Arizona boasts a diverse cuisine influenced by the desert’s generous amenities, Native American traditional dishes, and its proximity to Mexico. Thanks to its climate, location, and traditions of its native peoples, the state features iconic foods that will likely please anyone searching for novelty and flavor in their next meal.
The famed Chimichanga—a large, deep-fried burrito, frequently served alongside sour cream, guac, rice, and beans. The chimichanga is said to have originated in Tucson, AZ, when Monica Flin (the 1922 founder of now nationally-famous El Charro Café) accidentally dropped—some say she was bumped by her niece—a bean burrito into hot oil, and voilá! The birth of a chimichanga.
Big shoutout to Monica Flin’s niece. El Charro still exists today and has found its way back to the Flin family’s former home.
As possibly Arizona’s most iconic food, chimichangas can be found at virtually every Mexican restaurant in the state, which is not a small number. Quality chimichangas can reportedly be found at Valle Luna Mexican Restaurant in Phoenix, Rito’s Mexican Food in Phoenix, and of course, at the aforementioned El Charro Café, to name a few.
Fry Bread/Navajo Tacos
Fry bread was invented out of necessity when the Navajo Tribe in Arizona was forced by the government to abandon its land and embark on a 300-mile-long journey to New Mexico. As a “consolation,” the Native Americans were provided with flour, water, salt, and lard. These ingredients became the standard for one of today’s most iconic dishes in Arizona.
This Native American dish has become so popular that a quick Google search will lead you to a pre-mapped 346-mile fry bread road trip from Casa Blanca in southern Arizona all the way up to Kayenta in the north, with eight tasty stops along the way.
Fry bread is typically served one of three ways:
- Taco-style, with meat, beans, cheese, lettuce etc. This is where the name “Navajo Tacos” comes from.
- Crepe-style, with honey, cinnamon, powdered sugar, etc.
- Plain, or with only beans and cheese.
Prickly Pear Cactus/Nopales
Nearly every part of the prickly pear cactus is edible. Its fruits—the prickly pears, themselves—are described as having a flavor that falls somewhere between watermelon and bubblegum.
All over Arizona, prickly pears are served in the form of jellies, candies, juices, sodas, sauces, margaritas, syrup, dietary supplements, etc. Some places even offer prickly pear coffee and prickly pear popcorn.
Nonetheless, the raw fruits are completely edible but require caution when harvesting—the skin of the fruit contains external spines. It is recommended to wear gloves when harvesting and carefully burn the spines off before cutting into the prickly pear. Once the fruit is spine-free, cut it in half, and scoop out the flesh with a spoon.
The spiny, green pads of the prickly pear cactus, the parts that make up the majority of the succulent plant, are called nopales. They are used in a variety of Mexican dishes, from nopales tacos and quesadillas to nopales con pollo and nopales sandwiches. Prepared nopales are often compared to French beans, asparagus, or okra in texture, and can be eaten raw, sautéed, or steamed.
Sonoran Hot Dogs
An Arizonan delicacy, the Sonoran Hot Dog (we will refer to it as SHD for the remainder of this article) consists of a grilled, bacon-wrapped glizzy on a bolillo-style bun, topped with beans, mustard, mayo, onions, tomatoes, and green salsa. This style of frank originated in Hermosillo, the capital of the Mexican state of Sonora, but has solidified itself as a staple in southern Arizona cuisine.
When searching for your Arizonan SHD provider, it has been recommended to consult the locals. There has been some recent controversy over the popularly-named vendors—locally referred to as dogueros—by those perhaps less experienced in the SHD department. The dogs gained popularity in Sonora as recently as the 1980s and only popped off in Arizona within the last 20 years.
Mother Road Brewing
Although not technically considered food by most, the highly-regarded Tower Station IPA counts as some sort of sustenance, at the very least. After John Steinbeck deemed Route 66 “the mother road” in Grapes of Wrath, Mother Road Brewing Company opened in Flagstaff right off the historic route in 2011.
In 2015, the brewery released its flagship beer, the Tower Station IPA, named after and featuring a photo of the Tower Station, which opened in 1936 (and still standing today) in Shamrock, TX.
The beer features a copper-orange hue, aromas of tangerine and pineapple, Pilsner and Pale malts, and the hop-derived flavors of grapefruit peel and pine. The IPA boasts a 93/100 rating on a reputable beer connoisseur website and has been described as “perhaps the most revered IPA in all of Arizona” by Phoenix Mag.
Not only is Mother Road brewing some excellent suds, but they also do their part to protect the environment. The brewery utilizes a carbon recapture system, which is a closed-loop system that captures carbon released during the brewing process and injects it back into the beers (How rad?!). Additionally, they donate a percentage of proceeds from the sales of a specific beer to protect the state’s native species.
Known for its above-average array of Mexican food, it’s only right that a pre-mapped Salsa Trail (yes, Arizonans are lucky enough to live in the home of the Fry Bread Trail and the Salsa Trail) exists through Southeast Arizona.
The Trail follows between 11 and 13 (consumer- and map-dependent) Mexican restaurants renowned for their top-tier salsas through Graham, Greenlee, and Cochise counties, with its headquarters located in Safford. When you embark on your journey, inform the host at your first stop that you are participating in the Salsa Trail, and you will receive a “salsa passport” to track your saucy expedition.
The Arizona cheese crisp is essentially a quesadilla without the blanket (tortilla) on top. Supposedly, cheese crisps originated as a solution to finding that day-old tortillas lack the freshness of day-of tortillas. Without a way to refresh the tortillas, someone had the idea to speed along the inevitable stiffening process.
Popular in restaurants across the state, cheese crisps are prepared using thin, butter-covered, flour tortillas crisped on a pizza pan. Once the tortilla has reached the ideal level of crispiness, cheese is sprinkled on top, and it goes back in the oven just long enough to melt the cheese. Often, sliced green chiles garnish the dish and are placed on the cheese in a star pattern prior to the second go-round in the oven.
Yuma, known as the “Sunniest City on Earth,” and the nearby Bard Valley together comprise the world’s largest producer of premium-quality Medjool dates. Medjools were initially brought to the states to save them when there was a disease outbreak in their native home, Morocco.
As of November 2020, six of the original date palms brought over in 1930 stand over 70 feet tall today. Date farms in southwest Arizona offer farm tours, date milkshakes, date coleslaw, and date bread.
Rock Springs Pies
Although “pies” may not be the first word to enter your mind when thinking about iconic Arizonan foods, Rock Springs Café may be the place to change your mind. With reviews like, “out of this world pie,” and, “I could eat the Jack Daniel’s pecan pie a la mode every day of my life,” it seems like the small cafe has made itself known in the state’s must-try-foods community.
Located in an inconspicuous, unincorporated town north of Phoenix called Black Canyon City, the nearly 100-year-old restaurant has been featured in Phoenix New Times and referred to as “The Pie Capital of Arizona.” The café is most well-known for its Jack Daniels Pecan Pie, but the display case flaunts as grand an assortment of pies as one could need, including apple crumb, pumpkin, and chocolate cream.
While Piki is not a go-to dish when you’re out and about in the southwest desert due to its ceremonial roots as well as its time requirements, it’s worth mentioning for its cultural significance. Piki is a papery, thin, sacred, unleavened “bread,” traditionally reserved for wedding-like ceremonies by the people of the Hopi tribe of Arizona.
The piki stone—a lifelong, sacred possession—is seasoned with oils from seeds and animal fats after it has been heated. The “bread” itself is not baked, but rather, the batter is smeared quickly on a hot, preheated piki stone and immediately peeled off as an exceptionally thin sheet of “bread.” Customarily, piki is prepared over the course of a full day by women in a piki house.
If your Arizona journey only has you passing through, at the very least, stop for the chimichangas—what better excuse to grub on a deep-fried burrito than visiting the place of its roots? If you have time to spare during your Arizona escapades, however, the Southwest offers much more to its visitors and residents alike—multicultural food, desert landscapes, and unique plant life that thrives in its warm climate.