The Green Chile Miles
El Cisne’s Ceviche del Mar (foreground)
Chicken Tinga Street Tacos from Seis Kitchen.
Crossroads Restaurant’s Chicken and Beef Fajitas.
Celebrate some of Tucson’s best Mexican restaurants at the third annual Tucson 23 Mexican Food Festival.
By Sarah Burton
Photography by Thomas Veneklasen
Photo Assistant Nouhoum Samake
Although the Old Pueblo has numerous restaurants offering amazing cuisine that’s inspired by recipes from South of the Border, you don’t need to drive all over town to get a great sampling. The Tucson 23 Mexican Food Festival, held June 16 at the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort & Spa, will give attendees the chance to try dishes from many local Mexican restaurants, as well as beer and wine with its roots in our region.
Sponsored by Visit Tucson and JW Marriott, with assistance from Southern Arizona Arts & Cultural Alliance (SAACA), this event — named for a 23-mile area that incorporates the highest concentration of the Mexican restaurants in Tucson and South Tucson — will also include food demos, live music, and other activities. Here are a few participants.
El Cisne Cocina de Mexico
A returning participant in the Tucson 23 Mexican Food Festival, El Cisne represents multiple regions of Mexico on their menu. The foothills restaurant offers diners fresh seafood from the Sea of Cortez, Oaxacan-style fare such as cecina (pork) en mole, and of course the traditional Sonoran-style food from Mexico’s northern regions we’re most familiar with, from tacos to fajitas.
As General Manager George Ferranti points out, “Being so close to Nogales — the Number One crossing point for fresh produce — Tucson restaurants are able to easily gather all the ingredients to make authentic Mexican food, so this is a wonderful way for us to promote and celebrate that.” This year El Cisne plans to serve both ceviche, made with fresh fish marinated in a lemon and lime mixture, and their tamale appetizer, which includes house-made green corn tamales in a tomatillo sauce and beef tamales smothered in red enchilada sauce.
4717 E. Sunrise Dr., (520) 638-6160, elcisnerestaurant.com
Gathering flavors from all over Mexico, Seis Kitchen packs quite a punch, featuring dishes from six (seis in Spanish, hence the name) different culinary regions: Yucatan, Baja, Mexico City, Northern Mexico, Western Mexico, and Oaxaca. This means you can expect everything from homemade chorizo and beer-battered avocado tacos to calabacitas-stuffed quesadillas à la Mexico City. For Tucson 23, Seis brings to the table street tacos featuring handmade corn tortillas topped with chicken tinga (chicken simmered in a savory chipotle sauce), further adorned with Mexican crema, cilantro, and red onion.
“We love this event. It’s such a wonderful display of local chefs/restaurants,” says Owner Erika Munoz. And that’s something Munoz can appreciate, having first started locally as a food truck and catering business. With their loyal following, they’ve been able to expand. “We started in 2012 and then opened our first brick-and-mortar location at Mercado San Agustín downtown in 2014,” she shares. “Most recently, in September 2017, we opened our second restaurant in Joesler Village at River and Campbell.”
130 S. Avenida del Convento, #130, (520) 622-2002; 1765 E. River Rd. #131, (520) 612-7630, seiskitchen.com
Rollies Mexican Patio
A newcomer to Tucson’s expansive Mexican-food scene, Rollies Mexican Patio has made a splash serving a modern take on traditional dishes. This new spot serves up rollies (rolled tacos, including a no-carb version), tortas, flats (flat enchiladas), salads and rollaz (burros) among other goodies. The rolled tacos, of course, are their signature dish: “We make them with fresh corn tortillas and stuffed with your choice of shredded chicken, beef or cauliflower,” Owner and Chef Mateo Otero points out. “We then serve them ‘drowned’ in a rojo or queso sauce with toppings.”
And the name says it all — Rollies’ dining area is literally in an enclosed patio looking out onto 12th Avenue, complete with long communal-style tables and colorful artwork. As a business owner, Otero realizes the importance of participating in The Tucson 23 event. “Taking part in this is huge!” he says. “It’s humbling and a blessing to be placed in the same category with all of my surrounding neighbors and favorite restaurants.” At the event, look for samples of tinga and pibil on mini tostadas, as well as concha ice cream sandwiches.
4573 S. 12th Ave., (520) 300-6289
Perfectos Mexican Restaurant
After making a name for themselves over the last nine years, Perfectos Mexican Restaurant has more than earned a place at the table for the Tucson 23 Mexican Food Festival. This year will be their second time participating, and since it was such a success last year, they plan to serve the same kinds of items. “We’ll have tamales, mini chimis and birria,” shares Manager Judith Delarosa.
As daughter of the eatery’s owner and namesake, Perfecto Leon, Delarosa points out they saw a great response last year. “It was good exposure and gave us the chance to reach people we hadn’t served before.” The menu at Perfectos — including their second location, which opened last year — includes traditional Mexican dishes such as enchiladas, soups, chimichangas, burritos, chilaquiles and breakfast options, to name a few. “There’s a word in Spanish that people have used to describe our food: Casera,” Delarosa says. “It means like you’re eating in your own home, casual and authentic.”
5404 S. 12th Ave., and 1055 E. Irvington Rd. (Perfectos Express), (520) 889-5651, perfectostamales.com
Serving traditional Sonoran-style Mexican food since 1938, Crossroads definitely has a formula that works, as you’ll be able to sample at the festival. “We’ve been part of the event the last two years, and will continue since it’s great to be a part of,” says Owner Aracely Gonzalez. At the June 16 event, she is planning to dish up sizzling chicken and beef fajitas, rice, beans, as well as their popular salsa and tortillas.
“I think people are getting to know even more about Mexican cuisine over the past few years, and are familiar with traditional plates like chicken mole, nopalitos (baby cactus in red chile beef), carne asada, and a good salsa,” Gonzalez muses. “This type of event helps further increase the popularity of our food!” Not a hard task when your menu features authentic fare such as enchiladas, homemade red chile beef and Anaheim peppers stuffed with shrimp and wrapped in bacon.
2602 S. 4th Ave., (520) 624-0395, crossroadsfinemexican.com
Family owned and operated, La Botana serves up fast and casual Sonoran Mexican food such as burros stuffed with carne asada or garlic-infused adobo shrimp, street tacos, Sonoran hot dogs (with even a vegetarian version) and quesadillas to name a few dishes. Their no-frills, welcoming atmosphere includes a large, outdoor patio — a popular spot to settle in with a meal and one of their large margaritas.
With the restaurant being open nearly nine years, General Manager Arnold Silva points out the importance of sharing and celebrating Mexican foods for this event: “This is the second year we’re participating. It’s a great event for not only visitors here but for the local Tucson community.” This year they plan to serve their green chile chicharron tacos, made with crunchy fried pork simmered in a bright tomatillo sauce.
3200 N. 1st Ave., (520) 777-8801, labotanagrill.com
Eat, Stay, Play
You don’t have to host a show on the Food Network, or have attended the Culinary Institute of America, to know that Tucson has an amazing proliferation of Mexican restaurants. It is always exciting, however, to have an opportunity to show off what has been dubbed “the Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food in America.” On June 16 at the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort & Spa, you’ll be able to sample from a wide variety of local eateries offering cuisine representing several areas of Mexico.
The Tucson 23 Mexican Food Festival, presented by the Southern Arizona Arts & Cultural Alliance, also will include food demonstrations and educational presentations, live music and entertainment, and the option to enjoy weekend stay-cation packages.
The event is sponsored by Visit Tucson and the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort & Spa. TucsonLifestyle.com is a media partner.
The Tucson 23 Mexican Food Festival
June 16, 6 p.m.
JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort & Spa
Tickets: $60 each
For more information call 797-3959
or visit www.saaca.org.