Finitos' Italian ice comes in over a dozen refreshing flavors. Pictured here is a small ($2) pineapple with Tajín — sprinkled on, complimentary!

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In her decade-long tenure, my benevolent predecessor Andi Berlin wrote at least three articles about the Sonoran side of the border. First, she went on a Spanish immersion program through community center HEPAC, where she sampled regional Oaxacan food at a festival, was welcomed into a fish barbecue in someone’s home and ate churros downtown. Then she went on a Border Community Alliance gastronomic tour. Finally, she went on a private tour with a local foodie.

But she never talked about the Arizona side of the border. Admittedly a smaller town, Nogales, Arizona, still has a lot to offer.

You can try local renditions of the Sonoran food we enjoy in Tucson at cozy neighborhood favorites like El Zerape or Rancho Grande, both recommended by Arcadio Alvarez, a local mail carrier (and a colleague of my uncle’s, who runs the route between Amado and Arivaca).

“On the weekends, you won’t find any parking. It’s that good,” he said of El Zerape.

You can also try a local spin on Italian ice (our version here would be Eegee’s) at Finitos, which my colleagues and Nogales hometown heroes, Jamie Donnelly and Genesis Lara, say is the best in Southern Arizona. Or, a matcha drink in the tricolors of the Mexican flag at local cafe Moqah.

But there’s even more! We’re throwing in a few ideas of activities to flesh out the day trip possibilities.

Though Cocina La Ley calls itself a seafood establishment, they are also known for their incredible birria. The juice is key to a powerful flavor.

Cocina La Ley

While this casual restaurant builds its reputation on its seafood, Jamie, who grew up in Nogales, recommends their “AMAZING cabeza and birria tacos.”

Location: 226 W. Third St.

Hours: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily

For more information, check out their website.

This combo #1 platter includes a taco dorado (this one is shredded beef), a chile relleno and a cheese enchilada, plus beans and rice, for $11.50.

El Zarape

If I could marry a restaurant, it would be this one. This is the kind of food you want to come home to, every night. Hearty and bursting with flavor, the combo plate #1 made me agree with my family friend Arcadio that you cannot go wrong at this restaurant.

Arcadio’s testimony: “Very famous for their birria, and menudo too. But you can order a Mexican plate, they do everything well. They’ve been open for the longest time, a bunch of customers — people keep coming back. On the weekends, you won’t find any parking. It’s that good.”

Location: 694 N. Grand Ave.

Hours: 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Saturday | 3 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday

For more information, check out their Google Maps site.

Finitos is located on a shady street, greener than any I've seen in Tucson!

Finitos

Locals will say it’s “like Eegee’s, but better.” Their Italian ice comes in tons of flavors, nearly two dozen, and you can get it decked out with tamarindo candies or ice cream.

The lady filled my cup halfway before sprinkling a generous amount of Tajín, then loading up the small serving (which, at $2, felt like more than enough). A medium costs $3 and a large costs $4! It’s the best of both worlds of raspados and Eegee’s.

The location, tucked away on Perkins Avenue, is tree-lined unlike any street I've seen in Tucson. I saw kids in bathing suits stopping by with their families after a session at the pool. It felt like pure summer.

Location: 775 N. Perkins Ave.

Hours: Noon to 6 p.m. Monday-Saturday

For more information, check out their Facebook page.

Moqah in Nogales offers a bistro menu with crepes alongside fun drinks like this tricolore matcha, made with strawberry puree and half-and-half.

Moqah Coffee & Beyond

This small chain of cafes got its start in Rio Rico. They have a wide selection of both sweet and savory crepes, alongside bistro classics like paninis and salads. But they stand out with Instagram-friendly showstoppers like a matcha drink in the colors of the Mexican flag.

The Nogales location has views of the charming hills on the other side of the border. Its bistro chairs and hand-painted window feel like you're stepping into a vintage foreign land, like France or Cuba. Bring a book and savor the ambiance!

Location: 29 N. Morley Ave. (While the correct address, this Google map will take you to its former location. To get to the new spot, go to Kory's at the end of Morley Avenue.)

Hours: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday | 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday

For more information, check out their Facebook page.

Rancho Grande

Rancho Grande was the first place Arcadio told me about.

“Anything you order is authentic, really good Mexican food. Menudo, posole, any Mexican drink you can think of — that place is really good. It’s not expensive at all,” he said. It’s the kind of place with regulars.

Location: 270 N. Grand Court Plaza

Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily

For more information, check out their Yelp page.

Tacos & Tarros

While Rancho Grande and El Zarape give off more traditional vibes, Tacos and Tarros brings a modern twist. They have a fun vibe on the weekends and an extensive salsa bar.

Location: W. White Park Dr. by the Walmart

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Wednesday | 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday | Noon to 8 p.m. Sunday

For more information, check out their Facebook page.

Other day trip activities

Pimeria Alta Historical Society Museum

This museum, housed in the old city hall, is a destination for territorial history. They frequently host events and offer rotating historical exhibits, alongside standby attractions like a fire truck with a hand-operated pump and a tour of the old jail.

Location: 136 N. Grand Ave.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday

For more information, check out their website.

Hilltop Gallery

This art gallery and event venue has been a cultural institution in Nogales since 1968. They often host live music, along with rotating fine arts exhibits.

Location: 730 N. Hill Top Dr.

Hours: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday | 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday | Closed Sunday-Monday

For more information, check out their website.

Guided Border Hike

Borderlandia is a cultural organization that hosts all kinds of events on both sides of the border region, from taco crawls in Hermosillo to historical tours local here in Tucson. Occasionally, they host urban hikes along the U.S.-Mexico border in Nogales.

For more information, check out the events page on their website.

Border Community Alliance also runs a regular cross-border tour in Nogales, Sonora.

Charles Mingus events

Legendary jazz musician Charles Mingus was born in Nogales in 1922. While Nogales hosted a blowout centennial celebration this year, the city often hosts a music festival on his birthday in late April.

For more information, keep tabs on their website, The Mingus Project.

Paul Bond Boot Co.

This is an authentic cowboy boot company with over seven decades of history. The handmade boots cost hundreds of dollars, so I’d almost treat it like a museum or window shopping, but it’s a cool slice of country western culture regardless. The shingled barn contains the factory, ready-to-wear retail, seats for custom sizing and design, and signed photos of country stars like Johnny Cash.

Location: 915 W. Paul Bond Dr.

Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday. Closed weekends.

For more information, check out their website.

Duty-Free Shopping

Looking to stock up? There are two duty-free stores near the border in Nogales. While they’re best known for discounted liquor and cigarettes, you can also find fun imports and fine gifts like designer perfume.

Locations: 421 N. Mariposa Road and 78 N. Terrace Ave.

Hours: Mariposa Road location is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday | Terrace Avenue location is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Saturday and is closed Sunday.

For more information, check out Duty Free Americas’ website.

A paddle boarder and a motor boat make their way along Patagonia Lake in 2019. Established as a state park in 1975, Patagonia Lake is a longtime destination for recreational enthusiasts throughout Southern Arizona.

Outdoor recreation

Maybe the above dining options will be great respite and indulgence after a morning hike or kayak expedition. Southern Arizona offers a lot of beautiful nature. Here are a couple options en route from Tucson:

Patagonia Lake State Park 

If you take the scenic route, down the 82 instead of the 19 from Tucson, the Patagonia Lake State Park is just a brief detour. Otherwise, it’s about half an hour from Nogales.

Temperatures are usually around 10 degrees cooler there than in Tucson. The lake has a beach and options for swimming, boating and fishing. You can camp in tents, your RV or in rustic cabins on site as well.

Location: 400 Patagonia Lake Road

Fee: As a state park, there is an entrance fee of $15-20 per vehicle or $3 per person/bicycle.

For more information, check out their website.

Las Lagunas de Anza Wetlands

If you want to grab takeout from any of these restaurants, this could be a great spot in town for a picnic. There’s a mesquite grove with picnic tables and umbrellas to keep you cool even in the summertime.

Location: W. Country Club Dr. in Nogales

For more information, check out their website.


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