The Tucson Gem Show is held annually in January. It’s a two-week-long ordeal that brings out visitors and merchants from around the world. Although some of the events are for industry types, there are a lot of merchants there who sell directly to the public. If you’re a man going to the Tucson Gem Show, however, you’re probably dreading it. But it’s not as bad as it seems. You’ll be able to shop for nifty things like fossils, skulls carved out of rocks and stone paperweights.
If you’ve ever considering buying a fancy globe—with stones cut in the shape of each country—from a boutique shop in any number of touristy cities (Santa Fe, Laguna Beach, Las Vegas), wait until the Gem Show, where you can pick it up fairly cheaply. But this is a guide for where to eat and drink in Tucson if you find yourself there for the Gem Show…or for any other reason.
Barrio – Tucked away in the southern part of Tucson by the railroad tracks is the Barrio Brewery. It claims to be the oldest and the newest brewery in Tucson. I’m not exactly sure what that means, but either way they offer a plethora of different beers. If you get the sampler you’ll try everything from the Tucson Blonde to an English Style Double to a very strong Mocha Java Stout. By the time you get through the 10-plus samples, you’ll find yourself ordering some beer sponges (Bavarian pretzels) to soak up the booze. This big, open warehouse is the perfect place for afternoon beer drinking. Barrio’s beers are also featured at Gentle Ben’s Brewing Company by the University of Arizona (unvisited by me).
Nimbus – The Nimbus Brewing Company has a brewery and a restaurant. The brewery is sort of hard to find, but once there you’ll find yourself at a very fun place to hang out. You’ll soon realize the locals come to this place for more than just the beer. You can take a seat on the top floor and admire the enormous beer tanks, or you can hang out downstairs and shoot a game of pool as you enjoy your libations. You can even occasionally listen to a live band play on a makeshift stage. Nimbus makes everything from a Brown Ale to Red Ale to Old Monkey Shine, a traditional-style English pub beer. They even sell a few of their more popular beers in bottles. If you’re lucky, you’ll also find some of Nimbus’s products at local grocery stores as well. Trader Joe’s in Tucson (where they do free wine tasting, FYI) carries the Nimbus Red Ale.
Thunder Canyon – Although Thunder Canyon has more of a sports bar vibe than a microbrewery vibe, they still have a great selection of beers. With names like Deep Canyon Amber, Sandstone Cream Ale and Doble Diablo, Thunder Canyon’s beers don’t disappoint. The only thing that might is their location in an outdoor mall. There’s ample parking, but it’s not quite as fun as discovering the more hidden Nimbus and Barrio breweries. Take a peek at Thunder Canyon’s website to find out about their daily specials.
Pinnacle Peak at Trail Dust Town – Trail Dust Town is a silly “Wild West” town with a cute little free stunt show that children would really enjoy. But the Pinnacle Peak Steakhouse in Trail Dust Town is legit! Their Cowboy Steak, a T-Bone, costs less than $20 and is amazing. Just so you know, a steak has to fit four requirements to be called a “Cowboy Steak”: It has to have the right cut, the proper aging, and it has to be cooked over a roaring wood coal fire with the right seasonings. Lastly, it has to be consumed in a real Western atmosphere, which Pinnacle Peak provides. Just don’t wear a tie here; they’ll cut it off and hang it from the ceiling. But if you want to have the full “tie experience,” buy a cheap one from the shop next door and see what happens.
El Corral Steakhouse – El Corral is owned by the same people as Pinnacle Peak. I’ve never been there, but they seem to offer the same menu without the over-the-top atmosphere. If you are looking for something more kitschy or touristy, go to Pinnacle. If you just want to eat a steak, go to El Corral.
El Charro Café – There are many locations for El Charro Café in Tucson. And from what I understand, they are all equally good. I wouldn’t consider El Charro a chain, but rather more of a local Tucson restaurant with many locations. The location on Court Street, near downtown, was established in 1922 and is the oldest remaining Mexican restaurant in the city. The popular style of Mexican food in Tucson is Sonora style, from the nearby Sonora region of Mexico. Unless you’re an expert in Mexican cuisine, you won’t likely notice all the differences between Sonora and any other style of Mexican food, but you might notice a few. You can’t go wrong with the Enchiladas Banderas, a trio of enchiladas, with one carne seca, one barbacoa shredded beef and one pollo el charro enchilada.
Teresa’s Mosaic Café – If you find yourself on the west side of Tucson, you should pop into Teresa’s. It’s an inexpensive little place with a very colorful and vibrant décor and a great view of the surrounding mountains. If you are in town for the Gem Show, you’ll likely be on this side of town, so you’re very close. Don’t forget to think about Teresa’s for breakfast as well. Their huevos rancheros with fresh tortillas cannot be beat.
Hotel Congress – The Hotel Congress is located in the heart of downtown Tucson. It is a hotel, but it’s so much more! The hotel was built in 1919 and still functions as such, but it also houses a popular concert venue, restaurant, bar and tap room. Club Congress, the concert venue, has different kinds of music on different nights. Some nights it features touring rock bands, while other nights are reserved for local DJs. The attached Tap Room has been a popular Tucson watering hole since the hotel first opened nearly a century ago. The Cup Café is a good place to grab a bite if you’re in the area. But if you just want to check out the historic Hotel Congress without seeing a musical act or stay in the hotel, you can always just stop at the very nice bar in lobby of the hotel. Check out Hotel Congress’s website for a list of events. They have different happy hours and drink specials on different nights of the week, and they also host other events like their Whiskey Weekend or Cocktail Competitions. Expect to pay some sort of cover for any music engagement, but the lobby bar is always free, and the Tap Room is also free if there is no event going on.