This City of Gastronomy article is part of a much larger central feature entitled: Tucson: A Sense of Place. This larger work will reveal the many factors that together contribute to what Tucsonans consider a "sense of place", such as unique events, nature, cultural heritage that make Tucson like no other place. In other words, special. That's why we live here.
Now that you know the meaning of the word "gastronomy" but only want to know if Tucson has great restaurants with extraordinary local cuisine, you need not read further. The answer is definitely YES! As important, our Southern Arizona Guide has a popular Dining section that tells you which ones we think are the best and where to find them.
On the other hand, if you're a "Foodie" looking for unique cultural dining experiences, you might find the following of interest.
In 2015, Tucson was named a City of Gastronomy by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization; aka UNESCO. Tucson was the first city in the United States to be so honored. We are right there with Shunde & Chengdu, China; Gaziantep, Turkey; Jeonju, South Korea; Ostersund, Sweden; Popayan, Columbia; Rasht, Iran; Tsuruoka, Japan; and Parma, Italy. Say what ... where?
Only a half dozen Tucsonans may know where most of these places are, while fewer have visited them and tasted their unique cuisine. No matter!
As a Tucson restaurant critic, I have written over 120 dining reviews since launching Southern Arizona Guide in 2011. However Ms. Karen & I have done a bit of traveling as well. So we have ample opportunity to compare the Tucson food scene with that of many other places.
One thing we notice while traveling is the prominence of big chain restaurants in big cities, such as Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Portland Oregon. While Tucson has some chain restaurants particularly around the malls, far more typical are the unique, local eateries that take pride in creating specialty menus from our distinctive cultural heritage and sourcing their ingredients locally from sustainable urban farms.
These gastronomical facts are reflected in our dining reviews. For example, we rarely review a restaurant that is part of a national chain. What would be the point? You can get the same dining experience at a Tucson Outback (or Olive Garden, or Claim Jumper, or …) as in any other city.
What you can’t get in any other American city is the exquisite, one-of-a-kind dining experience at Café Poca Cosa, or El Charro Café, or Downtown Kitchen & Cocktails, or the Ocotillo Café, or Charro Steak or Renee’s Organic Oven, or ... The list is long.
So many of our local chefs draw on Southern Arizona’s diverse cultural heritage, including our local American Indians, the Yaqui and Tohono O’odham, as well as our Spanish and Mexican history.
Many of our local chefs get their fruits and veggies from their own organic garden or direct from local farmers at numerous Farmers' Markets throughout the city. In fact, people have been farming in the flood plain of the Santa Cruz River that runs through Tucson for at least 4,000 years.
Ms. Karen & I were reminded of this reality a couple of years ago when we visited an archeological dig where the new Sunset bridge is today (I-10 at Exit 253). While workmen were excavating for the foundation of the new bridge, they came across a remarkable find. Here were ancient human footprints preserved in the hardened mud of a long-ago agricultural field and hidden for millennia.
Added to the uniqueness of Tucson’s food scene is the harsh reality that we live in a desert. The Sonoran Desert is a fine desert, mind you. But our growers do not have the luxury of infinite water to grow what we eat. They had to develop more sustainable farming methods. Fortunately, we have a University.
The University of Arizona, through its Campus Agriculture Center, Cooperative Extension and other facilities, has taught us, and by extension the rest of the world, how to produce high-value crops with maximum efficiency and a light environmental footprint. This is done through controlled growth: high-tech greenhouses, and hydroponic and aquaponic innovations.
Hydroponics means “water works”. This is the process of growing plants in sand, gravel or liquid with added nutrients but without soil. Aquaponics integrates the technology used in hydroponics but uses the method of growing crops and fish together in re-circulating systems. In other words, You feed the fish, the fish feed the plants, and you eat the produce!
City of Gastronomy
If you add all of this creativity and innovation together … uniqueness, cultural diversity, local sources, and sustainability … you might come to the same conclusion that UNESCO did in 2015. Tucson Arizona (not Phoenix, LA, Portland, Chicago or New York) belongs on the world’s City of Gastronomy list.
Native Seeds & Mission Garden
Actually, this distinguished designation goes even deeper. UNESCO took into consideration our Native Seeds/SEARCH with their extensive collection of desert-adapted seeds, some of which exist nowhere else in the world. As amazing is the re-created Mission Garden at the base of Sentinel Peak (“A” Mountain). Here are heritage plants from the era of Father Kino more than 325 years ago.
In big general terms, the purpose of Native Seeds is to secure the future of food, most particularly plants that can grow in the desert Southwest.
Crop diversity is key to achieving sustainable food security both globally and locally. First, they focus on securing the seeds. Native Seeds offers programs to make this a reality.
- Seed banking to ensure the survival of unique agricultural biodiversity and to document its traits.
- Seed distribution so that these crops continue to contribute to the region's food systems.
- Support for on-farm maintenance of dynamically-evolving crop varieties.
- Research into low-input and climate-appropriate agricultural practices.
- Education in managing local crop diversity and contributing to regional efforts.
And yes, they can sell you native seeds for your garden.
Heirloom Food & Wine
When Jesuit missionary Eusebio Kino arrive here on the banks of Rio Santa Cruz in 1692, he brought with him 10,000 years of European knowledge of agricultural and animal husbandry to this, the Far Northern Frontier of New Spain.
Mission Garden is where I get the heritage wines for our Tucson History & Libation Walking Tour. When my tour group gets to El Presidio del Tucson, they literally get to eat and drink our Spanish history. Great fun!
This international body also considered the work done by the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona to connect local growers with those who would otherwise go hungry, offering not only increased economic stability for our region’s farmers and ranchers, but also greater access to local, healthy food to even the poorest in our community.
What does all of this add up to?
The world is becoming aware that Tucson, Arizona is a destination for culinary tourism. Visit Tucson because of our amazing Sonoran Desert, our unique cultural heritage, and our Old West history. But come also for our food that gives Tucson a magical sense of place.