The first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in the United States isn’t New York City, Los Angeles, or San Francisco. It’s Tucson, Arizona: a medium-sized city south of Phoenix known for its Mexican food and the Sonoran dog -- that's a hot dog wrapped in bacon and topped with pinto beans.
Puzzled and scratching your head? In Tucson’s case, the designation isn’t based solely on its excellent restaurants or contributions to the culinary world; Tucson earned the designation for its rich agricultural history as the oldest, continuously farmed land in the United States and for working to preserve the crops that were — and still are — grown here.
You can experience the nation’s first City of Gastronomy by visiting these farms, taking cooking and harvesting classes, buying heirloom seeds, and sampling traditional dishes when you visit Tucson. Here are a few of the highlights.
San Agustin Mission Farm
Locals have worked the four acres of San Agustin Mission Farm for roughly 4,100 years, making it the oldest, continuously farmed land in the nation, and on Saturdays, you can step back in time to see its agricultural evolution. Tours start with a space dedicated to gatherers who found edible plants in the desert and continue past plots dedicated to farms in the Hohokam, Spanish, and Mexican eras. There’s even a garden of the future dedicated to experimental methods and crops. We love that much of what's growing began as clippings from historic ranches, missions, and agricultural communities, so you're literally tasting history when you bite into a fruit or vegetable here.
San Xavier Co-Op Farm
The 860 production acres of San Xavier Co-Op Farm on the Tohono O’odham Nation are assumed to date back as far as the San Augustin Mission Farm (something that hasn’t formally been substantiated), but the history isn’t the draw. Come for the fresh produce, heirloom beans and grains, and local honey sold at the store near the Mission San Xavier del Bac. You’ll also find canned goods, like apple butter and salsa, made from co-op crops on the shelves. The co-op store opens to the public daily at 8 a.m., except Sunday. Bonus: Check the farm’s online events calendar for workshops on native harvesting, cooking classes, and more.
You don’t have to be a gardener to make a stop at Native Seeds/SEARCH worthwhile; it’s fascinating to just peruse the varieties of heirloom seeds the organization has collected since the early 1980s. A large portion of the Campbell Avenue store is dedicated to specialty food items such as chili powder, spice blends, beans, grains, and jams.
Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails
Some Tucson restaurants incorporate native foods, like squash and tepary beans, but none embrace the concept quite like Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails. The brainchild of James Beard award-winning chef Janos Wilder, the restaurant not only adds native foods to its seasonal menu but also focuses on other City of Gastronomy destinations during the summer as well. On one visit, you may find two or three dishes that pay tribute to Parma, Italy, and the next, dishes paying tribute to Phuket, Thailand. Be sure to ask about the passport program entitling you to a free meal after ordering a certain number of City of Gastronomy dishes.
Also headed by Chef Wilder, the Carriage House offers a full calendar of cooking classes taught by some of the premier chefs in Tucson as well as Wilder himself. Usually, the classes focus on the chef’s specialty, but what really sets the Carriage House apart are the cooking classes and dinners dedicated to cities who have also achieved City of Gastronomy designations. The next class on July 22 features the flavors of Rasht, Iran.
Tucson Food Tour
If you want to stick to the flavors of Tucson, though, there’s no better way to sample a wide range of foods from some of the city’s best restaurants than on a food tour. We recommend the Downtown Tucson Walking Tour offered by Tucson Food Tour because it includes at least six tasting stops, one of which is usually El Charro Café, the nation’s oldest Mexican restaurant in continuous operation by the same family.