Explore the toasted, scenic terrain around Tucson, Arizona. Then eat, drink and repeat in this Unesco food city.

By Trevor Meers; Photographer: Ryan Donnell
December 31, 2019
Chiricahua National Monument
| Credit: Ryan Donnell

By the end of my meal at Elvira’s, I was ready to nominate chef Ruben Monroy as Tucson’s ambassador of culinary heritage. His grandmother opened a restaurant in Nogales, Mexico, in 1927. Ruben spun that institution into a Hollywood outpost, catering for films starring George Clooney, Benicio Del Toro and J.Lo. He opened this Tucson location in 2016 with 7,000 pieces of blown glass on the ceiling—and an equally stunning display of mole, a family of richly spiced Mexican sauces, on the menu. Just months earlier, Tucson had become the first American city recognized internationally by UNESCO as a Creative City of Gastronomy; San Antonio is the only other.

“Mole is the epitome of Mexican culture, identity and cuisine,” Ruben explains. He dubs his 34-ingredient Mole Negro the King of Moles. Before I try it, he suggests a predinner ritual: a shot of smoky mezcal chased with orange slices and powder made from the gusano “worms” that love agave plants.

| Credit: Ryan Donnell

The drink feels ceremonial, but technically, my Tucson initiation began much earlier. At sunup I spread my morning toast with prickly pear jelly. For lunch I ate a hot dog that won a James Beard award. And between all the eats, the region’s historic enclaves and natural landscapes coaxed me into the baking sun.

With an average high of 70 degrees in February, this world feels like a mirage to winter-weary Midwesterners. But it’s as real as the touchdown-signaling saguaro cacti pricking the skyline and the cowboys who still roam these parts. (Meet a few in Tombstone by venturing 70 miles southeast of Tucson.) Explore the unique mountains known as Sky Islands nearby. Or stick to patios and pool chairs and just soak up Tucson’s killer food and drink along with the vitamin D.

Booking a Base Camp

JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort and Spa
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Desert Luxury At Tucson’s JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort and Spa, a gathering every evening opens with the tale of Pancho Villa winning over his future father-in-law in a tequila-drinking contest. Then guests raise a complimentary shot of tequila infused with cucumber, tamarind or other fruits. The property weaves its luxuries into the Sonoran Desert. The lobby’s soaring glass walls and the adjoining patio reveal saguaro-studded hills and a valley full of city lights. A walkway bridges an undeveloped corridor left for wildlife, including javelinas (pig-like desert creatures) that often play on the lawn during morning coffee. Free guided hikes wind through the surrounding county park at sunrise.

Hotel Congress
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Lounge Paradise Hotel Congress, a downtown landmark built in 1919, never forgot what great hotels have always been—community hubs, as much about the buzz on the ground floor as the accommodations upstairs. The building is rich with Wes Anderson-esque style, and an annual festival in January celebrates John Dillinger’s capture shortly after his infamous gang of Depression-era bank robbers was rescued from a fire at the hotel. Outside, the marquee and rooftop sign won’t find many rivals in your Instagram feed from the weekend.

Feasts for the Senses

Worldly Flavor Chef Janos Wilder’s rotating menu at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails can send taste buds on a global tour. Spanish chorizo adds a kick to Crisp Frog Legs Mojo de Ajo. Braised chicken gets a curry marinade, pickled okra and lentils. And the ceviche-style hamachi comes with candied jalapeño and prickly pear ponzu sauce. The popular happy hour and dinner spot has established itself as a Tucson mainstay after 10 years.

Alpha Dog In 2018, El Guero Canelo’s Sonoran Style hot dog earned the James Beard America’s Classics Award. But the accolade was really a lifetime achievement award for the dog served in variations citywide, especially along South 12th Avenue. The essentials: a bacon-wrapped beef hot dog smothered in jalapeño sauce, grilled onions, pinto beans, tomatoes and a dash of mayo on a sweet Mexican bun. Add a Mexican Coke to wash it down.

Ruiz Hot-Dogs Los Chipilones
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Tiger the Bartender Eisenhower sat in the Oval Office the day Tom “Tiger” Ziegler took his station behind the Hotel Congress’ bar in 1959. He’s held the job ever since, becoming such a fixture that his services were written into the contract when the hotel changed ownership. Six years ago, owners renamed the tavern Tiger’s Tap Room to celebrate his 80th birthday. Drop in for a few stories told in his unmistakable voice and the Bloody Marys he loves to mix because “they just make me want to sing.”

Monsoon Chocolate
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Chocolate Treasures Talks with Adam Krantz of Monsoon Chocolate quickly turn to analysis of the citrusy leanings of Madagascar’s cacao beans or the sneaky heat chiltepin peppers add to chocolates. Adam converted a tortilla factory in South Tucson into a lab for capturing the almost unrivaled flavor combos that chocolate allows. “It’s the most complex flavor substance known to man,” he says.

Out and About Town

Tucson rises between Saguaro National Park’s two vast units. Combined, they offer hikers 150-plus miles of trails climbing from 2,200 feet above sea level to nearly 9,000. Head to the eastern Rincon Mountains District for high elevation—and a chance to see snow. (There’s even a ski hill nearby on Mount Lemmon.) Or stay west and view 200-plus ancient carvings in the Signal Hill Petroglyph Site.

Tucson Museum of Art plans to open a 6,000-square-foot expansion in March 2020. It will add multiple new galleries, exhibitions and improved lighting throughout the facility spanning a full city block.

Explore Tucson’s Warehouse Arts District, where a concentration of artists have reclaimed dilapidated spaces for art studios and creative installations.

Operated by the University of Arizona 30 miles northeast of town, Biosphere 2 is the world’s largest living research center. The 3-acre complex houses a rain forest, an ocean ecosystem with a coral reef plus three other synthetic worlds. Scientists here are working to solve the most daunting climate threats to our planet’s future.

Side Trips

Tombstone, Arizona
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Tombstone So what if the world’s most famous shootout—the Gun Fight at the O.K. Corral—actually took place in an empty lot? It did happen. And it was in Tombstone, 70 miles southeast of Tucson. To experience the full Wyatt, you can bunk at Tombstone Monument Ranch, where hotel rooms hide behind doors on an ersatz Western street. A guy named Arizona Bill cooks campfire coffee, and horses are saddled and waiting.

Chiricahua National Monument A collection of rock formations called Sky Islands in southeast Arizona live up to their name. Like volcanic sentinels in the Pacific, the isolated biomes rise to nearly 10,000 feet of elevation. Shoot for late afternoon for a visit to Chiricahua National Monument (a two-hour drive east of Tucson) to ascend Massai Point and survey the field of spires casting long shadows against the setting sun.

Bisbee Just 10 miles north of Mexico (and about 95 miles southeast of Tucson), freethinkers, artists and other counterculture personalities have reclaimed a turn-of-the-last-century copper mining town. You can still go 1,500 feet into the Queen Mine and drive by a seemingly bottomless open pit. But the real draw is rows of Victorian homes, galleries and an alley full of framed art. Swing through Lowell nearby for a replica Route 66-style main street.

Southeast Arizona
| Credit: Ryan Donnell