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Scanning the menu at the restaurant I’ve stumbled into, while snacking on probably my third order of housemade chips and salsa in as many days, I’m as relieved to see a sandwich called The Tucson as I am to find air conditioning. Nook’s cute little garden entryway drew me in from a scorching walk. In fact, several eateries drew me in while I searched for lunch along Congress Street.

That’s the risk and reward of downtown Tucson. You can park anywhere, or avoid the hassle and take the new streetcar, and explore on your own for a full day of local food and beverages. Have breakfast on the back patio at Cup Café in the landmark Hotel Congress, grab an ice cream cone at the new HUB Ice Creamery, sample olive oils and hot sauces in Tucson Olive Central, and find food truck fare on Tuesday afternoons on Stone Avenue, across the street from Nook.

In just a few days, I've met several of the city’s food and beverage entrepreneurs, all with Tucson roots, who are collaboratively building into a budding gastronomy destination distinguished by local flavors from prickly pear and mesquite to red and green chilis.

As I bite into the stack of green chilis, chili chicken and burnt cheese that makes this sandwich so Tucsonan, I realize the plates stacked in front of me in the open kitchen were made at HF Coors, the 33,000-square-foot dinnerware factory where I just took an in-depth tour. Talk about local: Coors makes everything on site, from the clay and glaze to the molds and hand-painted wares. They even make their own tools if something needs to be fixed, and the virtually indestructible plates, bowls and mugs are used in restaurants (and homes) around the country.

When the cook across the counter tells me Nook sources bread from local bakery La Baguette and coffee from Exo Roast Co. down the road, I imagine I can trace my way back through this culinary community with the simplest of tasting trails, and take off.

Exo is a 10-minute walk away with a rustic warehouse feel and coffee roasting right next to the long counter, where pour over is available. The coffee shop sources local teas from Maya Tea, which has a Prickly Pear herbal tea made from local ingredients, and Seven Cups Fine Chinese Teas, which has a local teahouse.

Next door, Tap & Bottle offers local and regional beer and wine, including Iron John’s ale and sour beer and Pueblo Vida’s Barrel-Aged Brown. Iron John’s ages beer in southern Arizona wine barrels and Whiskey Del Bac barrels from local Hamilton Distillers, where I've also toured.

“The continuity and community here is real deep,” says Iron John’s co-founder and head brewer, John Adkisson. “Once you take that step [to sell your product], everyone reaches out to try each other’s new stuff or collaborate. Rather than split up the pie, we want to grow the pie. Tucson is kind of isolated and because of that, we team up together and recognize that it’s us.”

Pueblo Vida Brewing Company is a 10-minute walk away from Tap & Bottle, where local Yellow Brick coffee is used in a breakfast stout and Popped Artisan Popcorn is available for snacking. Popped offers 10 flavors, including green chile, and is sold at local farmers markets, in other brewery tasting rooms, at Time Market and in Tap & Bottle.

In between the two, Borderlands Brewing Company offers a spacious tasting room and yard where games and events are often held. Taste Arizona in Borderlands’ Prickly Pear Wheat, Yellow Brick Oatmeal Coffee Stout, La Morena (made with local pecans), and Noche Dulce, which incorporates Mexican vanilla from Arizona Vanilla Company. A mesquite-smoke ale was even made in partnership with the local fire department.

Borderlands beers are available at the local Whole Foods, where shoppers can also pick up mesquite-smoked Whiskey Del Bac and Tucson Tamale Company’s frozen tamales, which are spreading far beyond Tucson. Dine-in at one of the company’s three Tucson restaurants just across the street, where you can pair the fare with a Mexican soda and add a sweet tamale for dessert.

Owner Todd Martin learned to make tamales visiting his girlfriend’s family in Tucson, and started experimenting with innovative flavor combinations while working in technical support. Now married, the Martin’s opened a tasting room with six tamales on the menu and four tables in 2008. Last year their Tucson Tamale Company produced 1.3 million tamales.

Stephen Paul has been in town much longer. He’s sold mesquite wood furniture for decades and is using the Sonoran Desert tree’s scraps to malt his own barley now. His Arroyo Design has converted into Hamilton Distillers where visitors can sip smooth and smoky Whiskey Del Bac while petting Paul’s dogs and cats (reserve a Saturday tour online in advance).

The award-winning whiskey is also offered in Boca Tacos y Tequila, where Tucson-born chef Maria Mazon creates new, fresh salsas daily with ingredients she grows behind the restaurant. On a busy Monday night, I tried varieties like Sriracha and yellow pepper, raspberry and Fireball (yes, whisky), and cilantro and cardamom. The Mexican-raised chef’s one-of-a-kind tacos and accompaniments are a must-try, and she makes it a point to pair with local beverages.

Less than 10 blocks from here, Time Market stocks local, too. The combo bakery, restaurant and market offers fresh produce and mindfully curated artisanal goods and beverages. Tucson’s Dragoon Brewery (3.5 miles away) released its first cans at the market and its IPA is on tap.

Here, I’m meeting Noel Patterson, wine distributor turned accidental beekeeper, for a honey tasting. Patterson’s thick, yellow honey, labeled Dos Manos Apiaries, is sold inside, because owner Peter Wilke (his friend and neighbor) insisted.

Patterson started with one hive — a surprise birthday gift — and couldn’t produce enough honey to realistically meet demand, of even just this shelf. But locals wanted local, so they bought him more hives and lent more backyards. Today he’s hosting honey tastings and teaching beekeeping classes at Tucson's Miraval Resort, and recommending all the other people I have to meet while he runs late to a class.

“I’m very proud of what’s happening in Tucson right now,” says Patterson. “I’m a native, and in the last five years it’s been dramatically different. There are some really smart people doing really cool things.”

He references Mission Gardens, where a group of locals is preserving and even re-creating native agriculture such as corn and beans. The project is one of many reasons the city earned the UNESCO designation as a World City of Gastronomy – the only U.S. city to hold the title.

It’s also the self-proclaimed Mexican food capital of the country, and undoubtedly one of them. Natives like Isabel Montano and her family integrate Mexican fare into the food scene here, where they’ve made traditional pastries and tortillas (14,000 a day now) at La Estrella Bakery since 1986.

“In a border city, you get to introduce and incorporate your traditions,” says Montano. “What’s awesome about Tucson is they’ve embraced it and made it their own.”

Down the road, El Güero Canelo introduces Sonoran hot dogs, El Merendero incorporates chicharrones, and Oasis Fruit Cones keeps the tradition of raspados (Sonoran shaved ice with fresh fruit and ice cream) alive. Native Chris DeSimone is integral in connecting the cultures here. His radio show and Gray Line bus tours introduce both locals and visitors to restaurants they haven't tried. A Best of the Barrio tour covers these Mexican and Sonoran specialties and makers.

Like every local I've met, Patterson establishes where he thinks the best Mexican food is, then asks what level of adventure I’m up for. Moments later we’re standing in the Sonoran Desert, where his bees feed off of cactus flowers and harvest distinctly local honey that you simply have to taste when you’re here. It’s the only place you can taste it.

Land a seat beneath lush green vines on Time Market’s whimsical, airy patio; grab a freshly baked baguette and soft brie inside, and spread the Sonoran sourced honey on top while bees from Patterson’s backyard (two blocks away) buzz by. Perhaps pair with a house roasted Exo coffee where the company began, and somewhere in between bites and sips, ask someone nearby where you should head next.

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