El Paso vs. Tucson: Who Has the Best Mexican Food?
From the beef chimichangas and ceviche tostadas in Tucson to the street corn and barbacoa beef in El Paso, the two cities in the extreme south of the USA have a lot to offer in Mexican cuisine.
In fact, the two cities are known for slogans promoting their Mexican food scenes: Tucson, Arizona calls itself the “Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food in America” while El Paso, Texas is often referred to as the “Mexican Food Capital” of America. “
The two cities are just 4 hours and 30 minutes apart along I-10 in the US-Mexico border region. They are pretty similar in size, with populations ranging from 500,000 to 600,000.
Having visited Tucson many times over the past few decades, I am familiar with its strong Mexican food. And after spending a week in El Paso and the West Texas region in the summer of 2021, I was also impressed by the city’s delicious cuisine.
With both communities claiming to be the best, the question arises: Who will win this culinary one-two in the desert?
As a casual foodie, I’ve noticed a number of differences in Mexican cuisine in the two cities, along with strengths in both and some similarities. Based on my observations and recommendations from local experts, here are 8 things you should know about the Mexican food scene in El Paso and Tucson.
1. El Paso has strong borderline influences
With its location right on the border between the USA and Mexico, El Paso is strongly oriented towards the cuisine of Ciudad Juarez, the city on the other side of the border with 1.5 million inhabitants and the largest metropolitan area in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.
Several international ports of entry in El Paso connect the two metropolitan areas, and local experts say the two cities draw constant inspiration from each other for inspiration in the culinary arena.
El Paso restaurants also often source their food from Mexico. On my last visit to El Paso, I spoke to representatives of two different companies that source their products directly from farmers in Mexico – ELEMI Cocina for its maize (Maíz) and the company MaybeWest Mezcal for its agave.
While Tucson has a strong Mexican influence in its cuisine as well, the city of Arizona is not directly on the border; it’s about an hour’s drive north of the border towns of Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico.
Charro Steak and del Rey at Branzino Veracruz (Photo: Cindy Barks)
2. Tucson is a World Heritage City for fine dining
With a 4,000-year-old culinary heritage, Tucson was the first US city to receive the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Award as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2015.
This title has made Tucson stand out not only because of its outstanding Mexican cuisine, but also because of its Indian influences. Visit Tucson’s website describes the city’s culinary heritage as a “Tapestry of Mexican and Native American Traditions”.
The local food scene is bursting with regional products such as cactus (nopales), sunflowers, corn, chiltepin (red chilli), prickly pear and pumpkin. In fact, fresh ingredients are the backbone of the Tucson chef-driven culinary scene.
The Tucson City of Gastronomy organization regularly publishes a list of certified restaurants in the Tucson City of Gastronomy. Award winners included a variety of restaurants and bakeries – everything from upscale Mexican steakhouse Charro Steak & del Rey to breakfast / lunch / dinner made from scratch at Blue Willow Bakery.
Charro’s specialty is beef and the menu features a variety of steaks and grilled carne asada. I also loved the great seafood selection, like the branzino veracruz, a whole fillet of fish in a sauce of tomatoes, olives and capers, served with nopalitos and grilled butterfly prawns.
For breakfast at Blue Willow, try the chorizo scrambled eggs with beef chorizo and scrambled eggs with salsa or the huevos rancheros with eggs, pinto beans, corn tortillas, cheese and homemade potatoes.
3. El Paso integrates Tex-Mex
The Tex-Mex cuisine, a mixture of Texan cowboy cuisine and the dishes of northern Mexico, is said to have produced favorites such as nachos, fajitas and cheese (queso) dip.
El Paso gives the popular fusion a unique twist by adding spicy elements and mesquite grilled meat. Add in the proximity of Chilean cities in New Mexico like Las Cruces and Hatch and you have a Tex-Mex scene that really stands out. In fact, El Paso cuisine is sometimes described as Mex-Tex rather than Tex-Mex.
Here, too, local experts attribute El Paso’s outstanding Tex-Mex to the nearby northern Mexican states such as Chihuahua and Coahuila as well as its symbiosis with its sister city Juarez. The result: Tex-Mex classics with that certain something.
For example, Queso fundido, El Paso’s version of the Queso Dip, has added flavor with spicy chili peppers. Try Tacos Chinampa or Tacos El Toro Bronco. And for authentic dishes like Tampiquena (meat with grilled green chilli, onions, and tomatoes) and Deshebrada (shredded beef in a rich salsa Española) head to the local popular L&J Café. While tacos are great all over El Paso, the local chain Tacotote, which originated in Juarez, is known for having a wide variety of meats and taco ingredients.
4. Tucson has a strong seafood game
Although Tucson is a 3-hour and 30-minute drive from the nearest ocean (the Mexican beach town of Puerto Peñasco on the Sea of Cortez), the desert community of Arizona offers excellent Mexican seafood – from shrimp ceviche to fish tacos to whole grilled dishes Fish.
Fish tacos in the Taqueria Pico de Gallo (Photo: Cindy Barks)
Taquerias across town offer variations of ceviche and fish tacos. For a restaurant choice that has landed on the city’s gastronomic list for its authenticity, head to Taqueria Pico de Gallo, a colorful little eatery that offers spicy ceviche tostadas, spicy fish tacos, and rich soups with mixed fish or shrimp .
5. El Paso / Juarez claims margaritas
Although the stories differ, one of the popular theories about the origin of the ubiquitous margarita cocktail is that it was created by bartender Pancho Morales in the (now closed) Tommy’s Place Bar in Ciudad Juarez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso .
In a 1974 article, Texas Monthly reported that Morales invented the icy-spicy / salty tequila-infused drink while serving as a bartender at Tommy’s Place in Juarez in the summer of 1942. As Morales recalled at the time, a customer ordered a magnolia cocktail (usually made with gin). When Morales was unsure how to make this drink, he improvised and used tequila instead. The customer loved it and the margarita was born.
El Paso even has a Margarita Trail that features places like Julios Mexican Food with its jalapeno margarita and Los Bandidos de Carlos & Mickey’s with its Texas-sized margaritas.
Café El Charro (Photo: Cindy Barks)
6. Tucson claims Chimichangas
According to Tucson lore, the creation of the Chimichanga, a deep-fried flour tortilla burrito, was also largely coincidental. The city’s legendary El Charro café website states that the café’s founder, Tia Monica Flin, “is known as the inventor of chimichanga.”
According to the report, Flin accidentally dropped a burrito in the pan while she was making tacos and shouted the word chimichanga in place of a “common Spanish swear word.” The crispy fried burrito creation has caught on and can now be found on Mexican restaurant menus across the country.
Chiles Rellenos in the El Charro Cafe (Photo: Cindy Barks)
7. Favorite local spots
The two cities in the American Southwest have many similarities and differences. For example, both cities have numerous popular Mexican restaurants that have been popular with locals for generations.
Local favorites in Tucson include Mi Nidito, the place famous for its President’s Plate (Bill Clinton’s famous bean tostada, birria taco, chilli relleno, chicken enchilada, and beef tamale); the charming El Charro Café, known as the oldest non-stop Mexican restaurant in the country; and the Crossroads Restaurant, popular with locals for its authentic tacos, burritos, and rich beef and vegetable soup.
Green chilli chicken in the L & J Café (Photo: Cindy Barks)
In El Paso, the L&J Café, famous for its green chilli and chicken enchiladas, chilli con queso with green chilli strips, and beef fajitas, are major local businesses; Chico’s Tacos, known for its rolled minced meat tacos, deep-fried and served in a tomato sauce; and Kiki’s Mexican Restaurant, famous for its brisket machaca platter.
8. Move from neighboring Mexican states
Tucson and El Paso may not attract the attention of Mexican kitchen hubs like San Antonio or Los Angeles, but the two desert cities stand out by spicing up the cuisines of neighboring Mexican states in their own way.
From agriculture and cattle breeding in Chihuahua, El Paso gets wonderful corn dishes, such as the esquites at ELEMI, and numerous spicy types of beef, including barbacoa, a type of beef (traditionally made from beef cheeks) that is often slowly cooked in an underfloor or open-air oven – a regional specialty Chain tacotote.
Likewise, Tucson draws heavily on the cuisine of the state of Sonora, where wheat has been used in flour tortillas and bread for hundreds of years.
An article on the This Is Tucson website reports that when Spanish colonizers came to the area 500 years ago, indigenous groups introduced wheat, which used the grain to make tortillas. Over the years flour tortillas have become synonymous with Tucson, and the article lists 18 tortillerías that make the famous tortillas, including Alejandro’s Tortilla Factory and Anita’s Street Market.
Tucson is also known for its artisanal breads, and Barrio Bread is known in the community for its breads, which are made using centuries-old baking techniques and locally grown grains. Many of the bakery’s signature breads feature Arizona symbols such as the saguaro cactus and the state flag.
Because of their different influences, Tucson and El Paso both have something special to offer in Mexican cuisine. That makes it, for example, to play the two off against each other, as if comparing corn tortillas and flour tortillas. In my experience, you really can’t go wrong with either.
Pro tips: For more ideas about Mexican food in El Paso, see The 9 Best Mexican Foods To Try In El Paso And Where To Find Them.