'America's Best Mexican Food' Is Officially In Tucson

Your guide to the 12 top Mexican spots in Tucson, a UNESCO City of Gastronomy.

Hey, rest of the U.S.! If you're making Mexican food (or your idea of Mexican food, which may or may not be accurate), consider yourself on notice. The city of Tucson, Arizona just came in real hot, claiming the title of America's Best Mexican Food.

No, receiving distinction from UNESCO as a City of Gastronomy for its 4,000-year-old culinary Mexican and Native American history wasn't enough. Showing up in the list of James Beard Award semifinalists (and winners) every year wasn't enough. Having a so-called Taco Trail that spans 26 miles wasn't enough. Tucson, with the nation's highest concentration of Mexican restaurants within a 23-square-mile radius, is now officially the real-life destination for www.AmericasBestMexicanFood.com.

This finally formalized food trail, put together by Visit Tucson, is a self-guided challenge for hungry visitors, offering a digital passport that can be used to earn rewards and prizes at some of the city's faves.

"The people of Tucson are proud of their Mexican heritage, which shows in the fantastic food all over the city," Mo Calderon, CTA, communications manager for Visit Tucson, told The Takeout. "We have an abundance of mom-and-pop shops that are serving up delicious, no-frills, authentic Sonoran Mexican food."

What is Sonoran Mexican food?

Is Sonoran Mexican food "real" Mexican, or is it like Tex-Mex? In my East Coast ignorance, I wondered that, too.

"The Sonoran region is a high desert climate that yielded ranchers rather than farmers, influencing the use of beef, and simple ingredients," Calderon explained. Because of that, Sonoran dishes often prominently feature meat, plus the "Three Sisters" crops (corn, beans, squash) and Sonoran wheat, the latter of which was brought to the area by the Spanish missionaries in the 17th century. Thanks to that wheat, while much of Mexico opts for corn tortillas, Sonoran Mexican food uses flour tortillas, creating what Calderon calls "low-fuss, simple dishes."

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The area now known as Tucson was first settled as a Spanish military fort in 1775 before becoming a part of Sonora, Mexico in 1821, when Mexico gained independence from Spain. It wasn't until the 1850s that Tucson became a part of the U.S., and at that point, it already had a strong identity from the Mexican residents who lived there.

Therefore, "Our history is Mexican history," Calderon said passionately. "Being so close to the U.S.-Mexico border, Tucson can't help but be an extension of Mexico... a very community-minded city, which keeps us grounded and close to our roots."

Here are a dozen of our personally vetted, tried-and-true, historic, and most locavore-minded picks for the best Mexican food in Tucson, and why each one needs to be on your bucket list.

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1. El Guero Canelo

We at The Takeout are all about hot dogs. We've rounded out the best toppings of the year, done blind taste tests, even created a whole national guide to regional hot dogs ... which includes the Sonoran dog and why we are gathered here today.

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Part dated diner façade, part Mexican flag, this spacious building on 12th Avenue doesn't look like much from the outside. Nor does it from the inside, to be quite honest. But behind the counter in the green, white, and red-painted vestibule and in the dining room that feels more like an enclosed patio-meets-cafeteria, complete with a big metal condiment stand that makes you wonder if you accidentally wandered back of house, you'll find an endless supply of James Beard Award–winning hot dogs.

Yes, you read that correctly. The hot dogs Daniel Contreras has been nestling in buns produced in Magdalena, Mexico and topping with beans, jalapeños, mayo, mustard, onions, tomatoes, and grilled yellow pepper is officially one of America's Classics. That's how good it is.

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2. Rollies Mexican Patio

Do you like flautas? Do you like birria? Do you like the flavors of your food to be as big and bold as the colors of your setting? Then yeah, go ahead and fight for some of the very limited parking at this teal, hot pink, and popping modern-retro and funky fresh eatery.

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Founded in 2017 by Mateo Otero, a fifth-generation Tucsonan (on his mother's side), this casual restaurant takes its name from the saucy, rolled-up fried tacos, but Otero's modern interpretations of old family recipes, like the birria, are what keeps Rollies rolling in rave reviews. In fact, the birria has been voted the city's best for four consecutive years.

The birria tacos are an obvious order, but the birria ramen and birria pizzadilla are unforgettable. You can also choose flat, deconstructed enchiladas with the same braised meat and dip a Birria Cheesecrisp Burger in the consomé. Wash it down with exceptional horchata and end the meal with an ice cream concha.

3. Taqueria Pico de Gallo

Opened by Ignacio "Nacho" Delgado over 30 years ago (who's still slinging tacos at 83 years young), this shop is one that's dear to many Tucsonans' hearts. It's an American dream type of story: Delgado peddled horchata, coctel de elote, and the cut fruit "pico de gallo" that is his business' namesake from a pushcart on rented sidewalk space. After five years, he established this little no-frills shop painted bright Oaxaca gold, orange, and cream and featuring an unmistakable fruit mural. With it, the word "taqueria" was established into the city's vernacular.

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All of this made it even more heartbreaking when a drunk driver smashed through those walls in December 2022, but this story has a happy ending: The community quickly rallied to save the business, and after nearly a year of renovations, it's back and better than ever. The random, scattered seating in closed-off rooms with arched doorways has now been opened up, and everything's gotten a tidy-looking refresh.

The best part, though, is what remains unchanged: the original counter design with its festive rooster and painted produce, the pico fruit cups, the housemade corn tortillas, and even more importantly, the shockingly inexpensive and tasty food. Lengua, barbacoa, carne asada, shrimp, and the lightest of fish tacos are still getting cranked out of the kitchen and served on no-fuss Styrofoam plates, as are tamales of various types. But to eat like a local, try the soups like birria, cabeza, shrimp meatball, fish, pozole, and seasonal menudo.

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4. La Estrella Bakery

One of the fondest memories of my personal visit to Tucson was "camping out" in the parking lot and divvying up La Estrella Bakery Mexican pastries on the tailgate of my wonderful host Mary Rittmann's truck. She told me it was a must-visit for anyone on the (then still unofficial) Taco Trail, another dimension of Mexican culture and tradition in Tucson. I found out later that this plain white building with simple, easy-to-overlook blue writing was featured in a documentary by the University of Arizona for its importance in maintaining Mexican baking traditions that can be traced back to the Spanish introduction of wheat and French introduction of bread-making. Since 1986, the family that owns this spot has been steadfast to old recipes baked fresh with no premade elements.

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Since then, the business has expanded with other, more posh locations, but this is where you go for O.G. feels (and to stay on historic 12th Avenue). Grab pan fino such as the corncob-shaped and sugar-paste-filled Elote, the fruit-filled empanadas, the Mexican wedding cookies, and of course, an iconic Concha pan dulce. Whatever you do, grab a Gallina or two, which is a pan dulce roll filled with vanilla cream and smothered in powdered sugar. And be sure to get pick up some fresh flour tortillas and telera bread to go, so you can make sandwiches and wraps at home.

5. El Taco Rustico

Chef (and president of the Gastronomic Union of Tucson) Devon Sanner's Zio Peppe is known in town as a wild blend of Italian-American and Southern Arizonan food and among the city's best. Why do I mention that in a list of Mexican restaurants? Because the birria stew served on the birria pizza at Zio Peppe is actually from El Taco Rustico, a former food stand at the Tohono O'odham Swap Meet that found its glow-up during the pandemic thanks to community support. You don't serve over 100,000 quesabirria tacos a year without a whole lot of local love.

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This birria recipe can be credited to chef Juan Almanza, a native of La Laguna, Coahuila, who shows his culinary chops with a menu that also includes mesquite-grilled corn tortillas topped with carne asada and cheese, and slow-cooked meats that run a gamut of tripe, chicharrones, cabeza, goat, carnitas, and more. Keto-style tacos are also available, or nopal tortillas, but first, master the local lingo: Caramelos is what Tucsonans call quesadillas, and gorditas are like masa pockets here. Whatever you want that stuffed with is your choice.

6. BOCA by Maria Mazon

Nominated twice for James Beard Awards and famously one of the top five cheftestants on season 18 of Top Chef, Maria Mazon is clearly a can't-miss talent. She's Tucson-born but was raised in Sonora, Mexico, and brings her heritage to the table S.W.A.K. ("sealed with a kiss," as you'll see from the signature lip prints on the branding). At BOCA, her spicy salsas like mango habanero and ginger wasabi are made fresh daily, as are the corn and flour tortillas. Chips are fried to order, and local is on display with 30 types of craft beer.

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Under lofty ceilings and an expansive, casual dining room (both of which belie a downtown location), enjoy chopped steak stuffed into an Anaheim chili; bacon-wrapped hot dogs with grilled onions, pico de gallo, and beans; slow-grilled chipotle ribs shredded off the bone; and thoughtful vegetarian dishes like curry cilantro and orange oil cauliflower or honey mustard-marinated tofu tacos. The Boca Balls, made with chipotle mashed potatoes, and one of the best pulpo asados you can get this far inland are also draws, as are tortas that use goods from Barrio Bread (more on that business in a bit).

7. Tacos Apson

I love a good pork al pastor, where the meat is spit-grilled until subtly charred and smoky and made sweetly delicious with pineapple. Many in Tucson fight for the title of "best" in this category, but Tacos Apson's version has been known to rock, and not just because the shop is named after the Mexican rock band Los Apson,

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The other taco varieties also get plenty of applause: lengua, tripa, cabeza, asada, and fish have their fans, as does the signature taco, which features carne asada, cheese, green chile, onions, bacon, and mushrooms. Tortas and quesadillas can also be ordered at the pickup window, or you're welcome to dine at metal counters to take in all the curated memorabilia displayed on the walls.

8. Seis Kitchen & Catering

While old-timers started from pushcarts, this more recent staple's story began on a food truck. Since its establishment in 2012, this concept honoring the six major culinary regions of Mexico has become an outstanding example of what a Tucson City of Gastronomy Artisan can and should be, with three locations to show for it.

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I went to the one in Mercado San Agustin and, after ordering at the counter, inhaled a belly-filler of an upscale breakfast served in a gorgeous courtyard with Spanish villa vibes. I lost my shit over the El Jefe burrito with housemade chorizo, eggs, green chiles, crispy potatoes, cheese, guac, and chipotle crema, then washed it down with prickly pear agua fresca I still think about. You can even get the housemade horchata with coffee or with rum at the Oro Valley and Joesler Village locations.

The dinnertime Tacos Grande are just as overstuffed, with al pastor, chicken tinga, achiote-marinated chicken, Mexican-beer-battered avocado, shrimp, grilled or fried fish, and more between pressed-to-order masa tortillas. The sourcing is sustainable, featuring cage-free poultry from Redbird, Arizona beef, whole fish filleted in house, and local olive oil and coffee.

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9. Tumerico

Oh, did you think we were done with badass female James Beard Award semifinalists? We'd be remiss not to mention Chihuahua, Mexico native chef Wendy Garcia. Visit Tucson's Mo Calderon, a proud omnivore, says that Garcia "makes vegetarian and vegan Mexican food that tastes amazing," amplifying it with Latin and Indian flavors—so much so that she's earned a place in the Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives archives. Everything at Tumerico is made from scratch, including salsas made with mostly locally sourced products in keeping with her farmers market roots, where she made a name for herself with butternut squash tamales.

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Because of this from-scratch approach, the menu at both locations changes daily. Repeat favorites include jackfruit carnitas, vegan birria ramen, cashew cream sauces, eggplant chicharrones, and Cuban riffs like ropa vieja. As for drinks, if you're at the 4th Avenue location, that's the one thing you'll be able to plan in advance: it's a budget-friendly BYO.

10. Penca Restaurante

For anyone who thinks Mexican food can't be fancy food, I present to you Penca, a pre-Columbian inspired Central Mexican restaurant of much acclaim. Actually, I take that back—anyone who questions the complexity of Mexican cooking doesn't deserve dishes like Tuetano roasted bone marrow with epazote chimichurri, esquites dressed up with serrano pepper, cotija cheese, hibiscus, and red onions, or beer-braised short ribs with ancho glaze and goat cheese hominy. Nor, for that matter, do they deserve the collection of spirits like mezcal, sotol, and bacanora behind the first agave bar in Tucson, gathered in person from regions across Mexico.

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Or, I don't know, do what you want with your unappreciative friend. Maybe under the big steel beams of the restaurant's industrial design and exposed wood and brick, you can expose them to something special. Just bet them the check it's going to be a memorable meal.

11. El Charro Café

El Charro is the longest-operating family-run Mexican restaurant in all of the United States, bright and plucky with spirit, loud-and-proud traditional colors, and natural sunlight. And just as historically significant, it's been run by two women: founder Monica Flin, who returned to Tucson from Mexico to open El Charro Café, and her grand-niece Carlotta Flores, an L.A. catering veteran who returned to turn it into a Tucson restaurant empire.

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An expansive menu leads with tourist-friendly faves like tableside guacamole, fajitas, tacos, and combo plates, but keep reading. The Carne Seca Platter features marinated desert sun-dried shredded and grilled beef with accoutrements, and Carlotta's Cocina includes tamale-stuffed chicken with creamy raja sauce and shrimp in poblano and garlic verde sauce with queso casero.

12. Barrio Bread

This spot is Mexican in ownership, and it's definitely a big deal. You know how some people (me) turn their garages into gyms? Former teacher Don Guerra went in the opposite direction back in 2009 and built himself a garage bread bakery, specializing in regional heritage grains and Sonoran Wheat—the exact type that was brought over to Arizona by Spanish missionaries in the 1600s. Guerra was so good at it that he went and won himself a James Beard Award in the Outstanding Baker category. Damn, right?

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Sure, he'd had just shy of three decades of experience in professional baking during his lifetime, and sure he'd already gotten some national press attention (and a Top Chef Season 19 finale cameo), but I just want to close out this list with a dude that's basically doing the most.

Primarily, he works actively with and, using grants, recruits local growers to revitalize the heritage and native grains of a region that used to be part of Mexico. His whole wheat cinnamon raisin bread with both Thompson and golden raisins will knock your socks off in the morning, and the Community Loaf with sunflower and sesame seeds is gloriously toasty, but also light and sturdy. Guerra's Einkorn Miche, made with nature's oldest wheats and one of the most digestible for those with gluten sensitivity, is nutty and unique, as are his fermented loaves with adorable cactus flour art. On a Mexican note, there's Birote, a Guadalajara-style beer malt loaf.

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Finally, a whole story I can't even get into right now is Guerra's work with marginalized communities to educate and mentor refugees, Indigenous folks, and Hispanic dreamers into realizing their own businesses. Which brings us full circle, since all of this will help secure Tucson's newly claimed title of America's Best Mexican Food.

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