Distinguished by Tucson Weekly readers as the best Middle Eastern/African restaurant in the city in 2011, Zemam's transports tasters with an exotic menu of authentic Ethiopian cuisine. Sourdough flatbreads supplant utensils and stain-resistant foam fingers to help diners corral bite-size portions of spicy fusions, such as the vegetable-and-potato medley of yetakelt wat. Mine through a platter of shiro and scoop up puréed chickpeas soaked in berbere and spices, or investigate the gomen alicha to unmask a trove of carrots, cabbage, and potatoes congregated in mild sauce. Channeling American or Ethiopian traditions, beverage baristas prep coffee and tea to order, and a bevy of carbonated drinks volunteer to tickle lips like an excessively friendly mustache. Additionally, Zemam's serves guests in several small dining rooms that Tucson Weekly lauds for being "immaculate, whitewashed and simple."
Each tamale at Tucson Tamale Company is a hand-rolled, gently steamed, gluten-free masterpiece perfected from years of experimentation—making the eatery's constantly changing menu an art gallery for the mouth, only without any debonair art thieves attempting to make off with your taste buds. Former Fortune 500 executive turned passionate tamale chef Todd Martin starts each tamale with a starchy corn base known as masa, then builds on it with a wild mix of meat, vegetables, spices, and cheese before steaming it inside a cornhusk. The most recent board of fare features the vegan New Delhi tamale that's stuffed with vegetable curry, carrots, peas, sweet potatoes, corn, onions, coconut milk, and yellow curry. The meaty JoJo consists of chipotle beef, jalapeño masa, and cheese, and expels a spiciness that travels at least four circles into Dante's Inferno. For something sweeter, try the Boise's blend of sweet potatoes roasted with sun-dried tomatoes and wrapped in yam masa. The Wisconsin grilled cheese (comprised of cheese, more cheese, and trace amounts of cheese) puts a bold twist on a classic comfort food. Depending on the range of your stomach's rage, choose one tamale ($2.95, $4.95 with side), two tamales ($5.39, $6.29 with side), or feed the whole choir with a family platter ($24.95 for eight tamales, two large sides, and salsa).
Seven Cups serves up a thirst-eradicating array of high-quality teas, and has been named Best Tea Service five years in a row by the readers of Tucson Weekly. To treat their customers to the best leaf juices in the world, the Tucson-based company's owners make frequent treks to China, where they foster relationships with local growers and engage in traditional wire-heavy fight sequences in authentic Chinese tea houses. As such, they have a fascinating story to tell about each of their more than 100 varieties of Chinese tea. Sip and read about green teas such as organic Ming Qian An Ji Bai Cha ($7.45, small pot; $14.20, large pot), a legendary tea beloved by Emperor Song Hui Zong that has only recently become available in limited quantities. Otherwise, indulge your inhaler with scented selections such as Silver Dragon Jasmine Pearls ($4.50, small pot; $8.60, large pot), an organic white tea that is hand-rolled into tight pearls in the cold of spring and piled among night-flowering jasmine (which is then discarded at the first light of dawn). Yellow, white, black, oolong, puer, and other teas flesh out Seven Cups' encyclopedic offerings, and are best paired with an assortment of sweets and savories such as Japanese ice cream ($3.50 for two scoops) and moon cakes ($6.45) fresh from lunar hearths.
At Azian Restaurant Sushi & Korean BBQ, chefs take care to form every sushi roll by hand following traditional Japanese techniques, but they ask for a little help preparing their Korean barbecue dinners. After marinating pork and beef in soy sauce, garlic, pepper, sesame oil, and sugar, chefs send the uncooked meats to tables where guests take command and grill their meals on a gridiron to seal in flavor and football metaphors. Guests sear meats on the tabletop cooking surfaces and can round out their suppers with warm, baked lobster rolls, hot bottles of sake, and cool scoops of green tea ice cream.
Fresco Pizzeria & Pastaria serves up a menu of authentic Italian dishes made daily from original recipes and fresh ingredients. Guests can sink starving beaks into a pond-size portion of pasta primavera paired with half a loaf of garlic bread ($8.25), or feed the entire flock with a substantial 16-inch totally topped hand-tossed pizza, piled with pepperoni, sausage, extra cheese, and veggies ($27.30). A supersize spinach and cheese calzone ($8.70+) or chicken parmesan sub sandwich ($8.95) silences midday stomach growlers. For hearty helpings brought right to home, work, or the orthodontist’s office, call Fresco for delivery (free with a minimum order of $10) of anything on the menu, from a jerked jamaican caesar salad ($6.95) to an extralarge personalized pie ($15.80) built with any number of nearly 50 toppings of your choice ($2.30 each).
Head chef Aaron May, a Culinary Hall of Fame inductee, presides over the kitchen of May’s Counter as the diner-style eatery turns out made-from-scratch southern cuisine. With bluegrass music thrumming in the background, diners delve into the kitchen’s trademark fried-chicken-topped waffles, or nosh on corn dogs surrounded in waffle batter. Red stools line the counter at the full-service bar, manned by bartenders equally willing to mix sophisticated cocktails or slide a cold PBR into a brown bag. As they feast, diners nestled in cozy booths can watch sports competitions unfold on flat-screen TVs, rather than watching their water glasses compete for the title of most transparent.
In the aromatic kitchen at Lodge on the Desert, cider-brined pork chops baste in black-pepper-caramel sauce, and mussels and prickly pear cactus simmer in a tomato-cilantro broth. Such complex pairings helped Chef Ryan Clark earn the title of Iron Chef Tucson for two years running. In addition to forging southwestern-inspired sauces and brines, he bolsters his dishes with locally sourced, organic ingredients.
In keeping with the cuisine’s regional theme, Lodge on the Desert’s dining room showcases desert-inspired decor. Sunlight pours through floor-to-ceiling windows, casting a golden glow on hand-painted wood beams and Mexican tin chandeliers. Outside on the saltillo-tiled patio, a four-sided fireplace allows guests to eat alfresco and accidentally destroy incriminating tax records year-round.