This is not a list of the 10 WORST things I ate in Tucson during 2018 ... because that list would be nothing! (Just kidding it's probably something I made at my house. There's a reason I eat out so much. JK 😉)
This year I ate out more than ever though, due to the fact that I write a monthly list of all the new restaurants that open. They kept me busy, and as a result I have a new love for food halls and Chongqing pork. 2018 was a fantastic year for both of these things, with the opening of American Eat Co. and the MSA Annex.
Also, my wish from last year's Best of 2017 list came true! A wave of new regional Chinese restaurants gave us noodle joints, spicy Sichuan and fish hot pot. In addition, this year was great for the stripmalls and smaller joints in midtown. First Avenue is filling out with barbecue and Puerto Rican mofongos, and the area around Grant Stone Market is becoming a Chinese food hub.
Lately, I've seen a ton of new articles about how Tucson is an underrated food destination. I mean, El Guero Canelo has a James Beard Award for goodness sakes. People are taking notice of our humble Old Pueblo. Thank you for giving them something to talk about!
Sichuan spicy beef soup at Noodleholics
There's currently some of this stuff sitting in my car, because that's what I had for lunch today. I had to go back twice while writing this article so I could decide whether I liked the veggie-laced Taiwan beef or the numbing Sichuan beef better. (At least that's what I told myself. I actually look for any excuse to go to Noodleholics.) Today I'm gonna go with with the Sichuan beef, because I'm a sucker for spicy broth. But honestly, every single Chinese noodle soup on the menu would make it onto my list of Tucson's best dishes. That's how much I love them. 🍜🧡
Weenie flautas from Avenues at American Eat Co.
Yeah that's right, it's a hot dog wrapped in a tortilla and deep fried. Trash or treasure?! It's a revelation to me, but for a lot of people this just looks like a regular dinner, or a late-night snack at home. That's what's so cool about the Avenues booth at American Eat Co. It serves a cheffy take on "Chicano hood eats," with colorful corn tortillas that Che West rolls out by hand. I can't think of a better concept for this food hall, which is changing South Fourth Avenue as we know it.
Monsoon Chocolate bonbons
This artisan chocolate cafe opened on the tails of American Eat Co., solidifying the idea that South Fourth is trendy now. Is Monsoon Chocolate a passion project or a bold move to re-invent our food scene? Either way, it feels really important. I have to admit, I've only had about three bites of the thing I am about to recommend. But they were very good bites! Adam Krantz's exquisite chocolate buttons are pretty hard to get your hands on these days, but that's what happens when you make sweet things.
Grilled trout at Tito and Pep
Trout isn't really the kind of thing that screams "order me" when it's put on a menu, but this is one of the better pieces of fish I've had. Much of it's in the way it was cooked, by mesquite fire and stuffed with cilantro pesto. Tito and Pep excels in the fish department, and this entree is actually one of the simplest things on the menu. This is a bit of hearsay, but our server told us that Janos recently dined here and called the trout "perfection." Like usual, I agree with Janos.
Foil chicken at Panda House
I don't actually know what this dish is called. It's on Panda House's separate Chinese menu that doesn't come with an English translation. I said the words "emperor's chicken" and my server came out with a shiny packet of fried chicken bits in a spicy sour sauce. I don't know if it would happen again in the same way. But I do know that this chicken was one of best things I've eaten this year. It's kind of like Sigur Rós. Who knows what they're singing, but that's part of the fun!
Syrian pastries from Caravan Grill
Like most people I was a little worried when I saw that the beloved Za'atar had moved and there was a new restaurant called Caravan Grill. But they've still got that stone oven, and the pastries ... oh my goodness. If you love baklava but haven't branched out from its sticky sweet goodness, try one of those Burma pistachio logs. You'll love it!
African spaghetti at Queen Sheba
This isn't a dig against Eritrean food, which is fabulous. But for some reason, the spaghetti here just blew me away. Eritrea was previously occupied by Italy, and you can see the colonial legacy in the African spaghetti dish at Queen Sheba. It tastes like noodles that someone would make you at home to be honest, but the chunky sauce on top has a hint of African spices in there. I've never tasted anything like it.
Grilled fish at Yu Zi Wei
This is the third Chinese dish I put on here, so sue me! It's not my fault that Tucson has a Chongqing restaurant now where you can build your own sizzling fish hot pot and have them plug it in at the table for you. If you enjoy the spicy water-boiled fish at China Szechwan, you'll love this amped-up version at Yu Zi Wei. Get some noodles in there, and then it's A++.
Pizza Luna's house salad
I was tempted to include Pizza Luna's cheese and charcuterie plate, which is fantastic and one of the best in town. But I think most people probably come to this tiny spot by the Trader Joe's for a quick lunch. Especially because they do salad exceedingly well here. Tucson is often cursed with crappy lettuces, but this simple green salad showcased its fresh produce with a creamy tarragon vinaigrette. I have rarely been wowed by a salad with this few ingredients, but this was a wowzer.
Grilled cheese sandwich at Ten55 Brewing
Who are we kidding, 2018 was really the year of craft beer. But this list is not about beer, although I wish it was right about now. It is about grilled cheese sandwiches, which are the second best thing in the world after beer. Ten55 opened its plush brewery downtown this year, and I've been loving the fact that it's a block away from my office. Oh yeah back to grilled cheese: They do theirs with Barrio Bread and this really melty cheese spread that changed my mind about "pimento." They also do grilled cheese specials like bacon and pulled pork. Now all they have to do is put one of those sausages in there and it would be a MEGA-SANDWICH!