Arizonans are an eclectic bunch. Historically, the 48th state has been home to Spanish explorers, Wild West cowboys, Native American tribes, Mormon settlers and a myriad of passers through. With only 38 percent of state residents having actually been born here, today’s Arizona remains a melting pot of cultures.
That’s not to say we lack similarities. While Chicago transplants cling to their Cubs and deep-dish pies and New Yorkers beep their horns and search out good bagels, some local delicacies have brought us all together through the love of a great, homestyle dish. Here are eight foods only an Arizonan would love.
Cactus pad tacos
When you live in the desert, you have to get a little creative when it comes to natural food sources. Native to the American southwest, Opuntia cactus (commonly called prickly pear) offers large, flat pads that can be roasted and eaten as a vegetable. Locals often use them in stews, or as a meat substitute in nopalito tacos. While it seems crazy to eat something that has sharp spines, nopales are actually high in fiber and only have about 16 calories per 100 grams, making them an ideal diet food. If you don’t want to bother plucking and de-thorning these babies yourself, visit Los Altos Ranch Market for fresh nopal or try the egg-topped spicy jalapeño version at Scottsdale’s Barrio Queen.
The Fry Bread House put this Native American specialty on the map when they nabbed a James Beard nod for American Classic eateries. It’s a simple dish: just flour, water, salt and a leavening agent cooked in oil. Add meat and beans for a tasty entrée, or keep it light and sweet with jam or honey and powdered sugar.
Don’t expect any of that weak-ass Southern “sweet tea” when you visit an Arizona restaurant. Here, plain old Lipton black tea is the norm, with passionfruit offered at trendier eateries. You’ll likely be asked if you want the little dish of sweetener packets with your tea, but if you’re trying to blend in with the natives, feel free to decline. We like our tea the same way we like our women – strong, dark and a little bitter.
Arizonans are a practical bunch. Work smarter, not harder, right? So if we’re going to harvest a spiked plant that looks like it wants to kill you, we might as well use the whole plant. The fruit of the Opuntia is plucked, juiced and distilled into sweet, sticky syrup that’s widely used as a flavoring in everything from tea and honey to pancake syrup and margaritas (El Chorro’s is particularly heavenly). Its flavor can be tart and lime-like or mild and sweeter than watermelon, depending on variety and ripeness.
Sonoran hot dogs
What’s your condiment preference: Ketchup? Mustard? Mayo? When an Arizonan dresses a wiener, we go all out. Our dogs are wrapped in bacon, smothered with pinto beans, piled with jalapeño salsa and condiments, and finished with roasted chiles. Chow down on one of these monsters at wiener shacks including Tucson-based El Güero Canelo, which got a nod from Man vs. Food’s Adam Richman, Nogales Hot Dogs or Short Leash in downtown Phoenix.
No, we’re not talking about the ‘80s Puerto Rican boy band. A traditional Mexican soup made with hominy and beef tripe (aka intestines), this menudo is a staple of authentic south-of-the-border restaurants such as South Phoenix’s Comedor Guadalajara and Tacos Los Altos in Flagstaff. Arizonans generally prefer the red broth variety over white, with many eateries opting to make menudo a weekend special rather than a daily offering due to the preparation time involved.
This piquant pepper is the “pumpkin spice” of the Southwest. Seriously, Arizonans will put them on (or in) everything: cocktails, hummus, soups, butter, jam and chocolate. Even most of the cornbread here contains jalapeños, which to east coast transplants is a sin against the South.
Creepy crawly critters
Arizona’s cowboys couldn’t be picky when it came to desert eats – and desert meats. In lean times, you eat what’s available. So it’s no surprise that a few ornery little creatures made it onto some Phoenix-area menus. From the juicy rattlesnake bites at Wild West themed eatery Rustler’s Rooste to lizards-on-a-stick at the 2009 Arizona State Fair, locals are willing to bite into anything once. Oh, and don’t be fooled – they never taste like chicken.