By Valerie Vinyard
Unless you love snow and ice, spending the holidays in Tucson is a temperate dream.
So, friends and family often want to visit Southern Arizona once December arrives. As your job as a consummate host, your biggest challenge probably will be choosing the restaurants to take them to and impress them.
Since UNESCO chose Tucson as a City of Gastronomy, there’s a seemingly never-ending number of dazzling restaurants in town that can dazzle visitors. Some of the most memorable also don’t have to be the most expensive. For example, Guero Canelo’s famed Sonoran hot dog won the acclaimed James Beard American Classics award last year. One of those Sonoran dogs, which comes bacon-wrapped and is slathered with beans, onions, tomato, mayo, mustard and jalapeno sauce, only costs $3.50.
A person shouldn’t live on hot dogs alone, however. So, to remove some of the stress, we’ve provided a handy list of five memorable places in Tucson. Happy holidays!
Café Poca Cosa
110 E. Pennington Street, 622-6400 (cafepocacosatucson.com)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; closed Sundays and Mondays.
For those who crave variety—and incredible Mexican food—a visit to Café Poca Cosa is a must.
If you read any guidebooks or travel stories on Tucson, you’re bound to find effusive praise for this restaurant, whose owner and chef is Suzana Davila, a native of Guaymas, Sonora.
Besides having the best salsa in town, Café Poca Cosa changes its menu twice a day.
You won’t find tacos or burritos on this menu, which is listed on a small chalkboard and brought to the table and explained by your server. Instead, you’ll find about a dozen different dishes – including rich moles, exquisite beef, chicken and fish dishes and her delectable green corn tamale pies topped with ever-changing vegetables and fruit sauces.
Intrepid diners often vie for the Plato Poca Cosa, where the chef dishes up three smaller portions of the entrees offered that day. If more than one orders the Plato, you’ll all receive different items, so you can taste many of the day’s options.
Every meal comes with housemade corn tortillas, rice and beans served family style and a vibrant green salad with chunks of fruit or veggies on top.
It’s a lot of food, and it’s all delicious. Obviously, reservations are recommended.
Poca Cosa also has a full bar, and there are a variety of house-made specialty cupcakes for dessert. The mango iced tea shouldn’t be overlooked either.
135 S. Sixth Street, 623-7700 (downtownkitchen.com)
Hours: 4 to 9 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays; 4 to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Happy hour is 4 to 6 p.m. daily at the bar or on the patio.
Opened in 2010, Downtown Kitchen and Cocktails is the latest iteration for acclaimed chef and owner Janos Wilder.
Wilder, who was named the top chef in the Southwest in 2000 by the James Beard Foundation, opened his first restaurant in 1983 in a landmark adobe home on the grounds of the Tucson Museum of Art. The menu featured French technique and local ingredients that gained national acclaim.
In 1998, the restaurant relocated to a building on the grounds of the Westin La Paloma Resort and Spa. In 1999, under the same roof as Janos, J BAR was opened as a casual, less expensive alternative featuring the foods of Southern Arizona, Latin America, Mexico and the Caribbean.
At Downtown Kitchen, diners can order such dishes as crisp frog legs mojo de Ajo ($12); Brazilian feijoada with picanha steak ($25) and a dark chocolate jalapeno ice cream sundae ($8). Entrée prices range from $23 to $30. The well-versed servers are friendly and efficient.
Happy hour is 4 to 6 p.m. daily and features nibbles such as $3 warmed Oaxacan peanuts and a $10 Downtown burger, which includes Manchego cheese, mushrooms, smoke poblanos, bacon and caramelized onions on a griddled torta bun. Drink specials include $3.50 drafts and $5.50 wines and select cocktails.
Wilder also offers a three-course Sense of Place menu that highlights foods from different cultures. The current menu features hibiscus-cured Hamachi crudo; braised lamb shank and chile Colorado; and warm Oaxacan bread pudding for $43.
3719 E. Speedway Boulevard,
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays.
Feast has almost been open for 20 years, an impressive feat for any restaurant.
When you’re at Feast, you’re bound to meet the omnipresent owner and chef, Doug Levy. His friendly demeanor and absolute knowledge of food and wine is impressive.
When you first walk inside, you’ll see a small retail wine shop to the right. The bottle selection is full of unusual varieties and low prices. In fact, Wine Spectator magazine has described Feast’s wines as criminally underpriced. The often-present wine expert, Kevin, also can wax philosophical on any of the wines in the shop and help you choose the perfect bottle.
You can pick out a bottle at the shop to enjoy at the restaurant (for a $15 corking fee), or just take some home. Feast also offers an extensive wine list by the glass or bottle. There are weekly wine tastings and regular winemaker dinners, too.
The food, however, is what really stands out. The monthly changing menu features flavor combinations you’ve never thought about. Think cotton candy and shrimp. Or cinnamon-garlic Manchego cheese fries. Or a cream cheese scramble.
Of course, many traditional dishes are offered, including Feast’s grilled cheese sandwich ($11.50), one item that never leaves the menu. The beloved sandwich has seared Halloumi cheese, honey-roasted eggplant, tomato and onion on a French roll. It’s served with mixed greens with a zesty vinaigrette.
Whatever you choose, expect to be delighted.
Flying V Bar and Grill
On the grounds of the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, 7000 N. Resort Drive, 615-5495 (flyingvbarandgrill.com)
Hours: 5:30 to 9 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays; 5 to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
This is the place to take someone who wants to dine while feeling like they’re at a cozy ski lodge or fancy ranch house, complete with plush furniture and a roaring fire in the fireplace.
After the five-diamond Ventana Room closed years ago, the Flying V Bar and Grill took over as The Loews Ventana Canyon’s flagship restaurant.
The restaurant is located a short walk from the main resort building, and you can either valet or park yourself. Especially on the patio, the views are breathtaking, and service is top notch. The menu leans Southwestern and features dishes such as short ribs, steaks and seafood.
But the real reason you’re taking your guests is for the tableside guacamole. You’ll re-evaluate all of your opinions on guacamole after you experience this version.
A full order is an appetizer feast for two or three. For $18, which includes two avocados, a “guacamoliere” will wheel over a cart full of fun, fresh ingredients to create your perfect guacamole tableside. In addition to the traditional ingredients like onions, garlic, tomatoes, salt and chiles, other offerings could include cotija cheese, mango, apple, cucumber and a special blend house pepper. A half-order has one avocado and costs $9 with the same fixings.
The restaurant also offers almost 70 tequilas, signature cocktails and a mostly domestic wine list.
Inside Casino del Sol, 5655 W. Valencia Road, 324-9350, (casinodelsol.com)
Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays to Thursdays; 4 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
Ryan Clark, three-time winner of Tucson’s Iron Chef competition, now runs the restaurants at Casino del Sol on the Pascua Yaqui reservation.
Once you enter PY Steakhouse, the sounds of the casino outside are doused, and your fine-dining experience can begin.
Choose from a quintessential steakhouse menu, with aged, prime-cut meats, seafood and a dazzling array of interesting side dishes. Steak prices range from a 7-ounce center-cut filet mignon for $36 to a 22-ounce cowboy ribeye for $58. PY uses local purveyors for many of its foods, including grass-fed beef from Southern Arizona.
If the prices seem too rich, there’s a slow-roasted prime rib night on Wednesdays that costs $25 and includes herb salt, rosemary au jus, horseradish cream, loaded baked potato and chef’s seasonal vegetables.
The wine list features more than 1,000 choices, and there’s a full bar – obviously, it’s a casino.
Adventurous diners can put their eating experience in the chef’s hands by choosing a “Trust Me” menu of either five ($75/$110) or eight courses ($115/$170) with or without wine pairings.