As a food writer, the question I get asked above any other is: where should we eat?
I can never give a straightforward answer. My response is always: It depends, what do you feel like eating? I’m not about to send someone craving a fried chicken sandwich to get my favorite Sichuan beef dish at Noodleholics. While I do have my fail-safe options, I like customizing my suggestions to what will make my friends most happy on a given day.
While I love every single place on this list, there are eight restaurants that are absolute must-tries. Four are my favorite go-tos, marked with a yellow heart, and the other four are bucket-list icons that no one should leave Tucson without having tried, marked with a cactus.
Disclaimer: I’ve been a food writer here for just over a year. This list is a living document. While I’m confident that all of these places are good, if I’m missing your favorite place, please send me an email with your favorite thing to eat there and why: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Indian | Chinese | Vietnamese | Japanese | Korean | Thai | Burgers | Pizza | Italian | Mediterranean | Tacos | Burritos | Tortas | Quesadillas | Enchiladas | Tamales | Antojitos | Sonoran Dogs | Seafood/Mariscos | Baked Goods and Sweets | Date Night | Vegan | Brunch | Munchies | Fried chicken | Ethiopian | Caribbean | BBQ | Markets | Icons
💛 Indian Twist
Location: 4660 E. Camp Lowell Dr.
Indian Twist is not only my favorite Indian restaurant, but one of my favorite restaurants in Tucson. As someone who orders vegetarian at Indian restaurants, I’ve never been as impressed by veg options as I am at Indian Twist (it might have to do with their vegetarian chefs).
The first time I ate there, their navratan korma left the strongest impression on me of almost any meal I’ve had in Tucson. Each vegetable was cooked in its own time to the ideal texture, held together by a miraculously creamy, nuanced cashew sauce. The spice level, which I ordered medium-plus or 7/10, hit the nail on the head. The garlic naan was fresh and singed with char in all the right places, still crispy on the outside and soft on the inside despite some travel time. Each bite brought its own pleasure.
While picking up, the service was impeccable, just attentive enough and shining with earnestness. The open kitchen allows you to see the back-of-house staff at work, throwing naan against the tandoor oven and pulling sauces from pots with long ladles. The interior is upscale enough to complement birthdays and anniversaries, but casual enough to sit on the patio with a beer and some samosas. It’s a perfect restaurant.
Honorable mentions: Reader Karen Kahn loves the chicken tikka masala at Sher-e-Punjab. Saffron Indian Bistro and its sister restaurant Kebabeque Indian Grill are also great. Ellice still needs to try: Gandhi Cuisine of India.
When in doubt, go to Noodleholics. Its housemade noodles are a consistent crowd-pleaser. While everything on their menu is good, when you find the thing that you like best, it’s hard to branch out. For me, personally, that’s the Sichuan beef noodle, which offers tender meat in a heady, numbing broth. The Oro Valley location has vegan options!
Location: 356 E. Grant Road
Chef Wang has a big menu. It’s a Chinese restaurant in the style of the cold Dongbei region, which favors hearty tapas to be shared by the table. Dongbei specialties include jiaozi (饺子), a delicate boiled dumpling. The cabbage and pork jiaozi at Chef Wang are not-to-be-missed — I always regret not ordering them.
A hallmark ingredient of the region is sauerkraut, which is especially worth trying in their rich stews. If you want a more familiar gateway item, the guo bao pork (锅包肉), fried sweet and sour pork, is another signature dish of the region.
While you can order from the “Popular Dishes in America” or Sichuan portions of the menu, you’re missing the best stuff.
81 Hong Kong Cafe
Location: 625 E. Wetmore Road
I was told to order 81 Hong Kong Cafe’s chicken bites and basil eggplant by Isabella Joffroy (@yelptucson), and that was one of my favorite meals of 2022. The basil eggplant has a beautiful, custardy texture and generous flavor. The fried chicken bites are the best popcorn chicken in Tucson. I reheated the leftovers for lunch for days and didn’t get tired of them once.
Phở Cần Thơ by 1
Location: 2746 N. Campbell Ave.
There’s a loose superstition that all the best Vietnamese restaurants have numbers in their name. For instance, downtown’s Eleven Cafē has the best Vietnamese coffee in Tucson.
Phở Cần Thơ by 1 is similarly case in point. Their bánh mìs are my predecessor Andi Berlin’s favorite in Tucson, and I reckon mine as well.
Vegans rejoice, you can find plant-based pho here! While other honorable mentions offer stellar meat options, the quality of Phở Cần Thơ’s vegetarian and vegan selections separate it from the pack.
💛 Sushi: Yamato Japanese Restaurant
Location: 857 E. Grant Road
Yamato is on the short list of my favorite restaurants in Tucson. The sushi chef Noboru Nakajima is old-school, taught in Japan. The restaurant’s been around since 1988. Once you try sushi here, you’re going to be holding the rest of Tucson to its standard.
That being said, it also has a formidable grill menu. I’m waiting for their distributor to get hamachi kama back in stock — yellowfin collar is one of the most precious, tender cuts of meat out there and I don’t want to try it anywhere else before I have had it here.
Ramen: Raijin Ramen
Location: 2955 E. Speedway
Raijin’s rich broth makes their ramen addictive. Their takeout travels better than most, because they separate the stuff they don’t want to get soggy.
General: HeeMee Coffee + Bakery
Location: 20 E. Congress St.
HeeMee is my editor Gloria’s favorite restaurant in Tucson (she can't help but order their spicy pork bulgogi). Their chicken katsu sandwich is practically a carnal pleasure. They also have specialty coffee drinks you can’t find anywhere else, like the Viennese einspänner (made with whipped cream) and a sweet dalgona honeycomb latte.
KBBQ: Ellice still needs to try Korea House Restaurant.
Pro tip: You can get fresh tteokbokki at Kimpo Market to cook on your own!
Tuk Tuk Thai
Portland, Oregon’s loss is our gain. This stylish restaurant, Tuk Tuk Thai, shines with regional cuisine like the Khao Soi chicken curry.
Chase us down! It’s the merited catchphrase of food truck CowPig, especially for their CowMelt, juicy and packed with both roasted green chiles and grilled onion.
Graze Burgers + Truland Burgers & Greens
Not only are their burgers great, their house-made condiments keep me coming back. Their curry ketchup is a dead ringer for what gets dressed on Berlin’s iconic currywurst. Their fry sauce is guzzle-able. I always take more than I should.
Ellice still needs to try: Divine Bovine.
Neapolitan-style: Family Joint Pizzeria
This mesquite-fired Neapolitan pizza oven on wheels is a showstopper. While their margherita pizza is still great, you’re doing it right if you order their tomatillo carnitas or elote pies (ask for more cilantro-lime crema, it’s worth paying extra). Family Joint has two ovens, and one caters exclusively to the Sahuarita/Green Valley area.
NY-style: Empire Pizza & Pub
Location: 137 E. Congress St.
Empire is my favorite late-night eatery. Their slice of cheese ($3.25) is true to New York style: equal parts utilitarian and delicious, with a generous portion of cheese. Their downtown patio transforms with Congress Street: from a spot to grab a quick work lunch to a safe harbor to end the night.
Sicilian-style: Squared Up Pizza
Location: Park Place Mall, 5870 E. Broadway
Co-founder Mario Badali's dad brought the square Sicilian slice to New York City. He’s continuing his dad’s legacy in the Dirty T. As a red sauce devotee, I do not declare this lightly: Squared Up’s ricotta and honey white pie is exquisite. It’s rich and gently sweet, like a European dessert. While it’s located in the Park Place Mall, it functions like a traditional pizzeria — feel free to call in orders!
Tucson-style: Los Olivos
Location: 937 W. Congress St.
Los Olivos does not imitate any other style of pie. It’s unique to here. Each of the medley of roasted vegetables on its vegetarian pie is cooked and roasted to its own perfection. The sauce pulls the diverse flavors together seamlessly.
Honorable mentions: Anello. I’ve lived in New York City, and I’ve had a LOT of good pizza in Tucson. Chances are, if it’s a local place, it’s good.
Location: 627 S. Vine Ave.
Don’t go to Roma without a list you plan to stick to: it’s easy to blow your food budget for the week here. This place is a cult classic for a reason. Their Italian sandwiches are made with the freshest ingredients and special imports hard to find elsewhere. I swear by their premade meals (their gorgonzola sauce is dangerous). Budget shoppers: buy your olive oil in bulk here for a fraction of the cost at grocery stores.
Homemade Freshly Mediterranean
Location: The Pit, 7889 E. 22nd St.
Mediterranean is my favorite kind of food, and I hadn’t found a place in Tucson that blew me away until I came across the Homemade Freshly Mediterranean truck at The Pit. (The next week I tried Al Madina’s Yemeni menu, and if I had ordered their specialty chicken mandi or lamb kabsa, it might be getting a blurb as well.)
Homemade Freshly Mediterranean’s Lebanese sandwiches are some of the most densely flavored you can find in Tucson. Garlic girls will love their garlic chicken sandwich — each must be made with at least a few cloves.
Tacos El Cuate de Obregon
Location: 4817 S. 12th Ave.
Tacos El Cuate de Obregon is an experience as much as it’s a delicious meal. Their informal patio, packed with families in a weekend-good mood after church on a Sunday, is practically hallowed ground. Their ribeye taco is just another blessing.
Taqueria Pico de Gallo
Location: 2618 S. Sixth Ave.
While Sonora is known for its flour tortillas, Taqueria Pico de Gallo’s menu is Baja Californian. They’re best known for their fluffy, fresh-made corn tortillas and mouthwatering fried fish and shrimp. And their pico de gallo, of course — not the salsa, but fruit cups cut fresh every day.
🌵 Anita Street Market
Location: 849 N. Anita Ave.
Anita Street Market’s flour tortillas are translucently thin, flavorful and stretchy — the platonic ideal of the iconic Sonoran food. In a burrito, their huge tortillas do not outshine their homemade fillings, but instead amplify their deliciousness. It’s a great place to try the traditional Sonoran red chile beef, but their breakfast burritos are just as compelling.
Barista del Barrio
Location: 1002 N. Grande Ave.
What do you like more — Barista del Barrio’s breakfast burritos or their horchata lattes? I’ll take them both, and savor the Barrio Hollywood atmosphere that makes this place a true Tucson treasure.
Honorable mentions: I also really love the hand burritos at Tortilleria Don Juan.
Location: 6308 S. Nogales Hwy.
While I put them in the tortas category, anything you get at Deliciocho is amazing: their machete-sized quesabirria, custom-concocted soft drinks, housemade churro ice cream sandwiches. No matter where in town you live, it’s worth the trip down to South Nogales Highway.
Order the Cubano at food truck DC Jumbie. You won’t regret it.
Location: 2418 N. Craycroft Road
While people don’t typically think of the area near Tucson Medical Center as a hotspot for Mexican food (try La Doce for that), The Quesadillas makes a compelling argument with their succulent carne asada.
💛 St. Mary’s Mexican Food
Location: 1030 W. St. Mary’s Road
St. Mary’s is the first place I take friends visiting from out of town to introduce them to Tucson. Standing in line in their lobby, waiting patiently to order anything that uses their standout tortillas and, always, a horchata, is a rite of passage.
Rollies Mexican Patio
Location: 4573 S. 12th Ave.
Everything at Rollies is delicious (including its eponymous rolled tacos, dipped in queso… yum), but their flat enchiladas, doused in their award-winning birria, are life-changing.
Buendia Breakfast and Lunch
Location: 2530 N. First Ave.
The best tamales I’ve had in a restaurant in Tucson are stuffed in a poblano at Buendia. The owners source the tamales from a local artisan and are the closest to Matilde Santa Cruz’s you can get over the counter.
Oasis Fruit Raspados
Location: 4126 S. 12th Ave.
Oasis is the oldest raspaderia in Tucson and a true icon.
Mangos Refresqueria y Cafe
Location: 4990 S. Campbell Ave.
Mangos is heaven for munchies. Blow your diet with their nachos, then keep digging with their raspados.
🌵 Aqui con El Nene
Everyone who steps foot in Tucson has to try a Sonoran dog. While BK and El Guero Canelo brought the dogo to America, Aqui con El Nene is my favorite, bar none. Their hot dog chipilon, which adds melted cheese to the toasted bun, stands out amid a crowded field.
Location: 2564 E. Grant Road
This could also be found in top billing under the “date night” tab. But Kingfisher is more than its stellar atmosphere: their clams are a cult classic for a reason; their cocktail menu is equal parts devilish and satisfying.
Baked Goods and Sweets
🌵 Donuts: La Estrella Bakery
La Estrella’s donuts are one-of-a-kind, the perfect balance between cake and yeast donuts. I swear by their glazed, combined with a Cochata from Seis Kitchen at the Mercado San Agustin to cure any bad mood.
Patisserie: Le Buzz
I have a running list of my favorite pastries in Tucson. While I love Ren Coffeehouse’s almond croissants, AJ's lemon danishes, and Exo Roast Co.’s thumbprint membrillo shortbread cookies, I love everything at Le Buzz, even and especially the things that I don’t expect to, like Nutella tarts.
Cakes: Village Bake House
Location: 7882 N. Oracle Road
Village Bake House got its cake recipes from the legendary Ilsa Bechert, whose konditorei graced Tucson for decades. They’re carrying the torch of her legacy with their popular Oro Valley cafe and bakery, well-loved for its brunch and patio.
Tortillerías: Everyone has their favorite.
Mine is St. Mary’s, but I’ve heard rave reviews of Tortillas Bryan as well. Sito’s Fresh Market imports their outstanding tortilla selection from Douglas and across the border. Here’s a list so you can find your own.
Bagels: Bubbe’s Fine Bagels
Bubbe’s answered Tucson’s prayers for east-coast-caliber bagels. They might be the only game in town, but they’re a great game.
Chocolate: Monsoon Chocolate
Location: 234 E. 22nd St.
While Tucsonans will endlessly debate whether Hub Ice Cream or The Screamery makes superior ice cream, I’ve elected to sidestep the fray and go with Frost as my favorite creamy frozen treat. Their coconut flavor is one of my all-time favorite desserts, and I always wish I ordered it when I deviate from the program. While they have franchises from here to the United Arab Emirates, they got their start here and remain a locally-owned Tucson company.
💛 Saguaro Corners
Location: 3750 S. Old Spanish Trail
I’m not saying that a great location means food will be bad. But when views are as scenic as they are at Saguaro Corners, you don’t need the food to be good to survive. Its lush desert setting, on the far-east side, and a porch with 270 degrees of floor-to-ceiling windows are such a draw that I was originally hesitant. Why invest in a great menu when the space alone makes the place special? But for reasons unknown, they did.
The menu might read as a hodgepodge of comfort food — deep-fried cheese curds and tacos? Cowboy potstickers next to pan-seared salmon fit for a fine dining restaurant? The through line is a commitment to freshness, and doing what you have well. The vegetable sides rotate with whatever is in season — in winter, when I last visited, it was asparagus.
I don’t think you can order incorrectly here, but I’ve heard their mac and cheese is the best in town.
Tito & Pep
Location: 4122 E. Speedway
Tito & Pep, a James-Beard-Award-nominated spot, is a love letter to midtown Tucson and the Sonoran flavors that make this place home.
Location: 6453 N. Oracle Road
You’ll love The Parish for the same reasons you love New Orleans, the city that inspires the restaurant: atmosphere, food and drink. Laissez les bon temps rouler!
The Owls Club
Location: 236 S. Scott Ave.
While I mostly kept bars and coffee shops off this list, I guarantee you, on any given night, there is a Bumble date happening at The Owls Club. Likely multiple. Their seasonal cocktail list and spacious patio (with fire pits) makes it a showy, yet low-stakes, place to see if the chemistry is there.
Houlden’s Rise Above
Locations: Cafes across Tucson and a brick and mortar to come at 5031 E. Fifth St.
Hannah Houlden’s “little vegan spite bakery” started as a cottage operation out of her home. She now delivers her vegan baked goods — flaky chocolate croissants, pop-tarts with flair, turnovers with flavors from olive, dill and lemon to red pepper za’atar — to 10 local cafes, and has a brick and mortar in the works.
Location: 10290 E. Speedway
Their jackfruit birria is so good, vegans and carnivores alike will make the trek to food truck Taco Stop to satisfy their craving.
Honorable mentions: Midtown Vegan Deli, El Torero’s vegan menu, and the vegan box at Renee’s. Cal’s Bake Shop is working to make many of his confections vegan as well. Ellice still needs to try: Nopalinda.
Cafe a la C’art
Location: 150 N. Main Ave.
Patio, patio, patio. It’s a confection of mosaic, attached to a building whose historical atmosphere and proximity to the Tucson Museum of Art make even a cappuccino feel like a special occasion. More info here!
Tohono Chul Bistro
Location: 7366 N. Paseo Del Norte
I don’t know what I love more, the bistro’s setting in a verdant botanical garden or their prickly pear margaritas.
Ellice still needs to try: Cup Cafe.
The Jackrabbit Lounge
Location: 2000 N. Oracle Road
While you might come to The Jackrabbit Lounge for their ‘grammable neon, you’ll be happily surprised by their outstanding bar food menu.
Arizona Beer House
Location: 150 S. Kolb Road
While Arizona Beer House itself doesn’t offer food, their lineup of food trucks is consistently great.
Pop’s Hot Chicken
Location: American Eat Company, 1439 S. Fourth Ave.
The cult-classic food truck, Pop’s Hot Chicken, got permanent digs at American Eat Co. Their Sway Fries are munchies from heaven.
Honorable mentions: The Drunken Chicken.
Location: 119 E. Speedway
Guy Fieri came to Zemam’s for "Diners, Drive Ins and Dives" because their doro wat chicken is an all-star dish for the city of Tucson.
Ellice still needs to try: Cafe Desta.
Janet & Ray’s
Location: 5443 E. 22nd St.
Owner Dollie Pearce brings food from across the African diaspora, from soul food to mind-blowing Jamaican favorites like jerk chicken, oxtail and festivals. Janet & Ray’s feels like a celebration.
Location: 2650 N. First Ave.
Ellice still needs to try: Ken’s Hardwood Barbecue.
General: Time Market
Location: 444 E. University Blvd.
Time Market feels both homegrown and aspirational. As a teen, I thought: I want to be a regular here when I grow up. They offer a bunch of upscale stuff that is so fun to ogle, a prodigious selection of red wine, an espresso bar, and some of the best bread and pizza in town. You’ll see teens hanging out after Tucson High lets out, hipsters on dates and parents with kids. It’s a little luxury, for everyone.
Liquor store: The RumRunner
Location: 3131 E. First St.
The RumRunner has everything you want and will order you cases of what they don’t have. The owners and staff will answer any questions with grace, making this place super comfortable for everyone from beginners to experts.
Carnicería: Super Carnicería y Pescadería El Ranchito
Location: 6070 S. Sixth Ave.
If you want tamales, go to El Aguajito (early, before they sell out). If you want hand burritos, pick them up at Tortilleria Don Juan. If you want marinated meats, cooked fresh for you on a grill, you can find them at fabulous carnicerías across town, most often on weekends.
But if you want an unforgettable experience, go to El Ranchito down on the far south side and order their pescado frito, a whole tilapia fried to order. You can’t get fresher, more tender meat than this anywhere.
Honorable mentions: Five Points Market & Restaurant.
Location: 18 S. Eastbourne Ave.
Tucson has a few James Beard Award winners: Janos Wilder, El Güero Canelo, and, this year, Don Guerra. His outstanding artisan bread and commitment to Sonoran heritage grains make Barrio Bread a true bucket list item for longtime residents and visitors alike.
🌵 Tacos Apson
Location: 3501 S. 12th Ave.
Tacos Apson is Tucson’s taco. Their mesquite-grilled carne asada, on flour tortillas, is a love letter to Sonora. But you don’t have to stop there: I love the taco Lorenza, which glues the carne together with cheese. Their Taco Chino — just beans — is proof that the best food can be incredibly simple.
Monica Flin founded El Charro in 1922, and it rose to fame in the part of downtown razed for redevelopment in the 1960s. Her legacy lives on to this day, and in a variety of restaurants from the Si Charro family.
Location: 311 E. Congress St.
Hotel Congress is the anchor of our downtown. It’s living wild west history, where John Dillinger was caught and Dillinger Days are celebrated to this day. Hotel Congress is a venue, a brunch destination and a nightclub. Oh, and a hotel.