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When we had this on our list last year, there was some grumbling from the peanut gallery, but we stand by it. If you're taking a visitor to dinner, it'd be hard to skip over El Charro (especially the downtown location) and it would be highly unlikely they've had anything like the roof-dried carne seca before. That's what makes a dish essential.
2660 N. Campbell Ave., 320-1574
Yoshimatsu, certainly the best thing to come out of a former Coco's location and Tucson's most adorable restaurant, offers a wide variety of tasty Japanese cuisine with a side of Hello Kitty toys and Godzilla movies, but if you're keeping up the generally precious aesthetic of your dining experience, the wide variety of bento combinations will do the trick. You get a little of everything...the protein of your choice (including Tofu Hamburger, which the menu promises is "homemade"), a bunch of little salads, somen noodles, edamame and rice. It's like your own tiny buffet without the sneezeguard.
2334 N. First Ave.; 623-8182
Even around the corner from their original spot, the Sausage Deli is an University-area classic, serving sandwiches that challenge how much you can between two pieces of bread and still call it a sandwich. The Omar's still your best choice, possibly for the onion roll, maybe because of the slight zing of the chopped pepperocinis, but also because the salami and turkey are a great start to any sandwich.
1300 W. Prince Road; 408-5262
Last year, we didn't feel super comfortable saying Pappy's had the best biscuits and gravy in town, but after a year of trying the diner standard all over town, Pappy's still holds the lead on that accolade.
Calle Tepa Mexican Street Grill
6151 E. Broadway Blvd.; 777-5962
Quesadillas are almost always delicious, but when you have the sheep's-milk cheese of Calle Tepa's version, hopefully with some chorizo also along for the ride, throwing colby jack cheese on a supermarket tortilla and heating on a griddle at home might seem like a somewhat hollow experience after.
Zayna Mediterranean Café
4122 East Speedway Blvd.; 881-4348
Sometimes you want a gyro. Zayna, while also offering the kiftas, shawarmas and falafels you'd expect from a Mediterranean place, has the best gyro in town. Get the plate—the little feta-dressed salad is a nice extra touch.
835 E. 22nd St.; 294-2836
Similarly, sometimes you just want a torta. There are plenty of them around town, for sure, but Maico's is cheap and very tasty with more meat piled on than you might expect.
3025 N. Campbell Ave.; 325-3333
Avocado slices are coated with Panko, deep-fried and served with a chipotle aioli dipping sauce. It is as orgasmic as it sounds. Southwestern ingredients, prepared in total excess: a must-try.
2680 N. First Ave.; 5118 S. 12th Ave.
Pastor is pork marinated in chiles, spices and pineapple, then cooked over a fire. BK's takes this Mexican classic and puts it between two fresh flour tortillas and white cheese. Take your caramelo to the salsa bar and dress it up.
2027 S. Craycroft Rd.; 790-1828
Everyone has had chicken tacos. Usually they are stuffed with overcooked, shredded meat that looks like it might have been chicken at one point. Not at Chaco's. They marinate/season chicken to perfection, grill the tasty chunks on a flattop, and serve them with a fresh tortilla and the perfect ratio of cheese to lettuce. Don't forget the salsa bar to finish your tacos the way you like them.
6541 E. Tanque Verde Rd.; 296-0911
Tucson was/is the Wild West. What better way to celebrate our history than with some good ol' cowboy cooking? Pinnacle Peak is known for its steaks, but every table of diners here gets a big bowl of free ranch beans. Nicely cooked and seasoned pinto beans are the perfect pairing with your slab of beef. Mix in some of their freshly made salsa and you have a lot of Tucson's history in one bite.
Frankie's South Philly Cheesesteaks
2574 N. Campbell Ave.; 795-2665
Tucson is not Philadelphia, but you wouldn't know that eating at Frankie's. The ever-so-gracious host, Mr. Santos, has brought the real-deal cheesesteak to the Old Pueblo, with thinly sliced rib-eye grilled and paired with cheese and other optional toppings; I go "Whiz, wit-out and hot peppas." It's just like South Philly, only without the Eagles fans!
2995 E. Skyline Drive; 299-1600
Braised beef short ribs are made into hash for NoRTH's brunch menu. They put two runny, fried eggs on top, and it comes with an arugula salad. Enjoy it with a custom cocktail while taking in the city views from the patio, and you've got what Sunday brunch is all about.
8838 E. Broadway Blvd.; 546-1402
This pizza is not on the official menu, but it should be. It has BZ's perfectly crisp thin crust, with pesto as the base sauce. It also comes with fresh mozzarella, artichoke hearts, bacon and grilled chicken—as beautiful a pie as its name suggests.
Pat's Drive In
1202 W. Niagara St.; 624-0891
This westside gem has been a Tucson staple for as long as most of us can remember. Straightforward as it can be, the hot chili dog is the reason for Pat's longevity. Make sure you order it with cheese, and you will be hooked.
2945 E. Speedway Blvd.; 327-2421
It's chicken and waffles as it should be: three pieces of fried, dark-meat chicken are served atop two perfect waffles. Throw down some hot sauce and syrup and have at it.
1138 N. Belvedere Ave.; 325-9957
Cubed beef is simmered in red chile sauce until fork-tender, then wrapped in a tortilla with refried beans and chile con queso and served enchilada style. Crazy good.
5769 E. Speedway Blvd.; 495-5136
Chicken wings are always an essential dish. This version is crispy on the outside and juicy and tender in the middle. The wings are tossed in a homemade "Wildcat Sauce" that is smoky, spicy and a tad sweet. It's Tucson personified in a hot wing.
Fried chicken is real American comfort food. Every city in this fine nation should have its very own chicken shack, and we're lucky to have Lucky Wishbone. Not to mention the chicken comes with that great greasy, buttery and garlicky bread.
2745 N. Campbell Ave.; 7080 E. 22nd St.
Brushfire takes house-made fries and tosses them with your choice of smoked meat, barbecue sauce and cheese. Like their motto says, "It's Habit Forming."
Dry River Company
800 N. Kolb Road; 298-5555
This is straight-up Neapolitan pizza, done right. The thin crust is topped with fresh tomato sauce, mozzarella, sopressata and red chile flakes. Thatsa gooda pissa pie!
2027 S. Craycroft Rd; 790-1828
This city has no shortage of options for breakfast burritos. Not to knock anyone, but usually they include dried-out meats and way-beyond-overcooked eggs. Chaco's is the place for your most important meal of the day. Fluffy eggs, cheese and your choice of well-cooked breakfast meat, along with an assortment of salsas, will get you started off right.
Le Cave's Bakery
1219 S. Sixth Ave.; 624-2561
It's just a glazed doughnut, right? No. We promise you that this freshly baked goodie is THE BEST glazed doughnut you will ever eat.
Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails
135 S. Sixth Ave.; 623-7700
This dish made our list last year. Let's be honest: Anything that Janos makes is essential to Tucson's culinary scene.
Tucson Tamale Co.
2545 E. Broadway Blvd.; 7159 E. Tanque Verde Rd.
This is the quintessential Tucson tamale, filled with cheese and with fresh jalapeño masa.
6320 E. Tanque Verde Rd.; 296-1631
Jonathan Landeen is Tucson's mustached maestro of the kitchen. His flagship restaurant has been part of the Tucson's culinary scene's elite since its opening. Not too many places here serve Big Bird's cousin despite the ostrich ranch at Picacho Peak. Just like its chef, this dish is uniquely Tucson.
3001 E. Skyline Drive; 232-0101
Acacia takes a boneless rib-eye, wraps it in bacon and smothers it with sautéed mushrooms and bordelaise sauce. As if that's not enough, the celery root and Yukon gold potato gratin and veggies served with it are also fantastic.
Blanco Tacos and Tequila
2905 E. Skyline Drive, No. 246; 232-1007
The guacamole here, named "Famous," consists of creamy avocados, roasted poblano and Anaheim chiles, and Cotija cheese. It's perfect for dipping with warm tortilla chips, adding to your taco or just eating with a spoon.
Ghini's French Caffe
1803 E. Prince Rd.; 326-9095
Ghini's is Tucson's go-to spot for French food. With this dish, chef Ghini takes a classic French recipe from her grandmother and shares it with the people of Tucson. We're so lucky.
1072 N. Campbell Ave.; 320-9511
The cóm bí sûòn is pork two ways (charbroiled and pulled), served with Miss Saigon's amazing "shrimp paste" and jasmine rice. The pho is the best in town. The perfect soup comes with plenty of fresh sides to customize your pho experience.
5039 E. Fifth St.; 795-1715
Tucson has a great Thai food scene, and this unassuming strip-mall restaurant has some of the best Thai food in the 5-2-0. Panang neau is sautéed beef with red chile, fresh basil, peanut sauce, coconut milk, bell pepper and a hot, spicy gravy sauce. Ask for it "Thai spicy" only if you dare.
1335 W. Lambert Lane, Oro Valley; 797-4677
Year two of our campaign to bring more handpies to Tucson menus continues. Again, you can't really eat Noble Hops' take on the traditional miner meal with your hands, but we'll take what we can get.