Omar's Hi-Way Chef at Triple T Truck Stop
5451 E. Benson Hwy., at the Craycroft exit; 574-0961 or omarshiwaychef.com
• Highway history: Triple T Truck Stop was born in 1954 and is one of the oldest independently owned truck stops in the United States. In 1996, Culinary Institute of America graduate Omar Ramirez came on board to run Triple T's restaurant. The owners wanted to put a face and personality on the operation, so they slapped the Tucson native's name on the sign. Ramirez transformed the menu from ubiquitous diner fare to kicked-up gourmet-kissed cuisine. In recent years, he and Omar's Hi-Way Chef have been featured a number of times on the Food Network and Travel Channel.
• Hours: 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
• Cuisine: American with Italian and Mexican accents.
• Health department rating: Good in March.
• Worth pulling off the freeway: Folks swear by the sinful deep-dish apple pie smothered in ice cream and will go out of their way for it. But the truck-driver sized portions - "The main thing people say is that we feed them too much," says Ramirez - and 24-7 breakfast service have cemented the restaurant's reputation.
• Signature dishes: The I-10 Belly Buster - three eggs, two strips of bacon, two sausage patties, grilled ham and two pancakes - and Omar's Favorite - three fat cheese enchiladas topped with shredded beef, three eggs and melted Cheddar cheese.
• Price range: $2.50 to $14.95.
• Quote: "I would say we are probably the best restaurant that's stuck in a truck stop." - Omar Ramirez.
El Indio Restaurant
3355 S. Sixth Ave., at the South Sixth Avenue exit; 620-0504 or elindiorestaurant.com
• Highway history: Pedro and Emilia Estrella opened in a small taco shop on South Sixth Avenue in late 1990 or early 1991. Pedro Estrella had worked in restaurants about 20 years and dreamed of opening his own restaurant, so when he moved his family to Tucson from Los Angeles, he took the plunge, said his daughter Marisol Alba. Four years after opening, he outgrew the taco stand and moved to a much larger building across the street.
• Hours: 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Mondays.
• Cuisine: Sonoran-style Mexican food.
• Health department rating: Good in March.
• Worth pulling off the freeway: Travelers dropping in off Interstate 10 will think they've stepped over the border into Mexico. El Indio's walls are adorned with Mexican folk art from paintings to pottery plates and jars and colorful and intricately decorated knicknacks. A mural depicting a Southwest scene with nods to the Wild West covers the front of the building. Alba said it was painted by several artists over the years.
• Price range: $6 to $11.
• Signature dishes: The caldos (soups) reign supreme, from the popular cocido de res (vegetable) to the caldo de queso (cheese), with gooey melted cheese and tender chunks of potato bobbing in a rich broth to the popular casuela, dried shredded beef dancing in a sea of potatoes and green chiles. You can make a meal of the soup with a 32-ounce bowl that's big enough to share, but it's rare to see anyone actually sharing. The daily lunch specials - $6.50 for three courses plus a drink - have a devoted following.
• Quote: "We have a lot of people who come here all the time. They are so regular they notice any changes we make." - Marisol Alba
Silver Saddle Steak House
310 E. Benson Highway, at the South Sixth Avenue exit; 622-6253 or thesilversaddlesteakhouse.com
• Highway history: Silver Saddle was born in 1980 from the remnants of the old Pickwick Inn, which has a place in Tucson history as being the last holdout to allow black customers after a week of picketing by the NAACP in fall 1963. The Alva family took it over in April 1984. General manager Orlando Alva joined the family business 19 years ago.
• Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; 2 to 10 p.m. Saturdays; and 1 to 10 p.m. Sundays.
• Cuisine: As its name implies, this is a meat-eater's paradise. From a New York strip to a full rack of ribs, grilled on an open mesquite pit and served with cowboy beans, potatoes and a trip to the salad bar.
• Health department rating: Excellent in early April.
• Worth pulling off the freeway: In 2009, Caliente readers voted Silver Saddle as the best steak in Tucson, a fact that would seem to carry today judging by the packed dining rooms at lunch and dinner.
• Signature dishes: The 24-ounce porter house steak and prime rib.
• Price range: $6.95 to $10.95 for lunch; $13.95 to $25.95 dinner.
• Quote: "When it was tough for restaurants a couple years ago when the economy tanked, I think a lot of customers were leaning toward places where you get a lot of value. At our place, we are very consistent and you get tremendous value. You get tons of food. We survived, I think, just being consistent. Our quality has never changed." - Orlando Alva.
Country Folks Restaurant
1015 E. Benson Highway, at Benson Highway/Park Avenue exit; 622-8844 or countryfolksrestaurant.com
• Highway history: Country Folks has been serving scratch-made country fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the past 15 years. Irma and Mario Hinojosa started their restaurant in Benson in 1998 and moved it five years later to Tucson to take the place of a long-closed JB's.
• Hours: 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
• Cuisine: Quintessential American fare with an emphasis on breakfast and country skillet meals, as well as some Mexican accents including marinated chicken and veggie fajitas.
• Health department rating: Excellent in February.
• Worth pulling off the freeway: If you are looking for comfort food, the kind found in a sizzling skillet overflowing with potatoes, veggies, meats and eggs or chicken fried steak topped with a peppery country gravy, this is your nirvana. There are also more than a few surprises hidden in the menu, including fruit crepes filled with strawberry, blueberry or warmed cinnamon-kissed apple compote; fried chicken; and a green chile cheeseburger that kicks the burger blahs in their sesame seed bun.
• Signature dishes: Migas - eggs scrambled with tomatoes, jalapeños, green chiles, corn tortillas and Cheddar cheese - and a grilled sourdough hamburger topped with green chiles, sauteed onions, grilled mushrooms and Monterey Jack cheese.
• Price range: $5.29 to $8.99. There's also daily lunch buffets and a Friday fish fry buffet.
• Quote: "People will ask, 'What's good?' And I will ask them, 'Are you hungry or are you really hungry?' We give them a lot of food." Irma Hinojosa.
Kettle Restaurant/ Banquet
748 W. Starr Pass Blvd., at the Star Pass and East 22nd Street exit; 206-9318
• Highway history: The Kettle has been in Tucson since 1983, an outpost of the small Dallas, Texas, chain that has restaurants in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and a few other Southern states. Sam Sadi, a Jordan native who owned a pair of Kettle Restaurants in New Mexico, bought the Tucson restaurant in 1996.
• Hours: 6 a.m. to midnight daily.
• Cuisine: Casual American with rotating buffets that include Mexican, Asian and Italian food, as well as seafood.
• Health department rating: Excellent in January.
• Worth pulling off the freeway: Big appetites will find lots to love in the restaurant's rotating daylong buffets. Everything from omelettes and hash browns in the morning to fried chicken and seafood at lunch and dinner.
• Signature dishes: The Southern chicken-fried steak served with hash browns and eggs is a big draw. So is the pork chop dinner and a variety of steaks, including porterhouse.
• Price range: $5 to $15.
• Quote: "People just drop in off Interstate 10 going to Texas or California or to New Mexico. It's crazy during the Gem and Mineral Show." - Sam Sadi
Las Cazuelitas de Tucson
1365 W. Grant Road, off Grant Road exit; 792-0407 or lascazuelitas.com
• Highway history: Owner Abelardo Frisby opened the restaurant in 2004, an offspring of the original Las Cazuelitas that was born on South Sixth Avenue near East 36th Street in the late 1990s. Frisby bought the original restaurant when it was two years old and had ventured off to open other locations. But by the time the economy's dust had settled in 2011, Frisby was left with just the Grant Road restaurant and its adjacent events center that hosts weddings, parties, quinceañeras and other private events.
• Hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays through Wednesdays, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays.
• Cuisine: Traditional Mexican and seafood.
• Health department rating: Good in January.
• Worth pulling off the freeway: Folks swear by the seafood dishes, including the signature shrimp enchiladas.
• Signature dishes: The Enchiladas de Camarón (shrimp enchiladas) get the most attention from diners, but the Tampiqueña - thinly sliced steak sautéed with white onions and served with a cheese enchilada - has a growing fan following, Frisby said. "We do everything fresh," he added, ticking off a list of soups including albondigas, seafood and cheese.
• Price range: $6.99 to $25.
• Quote: "If you come in and it's in the morning at 7 a.m. or if it's at night, we will (serve) whatever you feel like eating. You can come and eat dinner at 7 in the morning or breakfast at dinnertime." - Owner Abelardo Frisby
Miss Saigon Bar & Grill
4650 W. Ina Road, off the Ina Road exit in Marana; 572-6560 or www.misssaigon-tucson.com
• Highway history: The restaurant opened in an old Perkins Family Restaurant building in 2007, an offshoot of the popular University of Arizona area Vietnamese restaurant that has been around since 2001. The restaurant, which specializes in Vietnamese and Thai food, is a welcome respite from the chain restaurants and fast-food drive-through windows that dot the interstate on the northwest side.
• Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sundays.
• Cuisine: Classic Vietnamese including pho and Thai dishes.
• Health department rating: Good in November.
• Worth pulling off the freeway: You will feel like you've left the desert and entered the tropics as you sit on the patio beneath a canopy of weathered palm fronds sipping a boba drink and nibbling on fresh spring rolls dipped in a slightly spicy peanut sauce. All that's missing is an ocean breeze.
• Signature dishes: This is where you go for pho - pronounced fuh - the quintessential Vietnamese rice noodle soup swimming in a rich beef broth. It comes in several variations - pork, beef, meatballs - with fresh bean sprouts, basil, cilantro, limes and jalepeños on the side that you add on your own. You can also dress it up with hoisin and sriracha sauces.
• Price range: $6.99 lunch specials, dinner $8.95 to $15.95.
• Quote: "We have a very devout, local following and pretty much 75 percent of the people don't know how to pronounce (pho), but we don't correct them. There is an art to eating it." - shift manager Matt Hildreth.
R & R Pizza Express
13905 N. Sandario Road, at Marana Road exit; 682-2022 or facebook.com/rrpizzaexpress
• Highway history: Linda and Mike Molitor opened a franchise of the small Arizona pizza chain 16 years ago in a third of a building that used to house a hamburger joint. When residential development in old Marana started booming in the early 2000s, the couple expanded. When the real estate boom busted a few years later, they downsized. Today they are a little bigger than when they first opened. R & R used to have several Tucson pizzerias, but the Marana restaurant is the last one. There are other locations in Benson and throughout the state.
• Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.
• Cuisine: As its name implies, pizza. They also serve pastas and oven-baked sandwiches.
• Health department rating: Excellent in November.
• Worth pulling off the freeway: There are two gas stations at the Marana exit that draw travelers off I-10 and employees from both direct travelers to R & R, said Linda Molitor. "I've had so many people who said they weren't sure, this is such a small little spot. Once they've had (the pizza) we get repeat customers even if it's just once a year" when they are passing through, Molitor said.
• Signature dishes: Extra large supreme pie piled with pepperoni, Canadian bacon, beef, sausage, mushrooms, onions, bell peppers and black olives; chicken alfredo; and twisted scratch-made breadsticks with garlic and parmesan.
• Price range: $5 to $20.
• Quote: "Our bread sticks are to die for. People literally come just for our breadsticks." - Linda Molitor.