Whew, that flew by! It seems like just yesterday when the talk of the town was gourmet cupcakes and In-N-Out Burger. But here we are, standing at the precipice of 2020 and taking these few, very cold, days to think back on our lives.
I was sitting down at Cartel Coffee to write my usual "best dishes of the year" list, when I thought, "What the hell, let's do the decade!" I can't really remember what exactly I was doing 10 years ago today, but it probably involved eating and/or writing about food in Tucson. I've been a food writer here for the vast majority of the 2010s (except for those lost years of 2011-2013 when I was living in California, for which I humbly beg your forgiveness). So, I figure I'm as qualified as anyone on the Internet to write this list.
Speaking of which: What you'll see here is a combination of my personal favorites, as well as dishes that defined the decade and captured our collective tastebuds. Maybe they were a social media trend, or maybe they were just really freaking good. This list might not cover every aspect of Tucson's vibrant food scene, but it's a good snapshot of where we're going and where we've been.
Also, all of these nine dishes are still being served today, so feel free to bookmark this page and work through anything you haven't yet tasted. In the words of our good friend Kierkegaard, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” So go forth and eat!
Huevos rancheros at 5 Points Market & Restaurant
Some of my best mornings were spent eating brunch inside the sunny dining room at 5 Points. The restaurant, which opened in 2014, is a hip little slice of Tucson with its bohemian vibe and colorful breakfast plates. The huevos rancheros have always stolen the show, which is hard to do when you have a salmon benedict on the menu. But this dish is quite simply iconic, and in fact the best, most beautiful huevos rancheros I have ever tasted.
The kitchen starts with fresh La Noria corn tortillas and perfectly over medium eggs, topping them with bold brushtrokes of smoky ranchero sauce and a verdant cilantro-serrano pesto. Your fork breaks the yolk, swirling around the yellows into the oranges and pulling out pinto beans. It's a deep pleasure. And on those lazy Sundays when you can't get out to see the desert sunrise, the huevos rancheros reminds you that it's there.
Tacos with crazy inventive salsas at Boca
Over the past ten years, old-school cheese crisp and chimichanga joints began to decline in popularity and a new ambassador for Mexican food emerged: the 🌮 For every La Fuente or Club 21 that closed up shop, there was a food truck or an "urban taqueria" or to take its place. Chef Maria Mazon was at the forefront of this bubbling flour tortilla renaissance, and there is nobody in this town who has done more to promote the new Sonoran cuisine than her.
She reinvents the wheel every day at her Fourth Avenue restaurant Boca Tacos y Tequila, which she opened in 2010. Although it changes every time, my favorite order is one of her many steak tacos bursting with cabbage and guacamole, something from the seafood section like the brilliantly charred octopus, and then the calabacitas taco bathed in that lush tomato sauce. Her tacos practically explode with color, so much that they become an exercise in keeping food off your shirt. But you can't put a lid on her creativity. I mean, who else would make salsa out of Girl Scout cookies?
Tonkotsu ramen at Obon
I admit, I was about to do something controversial and put a Spam bun on this list instead of ramen. I was shaken to my senses by the windy freaking weather during my walk to the restaurant. The Spam bun gets an honorable mention though. (It seems simple, but these trendy little buns are popping up all over California and I have not tasted a single one as expertly-prepared.)
But ... any best-of list without ramen is a foolish list. So here we are folks, with the best ramen in Tucson. I don't have to warn you not to @ me here, because you probably all agree. (Ikkyu is a close second.) The Obon empire was built on the backs of this milky pork broth, with that silken 64-degree egg just waiting to be popped. The noodles here are thicker than most others around town, and I appreciate it. Last off, I dare anyone to make a slab of pork belly like Obon does. I would go into the fatty goodness in more detail, but I accidentally ate it in one bite. Ooops!
Bacon popcorn at The Parish
Chef Travis Peters keeps the dream of the '90s alive in Tucson. He is, simply put, too talented to be here, yet keeps it real on Oracle Road out of a combination of humility and hometown pride. I for one am constantly delighted looking at photos of the fantastical meals he makes at his Southern fusion gastropub, The Parish. (Tempted to splurge on New Year's Eve with their bone marrow candle?!) But for this list I wanted to highlight an OG Parish appetizer, the bacon popcorn.
I cannot imagine a Parish meal without this addictive munchy. Popcorn is cooked in bacon grease so that each kernel takes on the fatty flavor of the decade's favorite pork product. Then it's tossed in butter and crispy bits of bacon, and finished with fresh chives. It's simple stuff, but showcases the creativity coming out of this little kitchen. It's even better if you sit at the bar and get it with an Andygator. ROCK ON TUCSON ™ 🤘 🌵 🤘
Bacon-wrapped burrito at Percheron Mexican Grill
And you thought the bacon show was over. Otra! Otra! The bacon-wrapped burrito took the Internet by a salty storm back in 2017. In the decade that introduced us to Bacanora, this Mexican heartthrob was just the latest culinary star to come up from our neighboring state of Sonora. If you think about it, this porky carne asada burrito is actually the next logical step after bacon-wrapped Sonoran hot dogs.
Restaurants around town have hopped on the bacon bandwagon, but the best burrito is made by Percheron Mexican Grill, formerly WhataBurro. Their recipe comes straight from Sonora's capital of Hermosillo. The local specialty "percherón" refers to a meaty combination of carne asada, tomatoes, avocado and melted cheese. The folks at Percheron wrap all that goodness into a thin tortilla sobaquera and a few strips of BAAACON. And then fry it up on the flattop. It's definitely a banger.
Bánh mì sandwich at Nhu Lan Vietnamese food truck
Where would breweries and hipster weddings be without food trucks? These mobile eateries flourished in the 2010s, especially in Tucson where year-round events brought in business. Everyone has their favorite, but if I had to name the food truck I've frequented the most, it would be Nhu Lan. (Sorry Pops, you're too new!) Their Vietnamese sandwich brought tears to my eyes back in 2015 when I tried it for the first time. After coming back here from Oakland, I had not tasted a decent bánh mì in what felt like forever, and all the Lake Merritt memories came flooding back. It's funny how food does that to you sometimes.
Nhu Lan makes bánh mìs in the way they were meant to be eaten: they're cheap, portable for streetside eating and they showcase that yummy, crunchy bread. I enjoy the combination dặc biệt with several types of lunch meats, but all of them are very good. They even stand up against all the gourmet bánh mìs in town, as evidenced by their high placement in my list of Tucson's best Vietnamese sandwiches. Check it out here.
Sichuan spicy beef soup at Noodleholics
I apologize if I sound like a broken record. (I may be broken, but I'm actually more of a compact disk kinda person.) I know I've been blabbering on about Chinese noodles a lot lately, and this needs to stop. In fact I'm making it my New Year's resolution ... so that means I have a few more days to talk about why I love Noodleholics.
Let me see, I think the main reason is that I can eat there alone on the weekends when I'm putting off writing things like best-of lists. But the second reason is, they make their own Chinese noodles and they're the best in town. And since Chinese noodles are one of the best foods of all time, they have earned a spot on this very list (written on a Sunday).
Every time I go here, the person at the counter asks me if I've eaten the Sichuan beef soup before. That's because it's got that numbing peppercorn that freaks people out. Well I have to say this: Yes, I've eaten it. I've eaten it so much that I have become comfortable with the numbness. A distant ship smoke on the horizon.
Brussels sprouts at Reilly Craft Pizza & Drink
No need to harp on about how you should eat your Brussels sprouts. If you've lived through this decade you already know that this miniature cabbage is super trendy. And somehow, it manages to be the best thing on the menu at Reilly, the rulers of pizza and pasta?! I'm not God, so I'm not gonna pretend to understand how that came to be. But I do feel divine when I'm eating these Brussels sprouts. And that is because they are covered in an unbelievable, indescribable sauce.
It's sweet, it's spicy, it's tart, it's acidic. See, I totally didn't do it justice. If you want to know what this miraculous Calabrian chile sauce tastes like, you just gotta eat these sprouts yourself. Who am I kidding, you probably already have!
After a long day of eating and drinking various sauces and noodle broths, it's time for a nightcap of some tots. I'll tell you a secret, I don't even really like tater tots. But for some reason, the ones here are like drugs to me. They are so good. Possibly this is because I very much miss Grill, which burned down in 2013. If I had to write a best-of list of the 2000s, it would have been a portabella cap, the Freaking Great Tortellini, and tater tots without cheese etc. Is TallBoys the new Grill? I dunno, but I do love the vibe and I love these tots.
French fries are usually better, but you can't really make French fries into a meal like they are here, and still keep them crispy. These bubbly potato babies are spritzed with creamy pesto and topped with eggs and bacon and the works, but they remain crispy! They are so special, Tallboys just made a silly video about them which shows the tots growing from a prickly pear cactus. I have watched this video like five times. At the very end of this 10-year experiment in life, all I have left to say is ... "Mmmm, yummy."