Tucson is a great restaurant town. From its enviable collection of culinary gems, we've picked four longtime favorites and a recent discovery for closeups. We start at the top of the local food chain with Janos Wilder, one of the Southwest's most creative and best loved chefs (and a James Beard award winner).
Janos, at Westin La Paloma Resort, 3770 E Sunrise Drive (foothills north); (520) 615-6100 or www.janos.com
Janos is the chef's signature restaurant (next door is the more casual J Bar), where every season brings a new menu, the wine list is deep and the views over the valley that cradles the city superb. In addition to a culture-hopping main menu, Janos also offers changing prix fixe deals. You can choose a three-course bargain Summer Sampler for $34.50 (don't miss the herbed ricotta gnocchi appetizer with asparagus and foraged Oregon mushrooms) or a fanciful extravaganza of Ten Terrific Tastes, $50 or $75 with a cocktail to start and wine and ale pairings throughout. A taste from the main menu? How about "lamb: 4 from the heart of Mexico," featuring lamb porterhouse with a chocolate and chilies molé, Oaxacan barbacoa lamb tamale, soup from the barbacoa and street vendor spicy lamb's tongue taco!
Cafe Poca Cosa, 110 E Pennington St. (downtown); (520) 622-6400 or cafepocacosatucson.com
Chef Suzana Davila has been delighting diners with her imaginatively authentic regional Mexican cooking for years and years. She recently moved her colorful, passionate show into a space with Mexico City panache, but the servers are as friendly as a Sonoran village. The chalkboard menu changes twice daily, as the market and the chef's unerring instincts dictate, and every plate is a work of art. A perennial best bet is the Plato, which combines tastes of three of the day's entrees (often one each of vegetarian, meat and fish creations), all bedded on a riotous mound of salad greens and fruits. Just put yourself in Suzana's capable hands and be prepared to swoon.
El Charro Cafe, 311 N Court Ave. (downtown); (520) 622-1922 or www.elcharrocafe.com
Charro is the name for the traditional, fancy-in-the-saddle Mexican cowboy. The food at El Charro, which has been serving hungry Tucsonans since 1922, lives up to the name. The Flores family's fare is deceptively simple and honestly hearty. Its two biggest claims to culinary fame are its distinction as the birthplace of the chimichanga and its near legendary carne seca (sun-and-air-dried beef, shredded and grilled with green chilies and onions). Both rate a resounding yum! This location is the original, in a pair of historic buildings with a delightful courtyard centered on a splashing fountain.
The Audubon Bar at the Arizona Inn, 2200 E Elm St. (midtown); (520) 325-1541 or www.arizona inn.com
In a quiet residential neighborhood not far northeast of the University of Arizona campus reposes a classic desert fantasy of pink adobe buildings and meticulously tended walled grounds. The Arizona Inn, which richly deserves its place on the National Register of Historic Places, dates to 1930 and flourishes today as a resort oasis in the heart of the city. There are other dining options, but we're pitching lunch in the Audubon Bar, preferably on the shaded patio that overlooks a manicured croquet lawn edged by exuberantly colorful seasonal flower beds. Our favorite luncheon treat is a one-of-a-kind Southwestern grilled cheese featuring semi-firm Mexican asadero, sliced avocado, roasted peppers, freshly snipped cilantro and black bean spread on toasted sandwich bread rich with corn meal. Finish with house-made ginger cappuccino ice cream, then stroll to your casita for siesta.
Feast, 4122 E Speedway (midtown east); (520) 326-9363 or www.eatatfeast.com
Chef Doug Levy has cooked in some of the most prestigious kitchens in town. He opened Feast as a gourmet takeout and catering operation but eventually bowed to popular demand and expanded to offer table and wine bar service as well. Be advised, this is not your run of the mill takeout chow. On a summer Sunday we stopped by to pick up lunch for four. We started with Levy's summer duck salad, featuring sliced breast meat with fresh greens, herbs and radishes in a honey-lime dressing, and for the main course chose a sumptuous sweet corn ravioli in shrimp broth with langoustine tails, green and purple basil, and crispy fried shallots. Our lunch to go cost us rather more than a spin past the nearest burger drive-up window, definitively proving you get what you pay for.
John Bancroft is a freelance writer based in Bradenton.