Category Archives: Tucson

Tucson’s 5 Points is Definitely On Point

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5 Points breakfast: Great eggs over mustard potato pancake and grilled, shaved ham

Every now and then on my road-food travels, I run across a joint that’s a perfect match of ambience and food quality, a spot that’s just a delight to be in, on all counts. 5 Points Market & Restaurant, just south of downtown Tucson, is that kind of place.

First, the location. 5 Points shares a historic building that was once a rag factory. Inside, it’s all lovely wood and exposed brick, with tables at the front, a little grocery at the back and an open kitchen in between. Right in front of the espresso machine (using local Café Aqui beans) is a mouth-watering display of decadent sweets, highlighted by a three-inch-high fruit pie.

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5 Points is in a historic downtown Tucson building

But we’re here for breakfast, showcasing foods that are local, fresh and natural. The menu manages to be both original and brief: only eight items long. How about a breakfast salad, featuring butternut squash, roasted poblanos, over-medium eggs and heirloom greens? Or a bandito blanco, with poached eggs atop a mustard potato pancake and grilled, shaved ham? All perfectly executed and arranged.

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An open kitchen and a nice little market in behind

So how good is 5 Points? I’d say if you’ve only got one Tucson food stop to choose, I’d make it this one.

The only worrisome thing is, as we are eating, I see a magazine ad listing the 5 Points Building for sale. Just please, don’t touch this gem of a restaurant.

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Exposed brick and lots of natural light in the eating area

5 Points Market & Restaurant
756 South Stone Avenue, Tucson, Arizona
Daily 7 am-3 pm
520-623-3888

Best of Tucson on a spring road trip

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Descending the lovely Blackett’s Ridge trail, with the sprawl of Tucson behind

Many western Canadians, desperate to escape the ever-lingering vestiges of winter, often take spring road trips to U.S. hot spots like Palm Springs or Scottsdale or Moab. But after recently spending 10 early-April days in Tucson, I’d like to recommend the southern Arizona city as a worthy springtime destination for outdoor activities.

Sure, the temperatures can creep into the 30s Celsius (90s F), though the desert nights cool off remarkably. The trick is starting your hike, bike ride or other outdoor activity as close to sunrise as you can manage, get in a few hours of exercise and then spend the rest of the day more idly in the shade or air-conditioned comfort. Once the sun sets, you can re-emerge in the glorious night-time air for, say, a shirt-sleeve patio drink/dinner or outdoors concert.

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The trick to springtime Tucson hiking is staying out of the mid-day sun

You’ll definitely need a car to get around Tucson, which in that great western tradition of embracing sprawl, spreads in all its low-density glory to the very edges of a broad valley. Sneeze when you’re passing through Tucson’s downtown and you might miss it. (On the other hand, Tucson has long been a pioneer in fighting light pollution so as to preserve the night skies for area observatories.)

All this means is it takes awhile to drive anywhere, especially with traffic lights that leisurely go through their cycles. But the traffic never gets L.A. or Phoenix hellish, though it really shouldn’t given the city proper has a population of just 530,000 (1 million metro).

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Typical Tucson commercial street

On to the activities. I’m not a cyclist, but an amazing number of road bikers either live in Tucson or make dedicated trips to the city. They range from racers here for serious winter training to those seeking more leisurely rides along the tremendous 100-plus-mile Tucson Loop, which winds through the city.

The real test piece is the 26-mile-mile grind up Mount Lemmon, a climb of nearly 6,000 feet. Followed by a blazingly fast descent (average 4.3% grade), which obviously delights roadsters but would scare the road-rash bejesus out of me.

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Three of a bunch of people cycling the steep highway up Mount Lemmon

But we’re here for the hiking, and it’s wonderful in spring. There are hundreds of miles of trails scattered around the five mountain ranges surrounding Tucson, highlighted by the two chunks of Saguaro National Park that bookend the city. The trails go up ridges, follow washes and explore valley flats.

It’s principally Sonoran Desert hiking, featuring a wonderful foursome: the magnificent Saguaro (suh-wahr-owe) cactus, the orange-tipped, whip-like ocotillo and various forms of cholla and prickly pear cactus. Just don’t stumble onto them or accidentally grab their nettlesome thorns, or you’ll be like the dog that challenged the porcupine. Many of these species come into magnificent bloom in early spring, though the saguaro waits till May or June.

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Looking over the I-10 from the steep hike up Picacho Peak

But what about the food, Marathon Mouth? Of course, being this close to the border, there’s a good selection of Mexican cuisine, including the Tucson classic Sonoran hot dog, best served by parking-lot vendors. There’s also some great coffee roasters and a few fabulous microbreweries.

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Tucson’s famed Sonoran hot dog is better than anything you’ll find at a ballpark… and a lot cheaper, too

I’ve selected some favourite eats and drinks in my best-of-Tucson list below, with individual reviews coming in the weeks ahead.

Best museum: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson Mountain Park, 2021 North Kinney Road

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A giant agave (I believe) and saguaro at the fabulous Desert Museum

Best tour: Boneyard bus tour of mothballed war planes, Pima Air & Space Museum, 6000 East Valencia Road

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One of hundreds of mothballed war planes seen on the Boneyard bus tour

Best dawn hike: Blackett’s Ridge, Sabino Canyon

Best two-ecosystem hike: Agua Caliente Hill, eastern edge of Tucson

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Tucson’s Agua Client trail climbs above the cacti into treed grasslands

Best road cycle: Mount Lemmon

Best city pathways: Tucson Loop

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Cycling more than 100 miles of paved pathways on the Tucson Loop

Best through streets masquerading as country roads: Orange Grove and River Road

Best current events publication: Zocalo

Best local grocery: Bashas’

Best sunset view with a beer: overflow parking lot Sabino Canyon Recreation Area

Best farmers’ market: Rillito Park (Sundays)

Best live music venue: La Cocina, 201 North Court Avenue

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Downtown’s La Cocina is the perfect shirt-sleeved nighttime place for a brew and bluegrass

Food and Drink

 Best breakfast (also best restaurant): 5 Points Market, 756 South Stone Avenue

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5 Points Market is my #1 Tucson pick for best breakfast and lunch

Best coffee: Yellow Brick (3220 South Dodge Boulevard) and Presta (2502 North 1 Avenue) a tie, with the latter getting bonus points for cool factor

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Presto Coffee Roasters is cutting-edge cool, with great java to boot

Best lengua tacos: Taqueria Pico de Gallo, 2618 6 Avenue

Best Sonoran hot dog: Ruiz, 1140 South 6 Avenue

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Parking-lot Ruiz serves up great, cheep Sonoran hot dogs

Best sandwich/deli: Roma Imports, 627 South Vine Avenue

Best craft brewery: Iron John’s Brewing Company, 245 South Plumer Avenue

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The tasting room at microbrewer Iron John’s is the place to sample Tucson’s best beer

Best beer selection: Plaza Liquors & Fine Wine (2642 North Campbell Avenue), with honourable mention to Whole Foods (three Tucson locations)

Spring Road Trip to Tucson, Arizona

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Sonoran Desert landscape in Tucson, Arizona

With winter persisting well into April in Calgary, it was definitely time for a spring road trip to the U.S. southwest and its warming sun. The destination this time was all the way south to Tucson, Arizona—a trip involving plentiful hiking, eating and drinking.

But as they say, the journey is often as important as the destination. So before I delve more deeply into Tucson eats and drinks over the coming weeks, here’s a pictorial sampling of road life on the three-day route down and on the way back.

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Road trip breakfast of chilaquiles at MartAnne’s Burrito Palace in Flagstaff, Arizona

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Early April snowstorm in Flagstaff (elevation 7,000 feet), 2 hours north of Phoenix

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Hanging out with the cool coffee crowd at Lux Central in Phoenix

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Two jumpers in the Wave Cave near Apache Junction, east of Phoenix

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Peeking into the kitchen at Porter’s Cafe in Superior, Arizona

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Open-pit mine south of Superior, Arizona

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Outside Oracle Patio Cafe in Oracle, Arizona

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Chalet Village Motel in Oracle, Arizona

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Aquarium fish at the Desert Museum in Tucson

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Sculpture in Metal Arts Village, Tucson

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Homeward bound: Lunch line at colourful Lone Star Taqueria in Salt Lake City

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Tacos Antojitos Naucalpan in tiny Hamer, Idaho: There’s no place like it

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Run by the incomparable Carmen

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Tesla super charging station in whistlestop Lima, Montana on the I-15

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Hills outside one of my favourite U.S. towns, Dillon, Montana

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Hitchin Post, Melrose, Montana

Historic Downtowns: Where the Real Action Is

It may have been gussied up for tourists, but downtown Bisbee, Arizona retains the character of its mining past

It may have been gussied up for tourists, but downtown Bisbee, Arizona retains the character of its mining past

I recently read a New Yorker article on the demise of the traditional megamall, with their soulless concrete façades surrounded by a moat of parking somewhere in the suburban sea. It got me thinking about the entrances/freeway exits to most North American cities and towns.

Like a Las Vegas casino, they inexorably parade you past a gaudy, neon spectacle of gas stations, chain motels and the usual fast-food outlets. So familiar is this blueprint that without a map, you’d be hard pressed to tell where you are. It all looks the same.

The cookie-cutter gas/motel/fast food strip entrances to most North American towns and cities tell you nothing about the character of these places

The cookie-cutter gas/motel/fast-food strip entrances to most North American towns and cities tell you nothing about the character of these places

But from all my road-trip travels, I’m detecting a kickback. The glittering entrances may be where the traffic is, but the real action is someplace else—in the centre, in fact. And the key to finding it lies in the freeway signs, not the ones luring you to the chains but the ones saying “Historic Downtown.” (This obviously applies more to compact towns than sprawling cities, where interesting, independent places are harder for visitors to find).

Take that exit, drive for a few minutes and look for another indicator: a line of low downtown buildings, with little collections of cars and trucks parked out front. Not surprisingly, these businesses are often literally on Main Street. This is where these towns got started, where the remaining historical buildings are, where the true soul and character of these communities reside.

The historic downtown (the main street here in Lacombe, Alberta) is where the heart of these communities resides

The historic downtown (the main street here in Lacombe, Alberta) is where the heart of these communities resides

It’s where, as a road-trip diner, you’ll usually find two things. One is the local hangout, a diner or coffee shop where the regulars banter with the servers on a first-name basis and where the fare is basic but filling and affordable. The other is older buildings refurbished by, typically, youngish entrepreneurs interested in more modern cuisine but in a historic setting.

The character-filled Palm Cafe is where the regulars hang out in Orick, California

The character-filled Palm Cafe is where the regulars hang out in Orick, California

EXO Roast in Tucson, Arizona is a superb example of translating history into a funky cafe

EXO Roast in Tucson, Arizona is a superb example of incorporating history into a funky cafe

Finding these places involves a willingness to get off the bypassing highway and do a bit of exploring. There’s no guarantee you’ll hit pay dirt, but at worst you’ll get a drive past what defines, or once defined, these communities.

Recently, for example, three of us were driving on Highway 6 between Salt Lake City and Moab, in southeast Utah. It was a scenic road I’d taken half a dozen times without stopping. But this time, I glanced over at some old buildings in the small community of Helper and took the exit into the historic downtown.

Artists are leading the charge to revive historic Helper, Utah

Artists are leading the charge to revive historic Helper, Utah                                   Photo: Kairn Kunelius

While I was ordering a coffee at the nicely renovated and wonderfully named Happiness Within, a companion ducked into a potter’s studio and discovered that Helper had become a magnet for artists, who were helping refurbish a town named for the extra engines required to pull trains up nearby steep grades. I wandered across the street to the spacious, wood-floored Balance Rock Eatery & Pub. We’d already eaten, but I was impressed by a monstrous breakfast burrito being tackled by a local diner.
Balance Rock Eatery & Pub on Urbanspoon

A similar willingness to explore led me to one of my favourite western U.S. towns, Salida, in mountainous central Colorado. The approach on Highway 50 promised nothing but the usual commercial strip, but we persevered and drove into the heart of downtown. There, we discovered great galleries, an art park and, alongside the headwaters of the Arkansas River, painted containers of flowers and great little eateries like The Fritz.

Even the public flower planters are funky in Salida, Colorado

Even the public flower planters are funky in Salida, Colorado

The lesson here is what is old is new again. Finding it will unlock you from your chains.

My Best Road Trip Meals of 2013: Part 2

Jen Castle and a photographer friend at her Hell's Backbone Grill in Boulder, Utah

Jen Castle and a photographer friend at her Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder, Utah. It’s my “middle of nowhere” food pick for 2013

Best Food Trucks

As if there’s any surprise, both my choices are in the mecca of Portland, Oregon, which boasts some 700 food “carts”, meaning they’re stationary. My overall winner is Wolf & Bear’s, which transforms the often throat-catching falafel into a wrap of silky beauty with hummus, caramelized onion and grilled eggplant. (Guess this one could also make my vegetarian list).

Fantastic felafel at Wolf & Bear's food cart in Portland, Oregon

Fantastic felafel at Wolf & Bear’s food cart in Portland, Oregon

     Honourable Mention: In the “how the hell does this combination work?” category, The Egg Carton takes fried egg, strawberry jam, cheddar, bacon and spicy mustard and sandwiches it between two thick, custardy slices of French toast to create something that could easily make my Best Breakfast list.

French toast/egg sandwich at Egg Carton in Portland. You know you want one

French toast/egg sandwich at Egg Carton in Portland. You know you want one

Best Microbrewery

Again, many contenders, but how can you beat the story of a microbrewery whose products can pretty much only be found, at least locally, in liquor stores because of the higher alcohol content? I’m talking about that drinking hotspot of Utah, of course, where Epic Brewing is overcoming the odds and turning out a great line of rich, complex ales and lagers.

But you'll have to go to a state liquor store to get higher-test beers like the excellent Epic Brewing ales, produced in Salt Lake City

You’ll likely have to visit a Utah state liquor store to buy the excellent, higher-test beers produced by Epic Brewing of Salt Lake City

Best Happy Hours

Happy hour is the route to some great deals at often more upscale places. The big bowl of chunky guacamole and first-rate salty chips goes down nicely with a discount margarita at Phoenix’s elegant Gallo Blanco Cafe & Bar, which offers happy hours an unusual seven days a week.

Great happy hour guac and chips at Gallo Blanco Cafe & Bar in Phoenix

Great happy hour guac and chips at Gallo Blanco Cafe & Bar in Phoenix

If you’re thinking $2.75 is no Mexican street-food bargain for tacos, head to San Diego’s South Beach Bar & Grille, where my happy hour mahi mahi and wahoo fillings are nearly the size of filets.

The fish tacos at South Beach Bar & Grille, in San Diego, are nearly the size of filets

The fish tacos at South Beach Bar & Grille, in San Diego, are nearly the size of filets

Best Mexican

I spent a lot of time in 2013 in the southern U.S., so I ate my fair share of Mexican, authentic or not.

Tacos: Taqueria Pico de Gallo is a no-frills stucco taco shop in Tucson, Arizona that churns out excellent Mexican street food, like my fine fish and lengua (tongue) tacos, for a grand total of $3.75.

... like these fish and lengua (tongue) tacos

Fabulous  fish and lengua (tongue) tacos for a total $3.75 at Tucson’s Taqueria Pico de Gallo

Chilaquiles: I have trouble pronouncing it but no problem devouring the steaming dish of toasted tortilla strips, scrambled eggs, red and green chile sauce and melted cheese at MartAnne’s Cafe, in Flagstaff, Arizona.

The ultimate chilaquiles breakfast at MartAnne's Cafe in Flagstaff, Arizona

The ultimate chilaquiles breakfast at MartAnne’s Cafe in Flagstaff, Arizona

Enchiladas: The chicken-and-cheese filled tortillas at Santa Fe’s The Shed are great, as is the posole topping, but what blows me away is the best red chile sauce I’ve had in a busy week of New Mexican dining.

I went for the stacked enchiladas at The Shed, but it was the red chile that blew me away

I went for the stacked enchiladas at The Shed, in Santa Fe, but it was the red chile that blew me away

Best Middle of Nowhere Dining

The drive on Highway 12 through outstanding sandstone country to Boulder, Utah is half the journey, but dining at world-class Hell’s Backbone Grill certainly completes the experience.

World-class cuisine at Hell's Backbone Grill in the middle-of-sandstone nowhere Boulder, Utah

World-class cuisine at Hell’s Backbone Grill in the middle-of-sandstone nowhere Boulder, Utah

Honourable Mention: Okay, it’s right beside the I-15 in southern Idaho, but you can’t tell me Malad City is in the middle of somewhere. Just take the turnoff and pull up to Spero’s House of Barbecue, where half a dozen barbecues are slow cooking ribs, pulled pork and chicken.

Pull up to a half dozen outdoor grills at Spero's House of Barbecue in Malad City, Idaho

Pull up to a half dozen outdoor grills at Spero’s House of Barbecue in Malad City, Idaho

Miscellaneous

I created this category just so I could squeeze in elegant Seasons of Durango in Durango, Colorado, which serves me a fabulous lunch of fall-off-the-bone-tender Hoisin pork ribs.

Ribs and waffle fries add up to an outstanding, affordable lunch at Seasons of Durango in Durango, Colorado

Ribs and waffle fries add up to an outstanding, affordable lunch at Seasons of Durango in Durango, Colorado

Honourable Mention: The revelation at Crepes of Brittany, in Monterey, California, is the buckwheat galettes, slowly cooked till the crepe is a little crispy and the inner ingredients hot.

Thierry Crocquet  starts cooking his authentic Brittany crepes

Crepes of Brittany co-owner Thierry Crocquet starts cooking my buckwheat galette

Best Food Experiences

The most memorable road-trip experiences combine great food and wonderful interactions with the people that own or run the places.

I can’t tell you the name or the hours, and the little old Mexican lady with a hairnet that runs out from a nearby house to serve me doesn’t speak English. I just pull off the I-15 at Hamer, Idaho, and find the taco stand that serves me three great tacos for just $5.

The smile says it all at this little taco stand in Hamer, Idaho

The smile says it all at this little taco stand in Hamer, Idaho

The Venezuelan fare is excellent at Viva Las Arepas, mercifully off the Las Vegas strip. But what puts things way over the top is owner Felix Arellano cooking me a couple of mesquite-fired arepas, then hauling me next door to his gelato shop and then up the street to his taco truck.

Viva Las Arepas owner Felix Arellano delivers arepas to my table

Viva Las Arepas owner Felix Arellano delivers arepas to my table

They’re not kidding when they say the crab is fresh at Kelly’s Brighton Marina near Rockaway Beach, Oregon. A woman in rubber boots pulls a live one from a water bucket and cleans, cooks and delivers it in a tin to my picnic table, where I excavate the butteriest, freshest crab I’ve ever eaten.

Will this crab suit, I'm asked at colourful Kelly's Brighton Marina near Rockaway Beach, Oregon

Will this crab suffice, I’m asked at colourful Kelly’s Brighton Marina near Rockaway Beach, Oregon

Kelly Brighton, Rockaway Oregon

…Time to dig in

The floors are concrete, the lighting dim, the overall ambience dingy. But the century-old Grand Central Market, in downtown Los Angeles, is dripping with character and a great place to people watch and sample just about any ethnic cuisine you can think of.

You can't create the kind of atmosphere that's built up over a century at Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles.

You can’t create the kind of atmosphere that’s built up over a century at Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles.

Best Meal of 2013

626 on Rood in Grand Junction, Colorado hits every detail of what makes a meal memorable. Décor? How about wine glasses turned into chandeliers, water served from repurposed wine bottles or a bathroom decked out with cloth towels and olive oil hand lotion. Complimentary appetizer? How about a fresh French baguette slathered in house-made herb butter? And the blow-me-away highlight—an apple-wood-smoked duck club sandwich, with pepper bacon, Napa cabbage and roasted garlic mayo, all squeezed between two delightful slices of challah bread. All for the ridiculously cheap lunch price of $12. Descriptive words fail me. Just look at the picture. Then get in your car.

This duck club, at 626 on Rood, may be the best sandwich I've ever had

This duck club, at 626 on Rood, may be the best sandwich I’ve ever had. Just look and weep

            Honourable Mention: My best experience combined with outstanding food is at San Diego’s Alforon, where co-owner Samia Salameh’s sits down at my table for a chat. And then the other-worldly, from-scratch Lebanese fare—chicken pita pies to falafel to Turkish coffee, much of it unordered—keeps arriving. This is what makes 25,000 kilometres of driving in 2013 worthwhile.

Wouldn't you drive all the way down the west coast to visit lovely Samia Salameh, co-owner of Alforon in San Diego?

Wouldn’t you drive all the way down the west coast to visit lovely Samia Salameh, co-owner of Alforon in San Diego?

... which is matched by a chicken tawook flatbread that's out of this world

… which is matched by a chicken tawook flatbread that’s out of this world

Road-trip Dining in Tucson, Arizona

Saguro-studded landscape just outside Tucson

Saguaro-studded landscape just outside Tucson

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.

EXO Roast is a great place to savour a handcrafted coffee

EXO Roast is a great place to savour a handcrafted coffee

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
Exo Roast on Urbanspoon

Cafe Aqui is a spartan space focused on only one thing: excellent coffee

Cafe Aqui is a spartan space focused on only one thing: excellent coffee

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.

Sarah and Oliver run Cafe Aqui in Tucson

Sarah and Oliver run Cafe Aqui in Tucson

Cafe Aqui
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.
La Baguette Parisienne on Urbanspoon

A Tucson tradition: a Sonoran hot, from Ricos

A Tucson tradition: a Sonoran hot dog, from Ricos

*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.

Taqueria Pico de Gallo serves up authentic Mexican cuisine

Taqueria Pico de Gallo serves up authentic Mexican cuisine

... like these fish and lengua (tongue) tacos

… like these fish and lengua (tongue) tacos

Taqueria Pico de Gallo
2618 South 6 Avenue
Monday to Thursday and Sunday 8 am-9 pm, Friday-Saturday 8 am-10 pm
Taqueria Pico de Gallo on Urbanspoon

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.

What could be nicer than hanging out in La Cocina Restaurant and Cantina's garden on a warm spring evening?

What could be nicer than hanging out in La Cocina Restaurant and Cantina’s garden on a warm spring evening?

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
La Cocina Restaurant and Cantina on Urbanspoon

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.

First-rate green-corn waffle at Mother Hubbard Cafe

First-rate green-corn waffle at Mother Hubbard Cafe

Mother Hubbard Cafe
14 West Grant Road
Monday to Saturday 6 am-2 pm, Sunday 7 am-2 pm
Mother Hubbard's Cafe on Urbanspoon

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.

Fabulous Ethiopian vegetarian plate at Cafe Desta

Fabulous Ethiopian vegetarian plate at Cafe Desta

Cafe Desta
758 South Stone Avenue
Daily 11 am-9 pm
Cafe Desta on Urbanspoon

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.

Choose a loaf, or two, or three at La Baguette Parisienne

Choose a loaf, or two, or three at La Baguette Parisienne

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
La Baguette Parisienne on Urbanspoon