For a city of 500,000, Tucson is relatively easy to get around for road trippers. The downtown is compact, and the funky, independent shops are mostly found along 4th Avenue, near the 27,000-student University of Arizona. Only the spectacular Saguaro National Park and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum are away from the city core. From a food perspective, I’ve kept things simple, mostly focusing on some fine places along 6th Avenue (exit 261 off Highway 10) and parts nearby.
Let’s wake up with a couple of first-class coffee roasters. *EXO Roast Co. is a great mix of old and new. The old starts with maybe the nicest refurbished brick place I’ve been in (see photo); it’s just a great spot to sip a brew. The roaster is gas fired, and there’s an actual turntable spinning Gunfighter Ballads by Marty Robbins. “We want to keep things as old fashioned as possible,” says co-owner Amy Smith. But then there’s the new, including one of those smartphone credit card readers and a row of newfangled ceramic filters for making handcrafted pour-over coffees. Ultimately, what matters is the quality of the brew, and my Bolivian pour over is pungent yet full of subtle flavours. Amy hands me a to-go bag of Ethiopian Sidano to keep the memories lingering on my tongue when I’m long down the road.
EXO Roast Co.
403 North 6 Avenue
Tuesday to Saturday 7 am-6 pm, Sunday-Monday 7 am-3 pm
At *Cafe Aqui, it’s all about the coffee, as indeed it should be. Other than a small couch and a couple of chairs, the unadorned space is dominated by an 11-pound-capacity roaster that produces small batches of premium beans. From an espresso machine in the back, co-owner Sarah pulls me an excellent Americano, leaning toward the darker, full-bodied roast I prefer. While most of Cafe Aqui’s production is destined for local restaurants and the like, it’s nice to be able to get a casual, first-class brew from the two people doing the roasting.
1317 South 6 Avenue
Wednesday to Friday 8:30 am-5 pm, weekends 10 am-4 pm, with sometimes “erratic” summer hours
“It’s a Tucson tradition,” says Oliver from Cafe Aqui. “You have to try a Sonoran hot dog.” “What kind should I order?” I ask. “There’s only one kind. Just ask for everything on it, and add some salsa and guacamole from a little cooler.” So I trudge a block in the warm Tucson sun to Ricos Hot Dogs (1150 South 6 Avenue) a little, award-winning outdoor stand in a gravel parking lot. A minute or so after I faithfully place my order, the cook has everything nicely grilled—bacon-wrapped dog, onions—and covered in sauce, with a charred jalapeño on the side. The fine, toasted bun really brings everything together. In no time, this $2.50 treat is down my gullet, a perfect mid-afternoon snack (order two if you want a more filling lunch) and something quite different than the dogs I’m used to. As a bonus, my server, Jesus, offers me some of his outside lunch, a Mexican shrimp cocktail.
*Taqueria Pico de Gallo is a no-frills stucco taco shop that churns out some of the best and most affordable Mexican street food you’ll find in southern Arizona. Perfect. I get a succulent fish taco and take the plunge on a lengua one. It would almost be easier if I didn’t know lengua means “tongue” in English, but the chunks of meat are surprisingly moist and tender. Who knows, barbacoa (cow’s head) could be next. I order both tacos ($3.75 total) on thick corn tortillas, which add a flavourful, crumbly texture to the mix. Maybe a knife and fork would be better than the three-napkin, hands-on approach. Nah. A fellow customer explains what a couple of popular items are: a large jug full of a coffee-and-cream coloured liquid on the counter is horchata, (a rice-based drink with cinnamon) and big plastic cups, which keep being pulled from the fridge, contain slices of fresh fruit.
It’s full-fledged spring in Tucson, so what could be better on a balmy, shirt-sleeve evening than quaffing a frothy red Irish ale in an outdoor garden? *La Cocina Restaurant and Cantina may be near the heart of downtown, but it feels like a pastoral retreat miles removed. Under the wide spread of a magnificent Arizona silver-leaf oak (“I don’t know what we’d do without it,” says the owner) bedecked with tiny white lights, maybe a hundred people are sipping drinks and munching on meals while listening to a tight, five-piece bluegrass band. It’s a mix of very young and old, and everyone in between. On nights like this, I’d consider moving to this climate.
La Cocina Restaurant and Cantina
201 North Court Avenue
Opens daily at 11 am, except 10 am Saturday, and closes late except for mid-afternoon Sunday and Monday
The problem, for me, with most pancakes, waffles and French toast is they’re stuffed and layered with syrups, compotes, sweet creams and even sugary whipped cream. So it’s a distinct pleasure at *Mother Hubbard Cafe to order a savoury green-corn waffle, with corn and red onion sprinkled inside, a swirl of roasted green chile on top and sugar-free syrup or jelly on the side. Bonus points for offering Cafe Aqui coffee, also available in a four-cup French press pot. Mother Hubbard’s (“Contemporary Native American Comfort Food”) features a lot of gluten-free foods and a wide range of red and green chiles, prepared in house and explained in detail on the menu.
Mother Hubbard Cafe
14 West Grant Road
Monday to Saturday 6 am-2 pm, Sunday 7 am-2 pm
I’ve had a lot of chile and meat on this road trip. It’s time to switch gears and go vegetarian at Cafe Desta. To add a further twist, let’s make it Ethiopian, which uses complex spice mixes to create unique flavours. There are various meat options, but I’m using a steal-of-a-deal lunch special for $9 to choose three excellent vegetarian dishes. They range from a spicy red lentil to wilted collard greens to curried cabbage, potatoes and carrots. What makes Ethiopian cuisine unique is its use of a crepe-like, slightly sour injera bread. You break off a piece of the spongy bread and use it to grab hunks of the stewy dishes, which are then popped in your mouth. I miscalculate the amount the injera I need, and end up with food on my plate and nothing to eat it with. The kind owner spots my dilemma and quickly brings over another basket of injera. Either way, it’s finger-licking good. Not surprisingly, their coffee only uses Ethiopian beans.
758 South Stone Avenue
Daily 11 am-9 pm
It’s mid-Saturday morning at La Baguette Parisienne, and there’s a line stretching to the door. Regulars are there for big flat French cookies, turnovers, croissants and a wide range of fresh-baked breads, including braided baguettes, cranberry walnut and miche. A sign in front of the treats reads “Do not reach over the glass.” It’s all I can do to obey.
La Baguette Parisienne
7851 East Broadway Boulevard
Weekdays 7:30 am-5 pm, Saturday 7:30 am-3 pm, Sunday 7:30 am-1 pm