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Tucson Stole My Quarantined Heart

As I type this, it’s currently 99-degrees here in Tucson and we’ve been holed up in our RV for more than a month, treading water during socially distant quarantine as the temperature steadily rises to the point where it feels like we’re living in an Easy-Bake Oven. But in spite of all this, and the fact that my computer is disturbingly hot to the touch, and the harrowing fact that I literally got hit by a car a few weeks ago (more on that below… it involves a quest for hot dogs), Tucson has quickly become one of my favorite cities. It’s a glowing testament to the city’s character, welcoming environment, serene nature, and enduring camaraderie in the face of a crippling pandemic. Being here and adapting to life in this desert oasis, as sweltering as it may be, has been a spiritually uplifting experience at a time when it’s needed most.

Brb sobbing/Photo by Matt Kirouac

Before COVID-19 reared its ugly head, we were in Houston for the month of March, as Brad was working at the annual Livestock Show and Rodeo. And by “working,” I mean he was selling chocolate and toffee, not lassoing cattle. The plan was to finish that out and then drive to Big Bend National Park and eventually make it to Sedona by April 8, to meet up with family. Well, it doesn’t take a spoiler alert to explain that none of that happened. The rodeo was cut short, our travel plans were chucked out the window, and we were looking for someplace within a two-day drive where we would feel comfortable hunkering down for the foreseeable future. Man, living in an RV full-time during a pandemic is a weird and wild experience.

Since we still had Arizona on our mind, we started thinking about Tucson. It was a drivable destination, it was sunny, the weather was warm, and there were plenty of outdoor hikes and activities we could safely do, regardless of quarantine. Tucson, after all, is home to one of my favorite and most influential national parks: Saguaro National Park. Combine all this with the fact that we were able to find a dirt-cheap RV park right near downtown, with amazing monthly rates, and we were sold.

Making ourselves right at home in Tucson/Photo by Matt Kirouac

Arriving to Tucson, it instantly felt right. I’m not just talking about the obvious benefits, like endless sunshine and Seuss-like cactus forests as far as the eye can see. There’s something special about this place that triggered an instinctive spiritual connection. For a sizable city with a population of about half a million, the air somehow still feels cleaner and fresher. It’s one of those rare gems where it still maintains a small-town vibe, with passersby hollering “hello!” at the top of their lungs, in order to grab my attention through my earphones. And most astoundingly, in the midst of a devastating pandemic that’s brought so many cities and industries to their knees, Tucson feels optimistic, resilient, and enduring.

Of course, not all businesses in Tucson have shifted into to-go formats, and a lot of places remain entirely closed and inaccessible. But the places that remain—the neighborhood restaurants, the independent markets, the breweries handing you six-packs with gloved hands—are brimming with passion and enthusiasm. Already, a month in, we’ve discovered excellent coffee shops, a killer downtown brewery, a bastion for bottled cocktails, the best kind of hot dog I’ve ever tried, and “Veg-Mex” food, a whole new genre of vegetarian Mexican cuisine that I never knew I needed.

While we’re hunkered down in our quiet, cozy RV park, we’ve mostly been making trips to local grocery stores when necessary, and opting to cook for ourselves, but we’re also supporting local as much as possible, and amidst all this hysteria, we’ve found some new favorites:

Beaut Burger/Photo courtesy of MSA Annex/Facebook

Beaut Burger has been our go-to carryout place. Located a few blocks from where we’re staying, in a cool outdoor food hall-type complex called MSA Annex, the fast-casual eatery features vegetarian burgers and sandwiches in fun offerings like Old Bay-spiced artichoke patties, Reubens made with tempeh, and veggie burgers heaped with the likes of zhoug, tamarind chutney, and smoked tomato aïoli, all served on wonderful English muffin-esque buns.

In the same complex as Beaut Burger, Kukai is a stylish Japanese takeout window with a focused menu of snacks, hand rolls, rice bowls, and ramen. My favorite thing here is the onigiri, which is a large, nori-clad sticky rice ball wrapped around fillings like grilled salmon, pickled plum, and pork belly.

These to-go cocktails have been a real blessing/Photo courtesy of Westbound/Facebook

Another frequent fixture of ours in this wonderful complex, which I can only imagine is lively and super cool when fully operational, is Westbound. Under normal circumstances, you’d be able to have a drink at the bar, but currently this stylish watering hole is offering drinks to-go, including bottles of spirits, a dizzying array of craft beer, wine, and most notably, batched cocktails sealed in mason jars. We’ve made several stops to stock up on bottled Boulevardiers, which are strong enough to make us forget all about COVID-19 for a few hours.

Epic Sonoran hot dog at El Guero Canelo/Photo by Matt Kirouac

As we were plotting our Tucson itinerary, one thing everyone recommended we do is eat a Sonoran hot dog. Let me be brutally honest and confess that I’ve never been a big fan of hot dogs. They’re never satisfying, occasionally questionable, and frequently messy—especially when I’m trying to finagle my way through a Chicago-style hot dog, which I’ve never been a big fan of. But now having tried a proper Sonoran hot dog, a Tucson specialty, I’m a changed man. The place most people recommend is El Guero Canelo, an esteemed institution that’s been heralded by the James Beard Foundation with an America’s Classics award. I can see why. Comprised of a crisp bacon-wrapped hot dog topped with beans, grilled and fresh onions, tomato, mayo, mustard, and jalapeño sauce in a fluffy, slightly sweet bolillo bun, it’s a hearty feast of verdant flavors and textures, and deeply satisfying indeed. It was so good that, even after Brad and I were literally hit by a car on our way there, and sent flying off our moped, we were still determined to go here and get hot dogs. And I regret nothing (we’re fine by the way).

Photo courtesy of Pueblo Vida Brewing Co./Facebook

A listener of our previous podcast was kind enough to reach out with a slew of handy recommendations, including Pueblo Vida Brewing Co. He had a hunch we would love this place, and although we haven’t been able to set foot inside, his hunch was spot-on. A couple times now, we’ve swung by the downtown brewery to snag beers to-go, doled out through a sidewalk window from friendly staffers whom you can tell are clearly beaming underneath their mandated masks. Peeking inside, it’s clear that this place is suave and desert-chic, and is surely a fun place to hang out when the world isn’t in tatters. In the meantime, their beers taste great at home, like the mildly bitter Arita pale ale, the Mesto pilsner, and the Threshold IPA, each one adorned with beautiful artsy labels.

La Chaiteria/Photo by Matt Kirouac

Barely a month before COVID forced everything to close, La Chaiteria opened in the Menlo Park neighborhood where we’re staying. It’s a casual offshoot of another acclaimed downtown restaurant Tumerico, which specializes in vegetarian Mexican food, aka “Veg Mex,” as their menus cleverly proclaim. After walking by La Chaiteria several times, I finally stopped in and was pleasantly delighted by the market-cafe hybrid. The shop stocks handy provisions like eggs, tortillas, and produce, along with take-and-bake tamales, cakes, and bottled beverages. The latte program is particularly stunning, with drinks like a marzapan latte, Turkish coffee, and a prickly pear latte made with cactus syrup, soy milk, mesquite flour, cardamom, and espresso. To eat, there’s jackfruit al pastor tacos, Cuban-style burritos, quesadillas, and poblano-stacked tostadas.

The fact that I’ve become so enamored with a city that’s been essentially shut down the entire time I’ve been here says a lot about Tucson. If I love it this much now, during the era of face masks and credit card-only coffee windows, just imagine how much I’ll love it on the other side of all this.

And then of course there’s Saguaro National Park, which bookends the city with both east and west districts, and a myriad of accessible trails that are socially safe, rejuvenating, and overwhelmingly beautiful. Since we’re staying on the west side of town, I’ve mostly been making use of trails like Wasson Peak and Kings Canyon. But on the east side, I’ve also hiked the Garwood Dam Trail and my beloved Cactus Forest Trail, home to the cactus that’s been the background image on my phone since my formative first trip here in 2018.

The cactus that stole my heart in 2018 and never let go/Photo by Matt Kirouac

That cactus is still just as noble and breathtaking as I remembered it. It’s still going strong, which I feel is an apt metaphor for the city of Tucson, and why I feel so drawn to such a relentlessly scorching place.

There’s a reassuring resiliency about this place that’s evident in its landscape’s ability to not only survive in extreme heat, but thrive. And in spite of everything, it’s evident in its hospitality. If cacti can survive months of arid 100-degree draught, rising from the desert in whimsical defiance, these businesses that give Tucson its pulse will to do the same.

Header photo: Tucson as seen from Tucson Mountain Park/By Matt Kirouac

Matt Kirouac has been writing about food and travel since 2008, for outlets like Travel + Leisure, TripSavvy, DiningOut magazines, Plate Magazine, KOA, Culture Trip, Zagat, and Food Fanatics magazine. He’s the author of The Hunt Guides: Chicago and Unique Eats & Eateries of Chicago. He fell in love with national parks while on a trip to South Dakota, where Badlands National Park stole his heart…and has been holding it ransom ever since.

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