100 Essential Dishes

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Carne Seca in JUST About Anything

El Charro

Multiple locations

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.

Any of the Bentos


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.

The Omar

Sausage Deli

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.

Biscuits and Gravy

Pappy's Diner

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.

Manchego Quesadillas

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.

Gyro Plate

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.

Carne Asada Torta


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.

Fried Avocado


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.

Caramelo Al Pastor


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.

Chicken Tacos

Chaco's Café

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.

Ranch Beans

Pinnacle Peak

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!

Short Rib Hash

NoRTH Italia

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.

Tiffany Pizza

BZ's Pizza

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.

Hot Chili Dog

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.


May's Counter

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.

Red Chili Crazy Burrito

Molina's Midway

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.

Wildcat Wings

R.J.'s Replay

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

Lucky Wishbone

Multiple Locations

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.

Messy Fries

Brushfire BBQ

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."

Italian Pizza

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!

Breakfast Burrito

Chaco's Café

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.

Glazed Doughnut

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.

Spicy Lamb Tongue Taco

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

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.


Jonathan's Cork

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.

Steak Delmonico


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.

Eggs Provençal

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.

Cóm Bí Sûòn and Pho

Miss Saigon

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.

Panang Neau

Char's Thai

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.

Cornish Lamb Pasties

Noble Hops

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.

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