Arizona is known for its Mexican food. Which makes sense, seeing that the state shares an entire 370-mile border with Mexico. And this incredibly delicious road trip will take you nearly the entire length of the state—from Tubac up to Flagstaff—so you better pack an appetite. From quick and tasty street tacos to traditional plates stacked high with rice and beans to elegant innovations on old-time classics, we cover the whole spectrum of Mexican dishes and eateries. Trust us, this is food worth driving for.
Where better to look for amazing Mexican food than right at the border? Elvira’s was originally established in 1927 in Nogales, Mexico, but has since moved to Tubac, Arizona. This enchanting and whimsical new location was decorated by interior designer turned chef, Ruben Monroy. It’s filled with colorful art and lanterns, blown glass baubles, and brightly painted walls—all of which give this eatery a fun and eclectic atmosphere. It’s worth taking a stroll around the restaurant to appreciate the décor, and we haven’t even mentioned the food yet! Chef Monroy hand-selected the innovative menu, including their signature mole sauce. Add to that their killer margaritas and Elvira's provides a colorful, whimsical, and delicious dining experience.
Heading north from Tubac, our next stop is the award-winning El Charro Cafe in Tucson—birthplace of the Chimichanga. El Charro Cafe not only boasts the distinction of being the nation’s oldest Mexican restaurant continuously operated by the same family, but they also claim to be the inventors of the Chimichanga. Established in 1922, the flagship restaurant on Court Avenue is still located in the family home of the original owner, Tia Monica Flin. Due to the cafe's popularity, El Charro has since gone on to open four additional locations around the Tucson area. Today, Chef Carlotta Flores (Tia Monica’s great grandniece) serves a mix of traditional Northern Mexican-Sonoran dishes, modern Tucson-style fare, and, of course, Tia Monica’s famed Chimichanga.
If you’re craving tacos and fresh salsa, head over to Boca Tacos Y Tequila in Tucson. Chef Maria Mazon, a James Beard Awards 2020 semifinalist, has created a menu full of authentic Sonoran Mexican dishes made fresh and cooked to order. Boca Tacos Y Tequila offers over 20 different tacos, 40 types of tequila, scotch, whiskey, and vodka options, and an impressive variety of creative salsas that are made fresh every day. They also serve additional Mexican dishes and local craft beers, so it’s easy to see why it’s a favorite stop for both locals and visitors. Chef Mazon has been featured on the Food Network, the New York Times, and the Travel Channel, so she clearly knows what it takes to make an amazing taco.
Before heading out of Tucson, be sure to swing by the Tucson Tamale Company. With more than 30 types of tamale options, it’s no wonder their slogan is “unwrap happiness.” The tamales here range from authentic (like their classic green chili) to more creative options (like the breakfast and dessert tamales). Founded by husband and wife duo Todd and Sherry Martin, the Tucson Tamale Company has several locations around Tucson where you can dine in or take your tamales to go. And don’t worry if you don’t live nearby, you can order your favorite tamales on their website and have them shipped right to your door.
The next stop on our Mexican food road trip is Phoenix. The Valley of the Sun has no shortage of delicious eateries, including Gallo Blanco. Located in the Historic Garfield District of Downtown Phoenix, Gallo Blanco specializes in street tacos and Oaxacan inspired Mexican food. Owned and run by Chef Doug Robson, Gallo Blanco sources local ingredients to create their fresh and creative menus. From their tacos to their brunch dishes, the authentic and innovated flavors are displayed in everything they serve. Add in a full-service bar, a bright and modern ambiance, and a daily happy hour and Gallo Blanco is a stop you won’t want to miss.
Don’t leave town without stopping by the Phoenix staple, Barrio Cafe. For two decades, owners Wendy Gruber and Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza (who also happens to be a James Beard Award nominee) have made Barrio Cafe one of the best Mexican restaurants in town. Located on 16th street in Phoenix, Barrio Cafe serves elevated and regional Mexican fare, such as their iconic smoked Cochinita Pibil, Chiles en Nogada, and a variety of Oaxacan style tacos. Their world famous guacamole is another fan favorite and shouldn’t be skipped. In addition to the creative Mexican food, they offer a fun selection of margaritas, Mexican beer, and local wine.
Leaving Phoenix and heading to the northeastern side of Scottsdale will bring you to La Hacienda at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. The blend of Spanish architecture and spacious, outdoor seating compliment the innovative Mexican recipes and seasonal ingredients on their menu. Created by world-renowned Chef Richard Sandoval and Executive Chef Forest Hamrick, this upscale Mexican restaurant serves specialties such as their tampiqueña (grilled skirt steak) and slow braised carnitas. And don’t skip the drinks! The bar offers a selection of 200 different tequilas, and their iconic flaming coffee made with tequila, coffee, and cinnamon is both a spectacle to watch and a treat to taste.
As you make your way to northern Arizona, a stop in Sedona at Elote Cafe is next on the list. This award-winning restaurant by Executive Chef and owner Jeff Smedstad just moved to a new, larger location and now overlooks the iconic red rocks of Sedona. Consistently ranked as one of the top places to eat in Sedona for both the ambiance and cuisine, Elote Cafe serves a mix of modern Southern Mexican and Southwestern American dishes. The menu features seasonal and locally-grown ingredients in creative and upscale specialty dishes inspired by the Oaxaca, Veracruz, and Puebla areas in Mexico. Start with their namesake appetizer, elote (fire roasted corn with mayo and lime) and be sure to check out their extensive tequila and mezcal menu.
End your Mexican eatery road trip in Flagstaff at Salsa Brava. Regularly rated as one of the top places to eat and the best Mexican food in Flagstaff, Salsa Brava has been making recipes from scratch for 30 years. Chef John Conely started Salsa Brava at the age of 21, and it’s grown into a favorite spot for both locals and visitors. They specialize in local Mexican and Southwestern cuisine, and have been known to source their ingredients directly from the Flagstaff Farmers Market. As the name would suggest, the salsa bar is extensive and impressive, and pairs perfectly with the variety of tacos, burritos, and enchiladas on the menu.
So, are you hungry yet? Not only is this road trip a great way to see the state of Arizona, but it's also prime for experiencing how the different cities and regions are reflected in the foods they prepare. Authentic recipes, fresh ingredients, and a wide variety of dishes make this an ideal trip for any food lover, and proves that Mexican food is so much more than just tacos.
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