This week, Tucson played host to representatives from Europe, Asia, and Mexico whose home cities each value and prioritize local food and gastronomy. Known as the Delice Network, the group works together to share their different strategies and methods of promoting food culture at the local level.
Tucson recently joined the ranks as the 27th member, with Chicago as the only other U.S. city.
Tucson is well known for its Sonoran-style Mexican food. But since the turn of the century, ethnic restaurants and fine dining choices have proliferated. In 2015, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) designated Tucson a “world city of gastronomy” under the Creative Cities Network programme, becoming thus the first city of gastronomy in the United States. The Sonoran hot dog is very popular in Tucson. This is a hot dog wrapped in bacon and grilled, served on a bolillo-style hot dog bun, and topped with pinto beans, onions, tomatoes, and a variety of additional condiments.
By the time Tucson itself became the first City of Food Cultures in the U.S. to be designated by UNESCO in 2015, hadn’t the National Heritage designation for the Santa Cruz died on the vine, or become like a river suddenly drying up in the sand?
Not really. Like most desert rivers, its energy just went “underground” for a while.
The James Beard Foundation just put out its annual list of semifinalists for the most prestigious award in the food world — and Tucson made the cut.
Don Guerra of Barrio Bread is one of 20 semifinalists in the Outstanding Baker category. And El Charro Café is up for an Outstanding Restaurant award, which honors restaurants with 10 or more consecutive years in business.
Restored historic theaters bookend Congress Street, and the downtown has become an epicenter for Tucson’s food scene. Mabry said there are more than 60 restaurants downtown, two-thirds of which are locally owned. In 2015 it was designated as the first U.S. “Creative City of Gastronomy” by UNESCO.
If you have ever been on a hike and wondered which plants are edible, this is the culinary tour for you. Dr. Suzanne Fish or Allen Denoyer guide you through Marana’s 4,000 years of agricultural history.
The two tours are the first to be approved by the Tucson City of Gastronomy, which was the first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in the U.S.
TUCSON, ARIZONA — A giant “A” looks down on Tucson from high up Sentinel Peak on the west side of the city. University of Arizona students first put it up there in 1910 to show their school spirit. The railway had been rolling through Tucson for a few decades and things were booming for the town nestled between mountain ranges in the Sonoran desert.
“In the years since receiving its designation in December 2015, Tucson has emerged as a powerful force drawing foodies to Southern Arizona, creating food service jobs at a rate eight times greater than its overall economy.
In San Antonio, stakeholders see the designation as significant part of San Antonio’s continued makeover as a great American food city, and there’s hope it will spur even more culinary tourism than our world-famous Tex-Mex cuisine already brings. There are hopes that the designation will mean an expanded food scene for locals, but as yet, there are few concrete plans for that.”
As Austin is to Texas, Tucson is to Arizona. In this outspoken university town, artists, intellectuals and athletes share their passions for good food and outdoor fun. In Tucson’s case, its location in the southern Sonoran Desert divides two sections of scenic Saguaro National Park where cactuses reside in multi-limbed groves. Two years ago, Unesco cited Tucson as the nation’s first City of Gastronomy, highlighting its mix of Native American, colonial Spanish and border Mexican influences. That recognition seems only to have lit the fuse on new and adventurous breweries and distilleries as well as restaurants. With challenging urban hikes, other, more remote, trails nearby, and a new bike share system, Tucson makes for a calorically balanced weekend.
They say you are what you eat. If that statement is true, then Tucsonans must be equal parts multifaceted, high quality and above all, thriving.
Dozens of Tucson eateries have opened this year, including American Eat Co., Cans, Hoki Poki and more. And on the horizon, the Boxyard, a shipping container mall, is being built on Fourth Avenue. Not only are these new options delicious and diverse, as they grow, Tucson grows with them.
“Restaurants here are growing quickly, and we’re starting to see diversity in them as well,” said Travis Reese, co-owner of 47 Scott. “There are new, really unique concepts in these restaurants we haven’t seen before. We’re in a more mature culinary scene now, and it’s growing in cool ways.”
“There are a lot of people who think food doesn’t grow here,” said Erik Stanford, owner of Pivot Produce.
Along with well-known edibles from greens and herbs to citrus, legumes, and roots, the Sonoran Desert provides a plethora of edible plants as well as some endemic plants that add a unique Sonoran take to local cuisine. Think bright prickly pear and barrel cactus fruit, the potent heat of chiltepin, plump delicate squash blossoms, and honey-sweet figs. Why isn’t there a larger farm-to-table movement in Tucson, then? This is where Pivot Produce comes in.
Stanford had been working as a chef for years in Tucson, within which he started programs to locally source produce, creating contacts, and cultivating relationships with local farmers. It began to shift his ethos from working under the status quo of industrialized food sourcing programs to supporting local farms and farmers. With that shift however, he began to see the issues chefs run into when trying to source locally.
With The Parish executive chef Travis Peters defending the Iron Chef Tucson title, Maynards Market & Kitchen executive chef Brian Smith had a culinary mountain to overcome.
Chef Peters has been on a roll the past couple of years. Just recently, he appeared in an episode of Food Network’s Guy’s Grocery Games. He also traveled to fellow UNESCO City of Gastronomy, Dénia, Spain to represent Tucson.
Tucson is an attractive destination for wellness-focused travelers because of our spectacular location in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, great climate including more than 330 sunny days per year and easy access to outdoor activities and healthy, local foods.
“The Sonoran Desert is known for its restorative powers, so it’s no surprise two of the top destination spas in the world—Miraval and Canyon Ranch—are located here” exclaimed Mary Rittman, Senior Director of PR & Communications, Visit Tucson.
DOWNTOWN Kitchen + Cocktails is starting its Around the Globe Summer Culinary Tour with a Macau menu from Wednesday, May 23 – Wednesday, July 11.
Representing Tucson as the first city in the US to be named a City of Gastronomy, chef Janos Wilder and others have been invited to other “sister” cities around the world to share the region’s culinary history and unique foods.
The DOWNTOWN Kitchen Around the Globe summer series features menus from all over, focusing on ingredients, technique, and the culinary appreciation of each destination.
This year begins with Macau. A region of the People’s Republic of China, Macau has 400 years of culinary experience. The cuisine highlights a blend of Southern Chinese and Portuguese cuisines, with a hint of Southeast Asia.
A hometown chef and Tucson’s City of Gastronomy designation will get international exposure this month a world away from the Old Pueblo.
Amonwadee “Dee” Buizer, chef-owner of the 2-year-old Senae Thai Bistro downtown, is one of seven Americans invited by the government of Thailand to take part in Asia’s largest annual culinary trade show at the end of May. It’s an all-expenses-paid trip to the largest food trade show in Asia and one of the largest in the world.
You can sip me, you can eat me and you can moisturize with me—what am I?
The agave plant.
Today, this plant is widely known as the key ingredient in the alcoholic beverage that is taken with lime and salt or mixed in to make margaritas, but agave has a much greater importance in the Sonoran Desert than just tequila.
“We think about tequila as the major way we know the plant today, but up until a century ago more people ate it in this region than they drank it,” said Gary Nabhan, an agricultural ecologist and ethnobotanist, who has been studying agave and other Sonoran Desert plants for decades.
“It started as our way of bringing people downtown,” says Todd Hanley, general manager of Hotel Congress. “It quickly turned into the Agave Heritage Festival. Just having a tequila tasting wasn’t good enough — everyone else was already doing that. It didn’t make any sense for us to make this a tequila competition. We wanted to do something more unique and culturally significant.”
Following Tucson’s City of Gastronomy designation in 2015, the festival had transformed into a destination event with seminars, fundraising, tastings and exhibits.
Tucson is a foodie town. But rather than artisan breads and local avocados drawing crowds of tourists, it’s the relationship between diverse plants and people that earned it the distinction of being the first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in the United States in 2015.
The UNESCO distinction came as a result of Tucson’s long agricultural history and its wide-ranging efforts to preserve its food heritage and increase access to healthy, culturally appropriate foods for all residents. And a recent report from the University of Arizona Center for Regional Food Studies, on the “State of Tucson’s Food System,” delved further into how the city can use its UNESCO designation to further improve its food system.
“We didn’t get the City of Gastronomy designation because we have 40 gourmet restaurants with James Beard Award winners,” said ethnobotanist and report co-author Gary Nabhan. “We got it because we’re trying to deal with the basic food security and food justice needs that any community in America is really dealing with.”
On South Tucson Boulevard, in an abandoned special needs school, resides Merchant’s Garden. Outside of a large greenhouse on what could have been a playground at one time, there is no indication that a farm actually exists. At first I thought I was lost but when a modular classroom door opened, a slender man in a distressed ball cap waved and welcomed me in.
Chaz Shelton is the founder and CEO of Merchant’s Garden, who started the company with his father in 2015.
“Honestly, before this, I had zero agriculture experience,” says Shelton with a bright smile. “I was in health care and I just saw a big need for healthy food. So together we got this property and built a greenhouse. Then it started to take off from there.”
In the fall of 2012, I discovered the best hot sauce in the United States in, of all places, Tucson.
I had just finished a lecture at the University of Arizona on my then-new book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. My host was Maribel Alvarez, a professor of anthropology at the school who is the executive program director for the Southwest Folklife Alliance. She documents food traditions of the Arizona-Sonora borderlands, and she sent me back home with a goody bag of regional delights: carne seca (sundried beef), tepary beans (a small, meaty legume grown by natives since time immemorial) and flour tortillas called sobaqueras that are the size of a basketball hoop.
In November, the mouthful that is UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) selected San Antonio, Texas, as a Creative City of Gastronomy. It’s one of only two cities in the USA with such gastronomic status: Tucson, Ariz., made the list in 2015.
If you’re asking yourself “what’s so tasty about the desert,” you’re asking the wrong question.
Barrio Bread posts its 2 p.m. Saturday closing time on the door and on the internet. Yet by noon one Saturday in November, owner and baker Don Guerra was locking up to the moans of acolytes still streaming toward the bakery.
In the 1980s, the Sonoran hotdog arrived in Tucson, imported from roadside stands in Mexico. The essential ingredient, a wiener, is wrapped in bacon, grilled and placed in the bun with avocado and pinto beans creating a 6.8 on the napkin/messy scale and a solid 10 on the delicious one.
A sunset drive over Gates Pass outside Arizona’s Saguaro National Park, a half hour west of downtown Tucson, delivers momentary goose bumps. In the vast valley before you, lanky green cacti stand silhouetted against purple-red mountains, a visual rock opera. Hit it just right, and golden light pierces the cactus spines, electrifying their outlines.