Once a compact bastion of artists, eccentrics and drifters, Tucson has billowed across the surrounding Sonoran Desert like a dust storm, propelled largely by an influx of retirees. The restaurant scene has expanded in step, but vestiges of the Old West remain, along with traces of Tucson’s history as a Mexican pueblo (the United States acquired it in 1853), and some of the top establishments hide in plain sight in the lively and eclectic Fourth Avenue district near the University of Arizona campus. But don’t get stuck there: The cactus-riddled mountains and washes ringing the city demand aimless wandering, and the resulting thirst will prime you for Tucson’s dominant cuisine — the craft cocktail, which sits atop menus like a weathered Stetson. If you’re seeking real Mexican food or innovative American chefs, fear not. You won’t leave disappointed.
What Prep and Pastry (prepandpastry.com; 3073 N. Campbell Ave.; 520-326-7737) lacks in history — it opened in 2013 — it makes up in artistically presented, locally sourced dishes in a high-ceilinged, exposed-beam space that invites lingering. (It helps to explain the hour-plus waits for weekend brunch.) Natural light from the front windows and side patio brightens walls featuring foodie musings, the most famous of which — “Brunch without booze is just a sad, late breakfast” — foretells P&P’s bloody mary, “fuegorita” (grapefruit-infused breakfast margarita) and other cocktails. If you must pick one entree, land on the cast-iron duck confit, surrounded by roasted potatoes and shallots, and topped with fresh spinach, over-easy eggs, cabernet-braised cherries and goat cheese mousse. Otherwise, tack on the brioche French toast with macerated berries and candied almonds or the pork-belly Benedict (on cheddar biscuits) with asparagus and herbed-cheese hollandaise. On the way out, ignore that stoplight in your brain and grab a doissant (a doughnut-croissant crossbreed) or a berry-stuffed Danish, two of the many masterpieces of lead pastry chef Hannah Houlden.
While tacos are enjoying a creative revival nationwide, few purveyors can claim the same legitimacy as Maria Mazon, chef-owner of Boca Tacos y Tequila (bocatacos.com; 533 N. Fourth Ave.; 520-777-8134). Born in Tucson and raised partly in her ancestral homeland of Sonora, Mexico, Mazon says she was driven to cook after working in Amercanized Mexican restaurants and witnessing the horror of plates “smothered in yellow cheese and sour cream.” Her response? Tortillas topped with lively concoctions including shredded pork simmered in a fresh tomatillo sauce, fire-roasted peppers, citrus-marinated salmon, strips of rib-eye steak and the five-star grilled octopus with sauteed onion and garlic. Equally impressive are Mazon’s homemade salsas, which she rotates based on available fresh ingredients — from raspberries and chickpeas to herbs and exotic chilies. Don’t be dissuaded by the line inside the door (it moves fast) and definitely be persuaded by the 100 brands of tequila behind the retro-hippie bar.
Rustic cool meets desert heat at 47 Scott (47scott.com; 47 N. Scott Ave.; 520-624-4747), a downtown bistro with upscale food, an urban decor and — despite the frequent bustle that accompanies popularity — a laid-back vibe. Owner Travis Reese opened 47 Scott in 2010 in a space that once housed a peep-show parlor. Now, the sightlines extend through the narrow dining room and out to a shady brick patio and, from the right vantage, into the adjoining speakeasy Scott & Co., which is renowned for its dazzling cocktail menu. Start with a margarita, then ease into bacon-wrapped dates or Buffalo chicken-style fried cauliflower (one way to get kids to eat their vegetables), an heirloom tomato salad featuring house ricotta toast, and, finally, 47’s signature entree, phyllo-wrapped chicken, with spinach, goat cheese, Yukon Gold potatoes and chicken jus.