The Santa Cruz Valley is a broad, sun-mottled plain hemmed in by rust-hued mountains, stretching from Tucson, Arizona, down to the Mexican border city of Nogales. Saguaro cacti frame this landscape like tall, ragged aliens, their cockeyed arms signalling victory over the unforgiving landscape, seemingly imploring you to rethink what you expect to find in the desert.
This valley is a primordial food-trading corridor, and perhaps the country’s oldest continually cultivated area. The climate and soil mirror what you’ll find in the Mediterranean—minus the sea.
Tohono O’odham tribal legends speak of tepary beans, one of the most drought-tolerant in the world. Prickly pear, buckhorn cholla and especially saguaro cacti all produce prized fruits.
Syrup from roasted agave pits trumps any sugar—real or artificial. The long pods from bountiful mesquite trees are ground into flour that tastes bittersweet.
And while indigenous staples remain, there’s a culinary ingenuity surrounding Tucson that is bent on accentuating and developing local, sustainable flavours.
Think of it as a small boutique version of a Whole Foods Market, but for locavores and with an intimate dining room in the back that uses the shelf stock to bolster its delectable meals. Housed in Tucson’s recently restored historic depot, the market carries regional raw materials and refined products galore: honey, pecans, pistachios, organic beef, tamales, mesquite waffle mix, bean soups, salsas and sauces—even soaps, herbal rubs and salves.
There’s also a fine beer and wine selection, a coffee bar (brewing Tucson-roasted Caffe Luce beans), a takeout menu and a communal lunch table. Digging into the kitchen’s magnificent menu is a whole other story, but with an infectiously happy ending.
The concept is all in the name. Sourcing locally whenever possible, executive chef Colin King crafts gorgeous dishes using seasonal ingredients, matched against a wine list that emphasizes big, bold styles in winter and softer whites and reds in summer.
One menu mainstay is an appetizer of pillowy, perfectly browned empanadas stuffed with grass-fed, dry aged beef from a nearby farm, black mission figs and green olive chimichurri sauce for $9. (Check out our blog for Harvest Restaurant’s empanada and chimichurri recipes).
Most entrees are meat-driven (think fall-off-the-bone pork ribs slathered in organic prickly pear mole), and the lunch menu features artful soups, salads and sandwiches ($8 – $15).
The food from this Sonoran desert farm, about a half hour west of Tucson, could help heal your body in gradual, spreadable doses.
Beyond producing a bevy of jams, jellies and syrups with organic pesticide-free produce (peppers, peaches, plums, pomegranates, pears, papayas, pineapples and just about every berry under the sun), they specialize in making jellies, syrups, rubs and barbecue sauces with locally harvested cacti fruit.
They champion mesquite as a solid source of calcium, iron and zinc that also helps control blood sugar. And like an edible amulet, prickly pear nectar is alleged to combat diabetes, obesity, gastrointestinal issues, skin problems, viral infections and—in the short term—hangovers. To get your hands on these goods, check out the Tucson Farmer’s Market every Saturday.
Opened last spring on the Tohono O’odham reservation an hour’s drive southwest of Tucson, this humble kitchen, counter and patio aims to make both a cultural and a social statement.
Not only do the breakfast and lunch options rely on traditional ingredients (including home-grown corn and squash), they offer vital, affordable alternatives to the processed-food diet that has spawned a diabetes epidemic in North America’s aboriginal communities.
Desert Rain’s version of a value meal might be white and green chili (white tepary beans, chicken, tomato and avocado), with corn bread and agave-sweetened lemonade for less than $10.
Falling just within range of Tucson’s 100-mile diet, this family-owned working farm has made a name for itself by extolling sustainability and offering customers the opportunity to escape from “pre-packaged, cellophane city life.” For a decade it’s been crafting high-quality, cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil from a drip-irrigated, pesticide-free crop.
Daily facility tours delve deep into the significance of varietal character, fruit maturity, oleic acid content and proper harvesting and processing technique.
The only olive producer in the state, Queen Creek now grows 16 varieties and sells a range of stuffed olives, tapenades and flavoured oils, including a Serrano chili-infused barn-burner.
Established with traditional grapes like cabernet and colombard, Arizona’s first and only wine appellation is coming of age after a quarter century. The red soil and elevated, sprawling grasslands an hour southeast of Tucson now grow syrah, merlot, sangiovese, tempranillo, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, not to mention heirloom holdovers planted by Spanish missionaries.
This ain’t no novelty act either: the full-bodied, fruit-forward wines created here have won awards and high accolades (including being served at President George Bush Sr.’s inauguration dinner).
Within the Sonoita Wine Region, there are four superb wineries to check out:
Arizona’s Best Wine Regions (and Where to Sip)
Rocky soil, intensely flavoured fruit and rich wines make Arizona's Verde Valley and Willcox regions worth exploring on a wine country escape. Discover wineries along the Verde Valley Wine Trail or sip inside tasting rooms at Flying Leap Vineyards and Coronado Vineyards in Willcox.