, a half-Jewish, half-Italian cook whose menus incorporate a little from each culture.
“At Reilly, the spaghetti cacio e pepe is one of our most authentic regional Italian dishes,” he said. “Cacio e pepe is a classic pasta dish from Rome that is made of black pepper and pecorino romano cheese. We extrude our own pasta using a blend of flours including locally grown and freshly milled blue beard durum flour.”
Fentonelli’s is a New York-style “red sauce joint” where the hot seller is a spaghetti/rigatoni featuring “Uncle Al’s Sunday Gravy.” “Sunday gravy is regionally specific to the east coast,” Fenton said. “It’s a home-cooking staple in Italian American households, a dish that is a point of pride between families.”
Classically made with various meats braised all day in tomato sauce — some chunky, some smooth — it’s a communal family-style dish. “The version we serve is my version of my uncle’s recipe — which he never gave anyone. It’s made with house-made fennel sausage as well as beef meatballs that are crumbled into the sauce. It is cooked down for a few hours. It is a meaty, warming dish.”
35 E. Toole Avenue
Another Fenton project, Bata is the restaurant that best reflects the chef’s Jewish roots — even though its name refers to a Japanese style of open-fire grilling called robatayaki. Such is the eclectic nature of the Tucson eatery featured in Bon Appetit’s list of the nation’s top 50 new restaurants of 2022. “Our staple dish is the malawach with labne,” Fenton said.
“Malawach is a flat bread of Yemenite Jewish origins. It’s made of dough rolled out thin, rubbed with butter and folded up, resulting in lamination. It’s then rolled out again and cooked on a griddle. The resulting flat bread is flakey, buttery and delicious. We serve it with labne, which is heavily strained yogurt, and a rotating topping as well as egg yolk that has been cured and smoked.”
Inca’s Peruvian Cuisine
6878 E. Sunrise Drive, Suite 130
Featured as one of three Tucson eateries to present restaurant “pop-ups” at Guy Fieri’s Flavortown Tailgate party at Super Bowl LVII earlier this year, owner Fatima Campos was jazzed to serve samples of her Peruvian-spiced saltados as Diplo spun tunes for an estimated 10,000 guests. Inca’s lomo saltado is one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, made with tender strips of angus beef marinated in Peruvian spices sautéed with onions, tomatoes and parsley over a bed of potatoes and served with jasmine rice. Another Fieri fave is its seco de carne, with beef braised in a cilantro and Peruvian sauce and served with jasmine rice and canary beans.
D’s Island Grill JA
3156 E. Fort Lowell Road
Chef Duwayne Hall learned to cook by watching his mom prepare curry chicken in St. Thomas, Jamaica. After moving to Tucson in 2001, he bounced around food service jobs before landing a gig as a line cook at the Flying V Bar & Grill at Loews Ventana Canyon. But it was his side hustle, hosting weekend barbecues at home and later serving his mom’s Jamaican recipes out of a food truck, that eventually led him to opening D’s Island Grill JA in March 2013. Since then, D’s has become Tucson’s hot spot for authentic jerk chicken, oxtail stew and other island delicacies, making Travel Noire’s list of favorite Jamaican restaurants in the United States for 2022. The Black-owned business championing publication singled out D’s curry goat: “finger-licking good and falls right off of the bone.”
Turkish Grill House at Old Times Kafe
1485 W. Prince Road
Opened just this January inside Old Times Kafe, Turkish-born owners Ibrahim Aslan and Engin Saglam, along with chef Zekeriya Tekes, who graduated culinary school in Turkey, bring authentic recipes from their homeland to their corner of the 1940s ranch house turned comfort-food restaurant. From hot Turkish tea to the nutty baklava dessert, the team brings genuine Turkish flavor to everything on the menu. A favorite main course is the ali nazik kebab, a dish made with beef or chicken featuring eggplant, yogurt, butter, garlic, tomato and jalapeno. But regulars also like the Kefte Burger, a twist on the American favorite featuring lettuce, tomato and kefte, a Turkish meatball.
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