Tucson Dining: Beyond Sonoran Mexican Cuisine

Tucson is famous for its Mexican restaurants, but the cuisine’s regional nuances are a discovery—and the best places are all family friendly.

Tucson sits just 65 miles from the Mexican border at Nogales, which is in the state of Sonora. So, it would stand to reason that the Mexican restaurants north of the border would be Sonoran—meaning heavy on flour tortillas, grilled meats and tomato-based sauces.

It’s true that the most popular restaurants in The Old Pueblo are Sonoran, but there are a number of restaurants that specialize in the food of other regions, such as Jalisco, Michoacán, Oaxaca, and Baja. Their diversity keeps the locals interested, and they, like the Sonoran restaurants Tucson is known for, are all inherently family friendly and inexpensive.

The majority of Mexican restaurants (as well as Mexican markets and retail shops) are in South Tucson, on South 4th Avenue and South 6th Avenue., though there are some gems in other parts of town.

Taqueria Pico de Gallo

One of the most popular taco joints in all of Tucson (and for good reason), Pico de Gallo serves the full gamut of Baja-style food: Think fish and shrimp tacos, lightly fried and topped with salsa fresca and crema (Mexican crème fraiche). They serve excellent versions of traditional Sonoran dishes as well, such as carne asada (grilled steak) and cabeza (tender beef cheeks). Kids love to go next door for raspados (frozen fruit drinks)—get one to go before your meal.
2618 S. 6th Ave., tel. 520-623-8775

Alfonso’s Carnitas Jalisco

In the most famous section of the South 6th Avenue strip, and across the street from Taqueria Pico de Gallo, Alfonso’s is known for one dish: carnitas. The long-simmered pork stew comes from the region of Jalisco and, while there are many other dishes on the menu, carnitas is the ticket here. It’s best tucked into corn tortillas and dressed with cabbage and a little salsa. Simple and delicious. There are children at almost every table, evidence of the warm family welcome here. No need to bring your own crayons for the little ones; these are provided by the attentive and casual staff.
2801 S. 6th Ave., tel. 520-882-7985

Michoacan Taquería

This is a culinary destination for huaraches (named after the popular leather sandal, which, fortunately, does not diminish its delicious taste), a Michoacán sandwich of sorts.  Large, thick corn tortillas are pan-fried and served with your choice of topping, the most popular being carne asada and birria (stewed beef rather than the more traditional goat). Underneath the meat is a layer of beans, and the whole affair is topped with cotija (a crumbly white cow’s milk cheese) and shredded lettuce. You can fold this open-faced monstrosity and eat it like a sandwich, or use a knife and fork. And it’s not on the menu, but if you ask your server, the kitchen will likely make a small version for kids who can’t handle a whole huarache. The restaurant also serves roast corn on the cob coated with cotija cheese and sprinkled with chile powder. It’s best eaten with squirts of fresh lime.
3235 N. Flowing Wells Rd., tel. 520-888-0421

Mariscos Chihuahua

Despite the name, these restaurants serve Sonoran- and Baja-style seafood. The back-story is that the owners once had two stands in Nogales, one that served mariscos (seafood) and another that served fruit from the landlocked region of Chihuahua. Customers conflated the two, and the Tucson restaurants (of which there are now five), kept the moniker. In any case, they serve what is, hands-down, Tucson’s best Mexican seafood. Menu must-haves include ceviche tostadas (made with shrimp, onions and tomatoes) and the whole fried fish, usually red snapper, served with French fries, white rice (a two-carb meal) and salad.
Three of the five locations:
1009 N. Grande Ave., tel. 520-623-3563
356 E. Grant Rd., tel. 520-884-3457
2902 E. 22nd St., tel. 520-326-1529

Teresa’s Mosaic Café

Perched on a hill up above Silverbell Road, on Tucson’s northwest side, this round green building looks a little out of place. It was designed to resemble the Oaxacan home of the owners. It has been one of the most popular lunch and dinner spots in town for more than a decade (including the time it was in a strip mall across the street). In the evenings, it’s a great spot for families, as center tables surround a tortilla-making station where a single woman artfully crafts stacks of fresh flour tortillas, one by one. The menu is huge, and recommended Oaxacan specialties include pork en adobo and secret-recipe mole.
2455 N. Silverbell Rd., tel. 520-624-4512

Destinations: Arizona, Tucson

Themes: Family Travel

Activities: Eat