This Arizona City Has Some of the Best Sonoran Mexican Food in the U.S. — Here's Where to Eat, According to a Local

Tucson chef Mateo Otero leads T+L to the best Sonoran food you'll find stateside.

<p>Casey James/Courtesy of Rollie

Casey James/Courtesy of Rollie's Mexican Patio

Mesquite wood, cactus paddles, beans, chiltepin, and Sonoran flour are a few of the building blocks of the dynamic and delicious Sonoran cuisine that focuses on chili-laden sauces, smoky grilled meats, and large flour tortillas. The Sonoran Desert is a sprawling geographical region that encompasses Southern Arizona up to the Mogollon Rim, the southeastern corner of California, the entire state of Sonora, Mexico, the Baja California peninsula of Mexico, and the Gulf of California and its islands. So it tracks that Tucson, Arizona, is one of the best places in the United States to sample Sonoran cuisine. In fact, in 2015 Tucson was designated a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, in large part due to its Sonoran food culture.

Nobody knows this better than Mateo Otero, a Tucson native whose grandfather immigrated from Hermosillo, Mexico, which is right in the center of Sonora.

“The influence of Sonora is the backbone of our family,” Otero said. “That’s where most Tucsonians’ families come from.”

<p>Casey James/Courtesy of Rollie's Mexican Patio</p>

Casey James/Courtesy of Rollie's Mexican Patio

Otero, who learned to cook from his grandfather, is the founder and owner of Rollies Mexican Patio on the south side of the city. The hot pink and teal restaurant serves his namesake rollies tacos (which are similar to taquitos, but covered in either a queso sauce or a brothy enchilada sauce and other toppings); flat enchiladas (a Sonoran specialty where deep-fried masa corncakes are topped with enchilada sauce, cheese, cabbage, and olives); Nonna’s tacos (a classic Sonoran taco with ground beef and peas); and birria ramen (a combination of birria meat and sauce and ramen), among other Sonoran-influenced creative creations.

When I met Otero at his restaurant last year, I made sure to get all his recommendations for the best Sonoran restaurants in Tucson. Here, some of the best places to eat Sonoran food in Tucson, according to a local.

Charro Steak

<p>Courtesy of Visit Tucson</p>

Courtesy of Visit Tucson

For Sonoran fine dining, this is Otero’s top pick. “I just love the service over there, you always know you're going to get A-one service,” he said. Aside from an excellent mesquite-grilled rib-eye served with roasted tomato salsa and flour tortillas, one of Otero’s favorite dishes is their lobster tamalada. “It’s a whole lobster that’s stuffed with a green-corn tamale, and it comes out with a butter candle, which is a cup of melted butter with a candle underneath,” he said.

Baja Café

<p>Jackie Tran/Courtesy of Visit Tucson</p>

Jackie Tran/Courtesy of Visit Tucson

“I'm a breakfast guy,” Otero said, and his favorite spot for the most important meal of the day is this café with two locations. It’s known for its inventive pancake flavors and Sonoran-fusion egg dishes. Otero usually goes for one of their Benedicts, of which they have a whopping 14 different options. These include the Mesquit, which features a grilled tamale pie on New Mexico sauce, topped with lightly smoked short ribs, poached eggs, and smoked gouda cheese sauce, and garnished with pico de gallo, cotija, and crisp corn tortilla strips, and the Coyote, with a toasted English muffin topped with Hatch green chilies, three slices of jalapeño bacon, and two poached eggs, smothered in a chipotle hollandaise sauce. “A lot of their dishes have different chilies in the different sauces,” Otero said. “It's all about the sauces."

Barista del Barrio

This coffee spot on the city’s west side is known for its breakfast burritos as much as its coffee, with a near-constant line outside. “It’s [run by] this awesome family, and they have a little hole in the wall, like a 20-foot by 20-foot building,” Otero said. “Instead of giving one big burrito they give two little burritos and they're pressed, like in a panini press. It's delicious, and they use a chiltepin salsa for the burritos. I usually get the chorizo burrito."

Mariscos Chihuahua

“I’ve been going here since I was probably 19,” Otero said. “Nowadays, there’s a bunch of new-style mariscos. And that’s good, but you just can’t go wrong with the classic Mariscos Chihuahua.” This long-standing seafood spot has dishes like shrimp and octopus cocktails, various seafood soups, marlin and shrimp tacos, and their famous Camarones Culichi, with shrimp sautéed in their house spices and served in a creamy green chile sauce.

Mariscos El Bochas

When Otero wants more modern seafood with a twist, he goes to one the three locations of this new-school mariscos restaurant owned by his friend, Bochas, who is from Sonora. “He does crazy stuff, like sushi-style mariscos, he does mariscos towers, and he uses a lot of salsa negra,” Otero said. The cocktails here are funky and tasty as well, he added.

La Estrella

<p>Jackie Tran/Courtesy of Visit Tucson</p>

Jackie Tran/Courtesy of Visit Tucson

This family-owned Mexican bakery has been holding it down in Tucson since 1986 and is known for its flour tortillas, doughnuts, and traditional pan dulce like concha, chamuco, and the Mexican flag cookie, the bandero. "I always like a good glazed doughnut and a concha," Otero asid.

BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs

Although BK’s was not the first to bring the Sonoran hot dog to Tucson (that would be El Guero Canelo, which won a James Beard Foundation America’s Classics award in 2018), BK’s is still legendary. Otero loves their robust condiment bar with loads of toppings. Otero remembers having his first taste of a Sonoran hot dog — a bacon-wrapped hot dog that’s grilled and topped with beans, onions, tomatoes, and various other condiments — in Hermosillo, and his dad used to make them at home.

El Minuto Café

Another Tucson icon, El Minuto has been around since the 1930s, and Otero used to work for them as a teenager. “If we want that traditional classic Mexican food, we’d go to El Minuto," he said. Menu items include tostadas, chimichangas, tacos, burros, and enchiladas.

Santa Cruz Chili & Spice

For incredible spices, Otero drives about an hour south to this store in a small town called Tumacacori. “They have the best chiltepins, and New Mexican chili, all ground down to a powder, or you can get them fresh in the pods,” he said.

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