Although we are not foodies, we love to take food tours when we are on the road. Cities like Istanbul, Hong Kong, and New York are known for their unique cuisine; we have especially enjoyed eating our way through these major world capitals. The ethnic neighborhoods in our home town Chicago, have unique culture and traditions that is reflected in the cooking and it’s been fun to be tourists close to home as well. Between each eating opportunity the guide talks about the history and architecture of the place as well as the reasons why the food we sample was chosen.
We’re only aware of one food tour in Tucson and the owner who gave us the tour today, got the idea after taking a food tour in Chicago. When he’s not leading tourists around he is also a fireman. We met him at the historic Congress Hotel, built in 1919 across the street from the railroad station. John Dillinger and his buddies were apprehended there and his discovery here is reenacted annually with much fanfare. In many cities downtowns have been allowed to deteriorate as people move away into the suburbs and the neighborhood around the Congress used to feature tattoo parlors, strip clubs and places selling $1 beer. The landlords in the area banded together and raised the rent, drove these undesirable businesses out and have invested major funds into the old buildings, modernizing them for the modern restaurant business. Many of the downtown restaurants are siblings of successful establishments in other places. For example, our first stop at a coffee shop served Blue Bottle coffee, which is a major favorite in the San Francisco area. A number of the restaurants where we sampled, were decorated by the same firm that used a combination of the original old wood and metal of these old establishments with modern, almost industrial elements. It was a style that I found very appealing and made some of the restaurant stops felt like they were related to each other, even though the food they served was quite different and unique.
The tour lasted from 11am to 4pm so it was impossible to spend all that time eating. We visited the remnants of the historic wall that surrounded early Tucson and the beautiful Spanish/Moorish court house that was originally built to be the capital when Arizona was still a territory. The El Charro restaurant nearby was located in what used to be the owner’s grandfather’s home and served traditional Mexican fare. The newer restaurants were more trendy and used creative fusions of all sorts of ingredients to entice foodies. For example, menu items in one restaurant offered Yucca Tots with Sambal ketchup, Brazilian hushpuppies filled with goat cheese and squash, tacos filled with house smoked turkey thigh, heirloom baby kale salad, fresh blackberries and pumpkin seed salsa, burritos filled with Korean BBQ and kim chee, etc. etc.
The tour guide had a printed list of restaurants where he planned to stop, but he made substitutions. The downtown restaurant area is in a state of flux. Some restaurants are about to open, some just opened, some have changed their hours. It sounded like his tour is a bit of an adventure for him as he finds out what’s what. Before he became a fireman he worked as a waiter and many of the new establishments are being run by people he regards as friends that he used to work with. His enthusiasm for each of the new ventures was infectious, and we hope we can return downtown to try bigger portions of the yummy stuff we sampled today.