Let's take a break from our regularly scheduled programming for this message: Yes, it's worth driving to a strip mall on the other side of town for no reason other than food.
The lovely restaurants on this list are destination spots in almost every sense of the word, except for one: Their exteriors are plain, suburban storefronts that blend into the surrounding landscape of veterinarians and nail salons. But savvy eaters know you can't judge a kitchen by its cover. Once you walk inside the door, you'll find charming spaces with unique menus that weren't devised by a team of PR professionals.
Because the overhead is lower than a stand-alone building or a fancy spot downtown, strip mall restaurants attract first-generation immigrants and passionate chefs with big ideas and small pocketbooks. If you delight in finding those rare and unexpected dining experiences — as I do — you'll surely love the restaurants I've chosen here.
Tucson has a ton of these delicious surprises tucked into every corner of its sprawling city, but here are 10 of my personal favorites. This list is a work in progress, so if you have any undiscovered gems that you think I've missed, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
J.P.S. Seafood Market and Restaurant
What to order: One of their towering tostadas, like the Mitotera pictured above
This homey mariscos spot is tucked into a southside shopping center next to some empty storefronts and a Tufesa bus station. But J.P.S. has one of the most exhaustive menus is town when it comes to true Sonoran seafood dishes, like a heady stingray and tuna fin soup called the Caldo Marinero. Sonora-native Jesus Parades brings in fresh fish and shrimp from from the Sea of Cortez, which he also sells from a little market at the side of the store. Read more about local Mexican seafood options here.
What to order: The Gaeng Keow Wan green curry or the Pad Kee Mao drunken noodles
The Rita Ranch area is both home to one of Tucson's best taco spots at a gas station ... and this fantastic Thai restaurant next to a State Farm. Sa-Ing Thai's menu includes the classic curries of this East Asian country, but also has some fun noodle dishes like the Pad Kee Mao with flat noodles that are bathed in a spicy chile sauce with jalapeño and Thai basil. Everything is well-executed here, and I liked that the curries substituted sweetness for herbaceous flavor.
What to order: Sichuan spicy beef noodles, babeee!
This ordinary midtown storefront used to be a Middle Eastern market and restaurant Tork's Cafe, but recently the bright blue walls were replaced with white tile and the couscous with fresh wheat noodles. With its contemporary ambiance and counter service, Noodleholics draws a sizable crowd of Chinese food lovers and enthusiasts. The clipboard menu offers rare noodle dishes from all over China, but specializes in the rice noodle dishes of Guilin in the south. Make sure to get a milk tea to wash it down! Read more about Noodleholics here.
What to order: Tandoori chicken from the mesquite clay oven
The neon lion marks the spot. Located next to the CVS on Grant and First, Sher-E-Punjab is one of Tucson's favorite spots for classic Northern Indian dishes like creamy spinach saag and garlic naan bread from the tandoor oven. The restaurant also has a good deal of vegetarian options like the aloo matar with potatoes and green peas in a rich Indian gravy. It's also important to note that Sher-E-Punjab is right next to one of Tucson's best sushi spots, Yamato Japanese Restaurant.
What to order: Spaghetti with beef sauce, seriously ...
Queen Sheba is Tucson's only Eritrean restaurant, located in a small shopping center right by the Tucson Medical Center. The cuisine of this northeast African country is similar to neighboring Ethiopia, with a few special touches like the celebratory porridge ga'at, which is so firm it arrives in the shape of a volcano. In addition to the Eritrean stews and homemade injera bread, you have to try the African spaghetti. No kidding! Read more about the restaurant and Eritrea's history as an Italian colony here.
What to order: The Boo Duh sandwich with grilled Tasso ham, capicola, provolone cheese and more
This midwestern deli/sandwich shop has attained cult status among the foodies of Tucson, who make the trek to the westside spot for its huge menu of meaty sammies. Not to be confused with the Sausage Deli on Grant, Sausage Shop is part meat market and actually makes its own sausages and smokes its own meat. While you're there, try some of that Tasso ham, a spiced pork product from southern Louisiana. Sandwiches come on your choice of bread, with four types of hoagie loaves and a brilliant marbled rye.
What to order: Tonkatsu ramen on the weekends, with a side of the baked scallop California roll
I had to put this restaurant on the list because if I didn't, I'd feel guilty every freaking week that I drive across town to go here. Ikkyu is seemingly a teriyaki joint, where you order at the counter from a list of donburi rice bowls and other casual Japanese fast foods. But the quality here is just superb, and they've got one of the best bowls of ramen in town. (Thursdays through Saturdays.) You can't go wrong with anything on the menu, but adventurous eaters might make a point of getting the cold tofu don with seaweed salad and those fishy bonito flakes on top that flutter in the air.
Twin Peaks Pizzeria
What to order: A slice of cheese pizza, but ask for it made fresh to order
I found one of the best slices of true New York pizza here, at this unassuming storefront on Twin Peaks Road. Next time you're heading to the newish Tucson Premium Outlets (with limited food options by the way), you'd benefit from grabbing a slice of cheese here. Ask if them to make it fresh; the wait is worth it for that perfect thin crust and glistening cheesy top. The sister restaurant to Dominick's Real Italian, Twin Peaks Pizzeria serves big old calzones too, and yummy cheesy bread!
Shish Kebab House
What to order: Mensaf, a Jordanian meat dish that's cooked in fermented yogurt and topped with grilled pine nuts
There's more charm than you've bargained for inside this Mediterranean spot at the Pier One Imports shopping center on Broadway. The entire dining room of Shish Kebab House is painted with sweeping murals, like the playful white horse dipping its hooves into a tropical ocean. If you look closely at the menu, you'll see a lot of uncommon dishes of Jordanian origin, like the Musakhan, or chicken cooked with sumac and caramelized onions. They've also got fantastic Greek salads and more familiar foods like gyros, falafel and shawarma.
Le Buzz Caffe
What to order: Mount Lemmon omelet with a croissant to share
This really looks like nothing from the outside, but walk under the sign into the shady cove and you'll be delighted to see a provincial patio leading to a French bakery. Located on the last breath of civilization before Mount Lemmon, Le Buzz Caffe is popular with the hiking and mountain biking crowds who come for the healthful brunch faire and sizable pastry selection. (OMG they have amazing cookies!) The croissants are as big as your head, but you can also go for one of the tartines, which are basically bread with artful toppings like eggs, applewood smoked bacon, goat cheese and more. They roast their own coffee too, so get buzzed and go on a journey!