Having gained Unesco city of gastronomy recognition, Tucson’s new wave of downtown restaurants are making the most of the area’s unusual desert foods
The desert surrounding Tucson, Arizona, is filled with soaring Saguaro cactus, their bright red fruits long a delicacy here. The abundance of this native food is one reason why, last December, Tucson became America’s first Unesco city of gastronomy, joining just 18 others worldwide, despite having fewer fancy restaurants than many US cities, and being one of its poorest.
“It’s a city whose food heritage is a big part of its identity,” says Gary Nabhan, director of the University of Arizona’s Center for Regional Food Studies. “Yes we have award-winning chefs, but the vitality of our farm-to-table food system is a key reason why we were recognised.”
Tucson has the longest history of cultivation in North America (dating back 4,000 years) and the nearby Sonoran desert is one of the world’s lushest, blooming with over 400 edible plants, used by the Tohono O’odham Native Americans for centuries. It’s also home to Native Seed/SEARCH, one of the world’s biggest seed banks, where people can get desert-adapted seeds for free.
One area that was pivotal in helping win the award is downtown Tucson. Currently undergoing a revamp, it’s home to increasing numbers of farm-to-table restaurants and food festivals (Tucson Meet Yourself in October is one of America’s largest). A couple of years ago, the unveiling of a four-mile tram line, the Sun Link Streetcar – which runs from the university to the Mercado district, west of downtown – became a catalyst for regeneration of this once-neglected area, with a new wave of bars, restaurants and street food stalls escalating it into a foodie destination.
Most of the food businesses are independently owned, with chefs often experimenting with exciting new recipes, using unusual desert foods such as cholla buds, mesquite flour, tepary beans or prickly pears – and rents remain low enough for people to be creative with their start-ups.
Among recent openings are Batch Café & Bar, which majors on the surprising pairing of whiskey and doughnuts; Carriage House, which offers dim sum brunches and cooking classes by chef Janos Wilder; Elviras, an upscale Mexican (with the border so close, Tucson’s food is multicultural), and Charro Steak, a ranch-to-table grill with a Sonoran twist.
Despite these changes, the restaurants are interlaced with thrift shops, and live music still plays on the streets: Tucson has not lost its gritty edge. On the fringe of downtown, yet still part of it, is the particularly hip Barrio Viejo neighbourhood (a Chloé campaign was recently shot here) with streets of colourful old adobe houses.
The nearby Downtown Clifton is a small, laid-back boutique motel with 10 rooms (from £75 a night), all furnished in mid-century style. It opened last year and is a welcome addition to an accommodation scene heavy with chain hotels.
“Most of our guests come to enjoy the bars and restaurants,” Nick Delisle, the manager, says. “Downtown has grown up a lot recently, so young people are moving back here. It’s now a place all the locals flock to, too.”