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Tucson's 100 Essential Dishes 

The Tucson Weekly staff tries to determine what menu items are essential to our culinary culture

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Cabeza tacos on corn tortillas

Taqueria Pico de Gallo

2618 S. Sixth Ave.; 623-8775

The cabeza (yes, that's head meat, and it's de-freaking-licious) practically melts in your mouth, and whatever they season it with is perfection. The corn tortillas are made fresh there every day. You've got to order a horchata with it too—it's the best in town. — JK

Spicy Lamb Tongue Taco

Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails

135 S. Sixth Ave.; 623-7700

I'm biased on this one, because I was a chef at Janos when he first introduced his Lamb Four Ways from the Heart of Mexico dish (the lamb tongue taco was a part of it). The lamb with the radishes and slaw is a wonderfully balanced dish with complex flavors, and I don't think there's ever enough lamb on menus. Or tongue, for that matter. — JK

Sonoran Hot Dog w/ everything

El Guero Canelo

Three locations

There are probably about 1,000 places you can get Sonoran hot dogs now, but this remains my favorite. Salty bacon, pungent onions, spicy jalapeno sauce (I like to rip up my grilled pepper and throw it in there, too), but that soft, fresh bun is what makes it spectacular. — JK

Shrimp Cocktail/Shrimp tacos

Sinaloa Restaurante

5601 E. 22nd St.; 790-2888

Yes, there are two dishes here but his tiny mid-town Mexican joint has a way with shrimp. The medium shrimp cocktail must have a couple dozen shrimp and the "juice" is such a perfect balance of tomatoes, scallions, cukes and lime that you want to drink it. The tacos—fried are the best—are perfection. — RC

Tortilla Soup

Amelia Grey's Café

3073 N. Campbell Ave.; 326-0063

That a non-Mexican can crank out such a perfect tortilla soup is amazing. Slightly creamy, chickeny rich and with more than a hint of heat, this soup is a most satisfying meal. Topped with crispy, colorful tortilla chips, this soup will cure anything that ails you even if you are feeling fine. — RC

PICO DE GALLO

Taqueria Pico de Gallo

2618 S. Sixth Ave.; 623-8775

The South Tucson's restaurant's namesake can be a little confusing to some, because most of the time when we talk about Pico de Gallo, we're referring to the salsa fresca with chunks of tomato, onion and jalapeno. However, in this case, this is more of a post-taco coda, with various tropical fruit cut into wedges, jammed into a red Solo cup, with lime juice and chili powder. Spicy, tangy, sweet and delicious.

Carne Seca in JUST about anything

El Charro

Multiple locations

Before the Sonoran hot dog, this was the dish that made Tucson famous-ish. One week recently, El Charro's website announced that weather had disturbed their let's-dry-meat-on-the-roof process. There was only a brief interruption in availability, but it was too long.

Putting Red Chile Pork on Things

Poco and Mom's

1060 S. Kolb Road; 325-7044

We are generally opposed to the endorsement of anything from New Mexico, but the red chile pork at blink-and-you'll-miss-it Eastside stop makes us re-evaluate that irrational position. This place is packed nearly all the time with a deeply loyal crowd coming back again and again, for dishes like the Silver City Breakfast, which is, of course, a dish that can be improved with some red chile pork on top.

Boca Balls

Boca

828 E. Speedway Blvd.; 777-8134

Breaded fried chipotle mashed-potato balls. That's all you really need to know, right?

Plato Poca Cosa

Café Poca Cosa

110 E. Pennington St.; 622-6400

Just let Suzana Davila pick what you eat. You can't go wrong. This goes for her sisters at the breakfast-and-lunch-only Little Poca Cosa as well.

Raspados

Sonoran Delights

921 W. Congress St.; 623-3020

We're not sure we've had a bad raspado, but Sonoran Delights seem to do a little extra with shaved ice, fruit and sweetened condensed milk.

Half-Price Tortas

Molcas

110 E. Grant Road

Thursday. Half-price tortas. And they're delicious.

Menudo

Teresa's Mosaic Café

2455 N. Silverbell Road; 624-4512

Teresa's has some degree of fame from a Food Network stunt with their huevos rancheros, but c'mon, when a place has great menudo, that should really be what you're ordering. In red and white versions, it's not just for hangover relief, but don't overlook that.

Your Choice of Tamales

Tucson Tamale Company

2545 E. Broadway Blvd.; 305-4760

Yes, it feels a little strange to say the most notable place to get a tamale in a town full of delicious ones is an establishment offering those of a "gourmet" variety, throwing tradition out the window. Still, everything on the wide-ranging menu is as delicious as they look on the page. Affordable and delicious.

Killer Mailman Burrito

Tooley's Café

299 S. Park Ave.

Good luck trying to figure out when this Lost Barrio breakfast and lunch spot is open, but if you happen to be lucky enough to catch them during operating hours, grab a Killer Mailman, a red chili and sour cream soaked tribute to roasted, shredded turkey.

Something in a Caramelo

BK's

Two locations

Yes, you could get a Sonoran hot dog (and they're worth getting, since they're arguably as good as the famous Guero), but the caramelo (essentially a cheese and meat tortilla sandwich) might be the best thing on the menu. Maybe the pastor, maybe the asada, but have them throw some chorizo in as well. Everything is better with chorizo anyhow (if you disagree, we have our vegan choices in a sidebar).

Sonoran Hot Dog

Aqui Con El Nene

Generally at the corner of Wetmore and Flowing Wells

It might be better than either BK's or El Guero Canelo. It feels wrong to even type that, but you'll have to try one in the interest of research.

Breakfast Burrito

Pretty much any corner in town

Move away from Tucson for a while and you might find yourself missing the blissful accessibility of a solid, delicious and (perhaps overly) filling breakfast burrito. They're underappreciated masterpieces, only a few minutes away at any given moment.

Shrimp Culichi (in green chile sauce)

Mariscos Chihuahua

Multiple locations

A creamy green chili sauce over tender, delicious shrimp. We all know the person who won't eat seafood in Tucson, this is the dish that will change their mind.

Green Chile Chicharron tacos

La Botana

3200 N. First Ave.; 777-8801

The fried pork skin with bits of meat is deliciously crunchy and salty and spicy, wrapped in a soft tortilla. It's complete umami, especially with a nice cold beer. — JK


Tucson's Top Five Vegan Dishes

So you're vegan and you're in Tucson. Some people might tell you tough luck, you're in a state full of cowboys who love meat. Those people may or may not be right, but there are plenty of us cowboys and girls who are into Boca burgers and cruelty-free BLTs. Tucson is more vegan-friendly than one might initially think. Here's a list of just a few of the best vegan dishes around town to sink your teeth into. You can get a start here, and we'll leave you to discover the rest of the underground vegan food scene on your own. — AG

Donuts

Le Cave's Bakery

1219 S. Sixth Ave.; 624-2561

Portland may be home to the famous Voodoo Doughnut, but vegans may be shocked, stunned and super stoked to find out that Tucson also has a vegan doughnut joint–or rather, a "Vegetable Do-nut Shop," as their sign reads. Nearly all the doughnuts at Le Cave's Bakery are totally, 100 percent vegan, excluding the cream filled ones. Where Voodoo is hip, trendy and occasionally offensive when naming their doughnuts, Le Cave's keeps it nice and simple with glazed, chocolate, raspberry bismarcks and maple long johns. They don't need an excess of flair, because they've been in Tucson since 1935, and they know what the people want, vegans included.

General Tso's Veggie Chicken

Guilin Chinese Restaurant

3250 E. Speedway Blvd.; 320-7768

Guilin Healthy Chinese has a lot of veggie meat options that are delicious, but there's something about the General that keeps you coming back. Always steaming hot and framed with bright green broccoli florets, General Tso's comes smothered in spicy sweet red sauce. It's one of those dishes at a restaurant that kind of ruins the rest of the menu for you; once you've had it, you'll perpetually be torn between ordering something that you haven't tried before, or getting General Tso's. And if you do switch it up, someone else might get it, and they probably won't share with you.

Tofu Scramble

Cup Café

311 E. Congress St.; 798-1618

Almost every vegan has probably eaten tofu scramble at one time or another. In terms of veggie breakfasts, it's pretty much a staple. At The Cup Cafe, they get it right. Not overloaded with salt and not attempting to be something it's not, their scramble also comes with house fried potatoes, two vegan sausage patties, your choice of toast or English muffin, and a cup of fresh fruit. Overall, it's a breakfast that doesn't weigh you down or make you feel like you just ate enough soy product to last you a year. The tofu scramble at The Cup Cafe is one of the best vegan breakfasts available in Tucson, for sure.

Vegetable Sampler

Zemam's Ethiopian Cuisine

2731 E. Broadway Blvd.; 323-9928

One of the many great things about Ethiopian food is that it's perfect for those times of indecision; when you can't make up your mind about which item you want to order. Zemam's Ethiopian Cuisine has a long list of vegan choices, so going with their vegetable sampler and picking three different dishes is a win-win. The bread that comes with the food, called injera, is vegan, and as long as you avoid the obvious meat and dairy dishes mentioned on the menu, you can mix and match to your heart's delight.

Deep Dish Veggie Pizza

Rocco's Little Chicago

2707 E. Broadway Blvd.; 321-1860

Vegan pizzas can be really hit or miss, more often than not on the miss side. Vegan pizza has to be more than a few veggies and some boring marinara sauce. This is something that Rocco's Little Chicago knows. Their Veggie Pizza, which has spinach, grilled onions, peppers, portabella mushrooms, artichoke hearts, and garlic, is not messing around. It is the veggie pizza to end all veggie pizzas. And if you're gonna get it, you have to get it deep dish. You could try it on thin crust, but why would you do that? Deep dish it and experience Rocco's Veggie Pizza in all its herbivorous glory.

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