Tucson Experience

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Tucson Food: North of the Border

While Tucson ensures that authentic south-of-the-border culinary and cultural influences aren't lost in translation, it also cooks up plenty of cross-border sway. The growing University metropolis boasts eats from around the world and mixes these tastes with more local flavors.

Emerging from an era of meat and potatoes and carne and frijoles—all of which it still does exceptionally well—Tucson has become a foodie tour de force. You can indulge in authentic chicken mole (rich sauce including chiles and chocolate) and carne seca (dried beef); fill up on some local/world food fusion; or get good and greasy with a Sonoran hot dog.

Start with some classic Mexican dishes such as tamales (filled masa dough wrapped in a corn husk) or enchiladas (corn tortillas filled with meat or cheese). But today even Mexican-American foods are evolving into a new generation of creations. Do you prefer the chimichangas (deep-fried burritos) that purportedly originated at El Charro Café or the mango-filled ones at Mi Nidito for dessert? Taste and decide for yourself.

Foodie Festivals

Tucson Originals World Margarita Championship. In October, Tucson Originals, a group of independent local restuarants, hosts the World Margarita Championship. Sample foods, wines, and killer margaritas—then cast your votes—prepared by more than 40 local indie chefs. Tucson, AZ. 520/343–9985. www.tucsonoriginals.com.

4th Avenue Street Fair. Feeling casual and eclectic? Hit Tucson's 4th Avenue Street Fair, usually held in May and December, where you can buy local hand-crafted wares while munching on every kind of festival food imaginable. Tucson, AZ, 85705. 520/624–5004. www.fourthavenue.org.

Say Cheese

Many identify Mexican food by bright, glistening layers of cheddar that render the entrée below it unrecognizable. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but true Mexico-style meals are untouched by orange cheese. Authentic dishes are served with much smaller rations of white cheese, usually queso blanco or panela—mild cheeses that become soft and creamy when heated, but don't melt—and cotija, a Mexican-style Parmesan. These cheeses now appear on non-Hispanic menus, too.

Pick a Pepper

Another key to authentic Mexican food is its heat source: fresh peppers. Once a south-of-the-border specialty, increased demand moved production of the heat-tolerant plants into the southern United States where they've had a growing impact on regional cuisine. There are endless varieties of the spicy fruit, but here are some more commonly seen on local menus.

Green and Red: Often roasted and peeled for stews and broths, sauces, rubs, marinades, confectionery, chili, and chiles rellenos. Green chiles are unripe with mild to medium-high heat. Red chiles are ripe with maximum heat.

Jalapeño: These flavorful green peppers can range from mild to hot and are served pickled, canned, deep-fried for "poppers," or as a garnish for everything from salads to nachos.

Chipotle: When select jalapeños mature from green to a deep red, they're prime for the wood-smoking process that creates chipotle (chee-pote-lay) peppers. Their distinct flavor is popular in sauces, marinades, and salsas.

Habañero: This thumblike pepper is one of the hottest. A little goes a long way in cooking. It's most often found in chili recipes and hot sauces.

Poblano: This green pepper, aka pasilla, is usually mild, but can sometimes pack a punch. Dried, it's an ancho chile. The poblano is used for moles (mo-lays).

Updated: 11-2012

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