Hidden in plain sight: These Tucson food courts are our best-kept secret | eat

One of the biggest questions I get as a food writer is: what are your favorite restaurants in Tucson? Where are the hidden gems?

It’s a loaded question, because personal taste is such a huge factor. What kind of atmosphere do you prefer? Do you have any dietary restrictions? What are you in the mood for?

Tucson is a city full of hidden gems. What might be one person’s go-to could be a new discovery for someone who lives in a different part of town. In a town that loves to support local as much as we do, nearly everyone I talk to has their special, under-the-radar place.

But if there’s one category of restaurant that I think could use a lot more attention, it’s the food court. These foodie destinations are hidden in plain sight and are home to some of the most innovative cuisine in Tucson.

Whether you conceive of food courts as corporate cafeterias filled with chain restaurants, or think of bougie food halls filled with expensive, boutique eateries, Tucson’s food court scene is sure to surprise and delight.

Tucson’s food courts, from an east-side parking lot to a big-time mall, are home-grown. These sites give local, innovative, small-scale food entrepreneurs the chance to get a start without the overhead costs of a brick and mortar. The result is a smorgasbord of eclectic and delicious options, just slightly off the beaten path.

Tucson Food Hub ghost kitchen near First Avenue and Fort Lowell Road in Tucson.

Tucson Food Hub at 613 Delano

This cloud kitchen’s industrial exterior belies some of the most interesting food in Tucson. You can’t go wrong here.

  • Al-Madina Halal Kitchen is one of the only Yemeni restaurants in town, and one of the best places to get Mediterranean food across the board. Their chicken mandi and lamb kabsa incorporate bright, signature flavors you might not be able to find elsewhere. Entrees range in price from $9-18, and meal deals are available for family-sized portions.
  • Julie Starks-Caston’s Sweet and Savory Kitchen offers vegan soul food that transcends duping comfort food. Her bold, delightful flavors and textures stand on their own. Her fried oyster mushrooms are a must-try. Entrees usually cost around $15 before tax and tip.
  • Cluckers, meanwhile, offers made-from-scratch fried chicken sandwiches. From bun to bun, every part of each bite is made fresh in the ghost kitchen. I have no idea how they keep the chicken fry so crispy throughout the takeout process. It’s mind-bendingly good. Entrees usually cost around $14 before tax and tip.

The trick is that each of these eateries operates exclusively through takeout or delivery services (though Julie’s Sweet and Savory Kitchen is happy to set up tables for customers outside on a case-by-case basis). 613 Delano is a restaurant incubator that should be on everyone’s to-do list.

Tucson Food Hub

Location: 613 E. Delano St.

Hours: vary

Cost: varies, but will always be cheaper if you order takeout instead of delivery. To place an order, visit eateries’ websites directly or use a delivery app, which may charge the business a marketing fee.

For more information (and a full list of vendors), check out our story.

Fiesta Filipina Owner Thelma Ward talks with friend and long time customer Beth Jacobsen while preparing Jacobsen’s order.

Park Place Mall

While mall food courts typically conjure the bouquet of aromas from Sbarro’s red sauce to Orange Julius’ unique frozen dairy mix, Park Place Mall offers its food court locations to local purveyors. While you still can get mall staples like Cinnabon, Park Place is a destination because of spots like Fiesta Filipina and Squared Up Pizza. 

Fiesta Filipina is one of Tucson’s premier Filipino restaurants, which started as a one-woman food truck operation run by owner Thelma Ward. If you’ve never tried lumpia (addictive, fried rolls filled with pork and shrimp), you can remedy that here. But you can also dive deeper into Filipino cuisine.

Thelma’s favorite dish on her menu is dinuguan, an exquisite stew that uses pork blood to add depth to its broth’s texture and flavor. She roasts whole suckling pig on Saturdays to make the dish lechon. You can also find purple halo-halo, a dessert made with brightly pigmented, vanilla-y ube, and adobo made with pork still on the bone.

Squared Up Pizza uses fresh pepperoni and co-owner Mario Badali’s family recipe for Sicilian pies.

Squared Up Pizza, meanwhile, brings a multigenerational pizza tradition from the shores of Sicily and the boroughs of New York City to Tucson. They don’t rely on their credentials alone: their dessert-like white pie is one of my top picks for pizza in Tucson. Made with rich ricotta and just a hint of honey, it’s a decadent treat you can’t find anywhere else.

The Squared Up name references the square-shaped Sicilian pie. Co-owner Mario Badali’s father was one of the first to bring this style of pizza to New York’s mainstream. But circle-pie-purists need not fret: Squared Up offers classic New York-style slices, too.

Like traditional pizza places, you can order to-go and delivery, or just grab a slice to eat in the food court.

The food court is also home to local spots Street Taco and Beer, whose flagship location is downtown, and new salad bar Salad Nation.

Park Place Mall

Location: 5870 E. Broadway

Hours: vary

Cost: depending on your appetite, Fiesta Filipina’s food generally ranges in cost from $8-13. Squared Up’s full-size pizzas would feed a family and cost $30-34. Slices are around $6.

For more information, check out their websites: Fiesta Filipina and Squared Up Pizza.

Bemo’s Ol’ Joe’s tot-chos are tater tots loaded with pulled pork, barbecue sauce, cheese and slaw.

The Pit

Every vendor at The Pit, a food truck park, is a winner.

Homemade Mediterranean (along with Al-Madina, mentioned above) is on the top of my list of favorite Mediterranean restaurants in Tucson. It’s a mom-and-daughter Lebanese food truck with a stacked menu of homestyle sandwiches. Their wonderfully garlicky chicken sandwich is my favorite, but their falafel is A+ and their koefte is mouthwatering.

But the list goes on: Bemo’s Ol’ Joe’s is a killer barbecue spot. It’s in elite company (with Deliciocho) of restaurants with food that is as spectacularly over-the-top as it is actually tasty.

In a city replete with great taco trucks, Hermanos manages to stand out with its succulent carne asada. Their raspados look pretty dang good, too.

I haven’t been able to try every vendor at The Pit, but, truly, I can’t wait to round out the roster.

The Pit

Location: 7889 E. 22nd St.

Hours: vary per vendor

Cost: vary per vendor

For more information, check out their website or our story.

An order of Sway Fries, topped with chicken breast, and two chicken sandos on American Eat Co.’s patio. 

American Eat Co.

This food hall is a south-side neighborhood staple, yet Tucsonans across town love the array of delicious and inventive comfort foods at American Eat Co.

The long benches in the center of the food court are perfect for large groups of families and friends, but so is a lot of the seating: long couches around big coffee tables, two-tops light enough to push together. It’s a gathering place.

Their food is the kind that brings people together. Fried chicken sandwiches at Pop’s Hot Chicken (or the Sway Fries, which are loaded with Nashville-style hot chicken, spice and nacho cheese). Monster Sonoran Hot Dogs, with their signature neon red buns and stuffed with birria and guacamole. Tajín-packed micheladas from Mariscos El Bochas. Pizza, burgers, milkshakes — if you have a craving, you can find it at American Eat Co. And so can your friends! Bring them with.

American Eat Co. is unique on this list for launching a new brunch lineup. You can get Pop’s chicken and waffles alongside a margarita from their Market Bar. Mariachi plays weekends from 9 a.m. to noon.

American Eat Co.

Location: 1439 S. Fourth Ave.

Hours: While vendors’ hours vary, American Eat Co. is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday | 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday-Friday | 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday | 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday | Closed Monday

Cost: entrees are usually around $13

For more information, check out their Instagram page.

The combination bánh mì at Nhu Lan has long been Andi Berlin’s favorite.

The Boxyard

The Pit has plenty of cold beer, and fun events like trivia and live music on Fridays. American Eat Co. has its own bar with fun mixed drinks. (Try their paloma roja!) They’re great places to post up for a night with friends or loved ones.

But if you want to have a night out on the town, The Boxyard is a food court located centrally on North Fourth Avenue. They have a special bar with a menu full of bright, refreshing drinks. I tried their Tommy and liked it a lot: St. Germain elderflower, grapefruit and vodka make for a citrusy drink perfect for summer.

The restaurant with one of former #ThisIsTucson food writer Andi Berlin’s favorite bánh mì, Nhu Lan, is set up in The Boxyard, along with the Mexican restaurant known for their bacon-wrapped burritos, Percheron Mexican Grill. You can also find Indian classics like chicken tikka at Spice Box and both pizza and hoagies at Sal’s Fat Slice.

Though I’m not sure how hidden anything on Fourth Avenue is, the top floor of The Boxyard overlooking the avenue feels like a special perch, tucked away amid a lot of noise. It’s a great place to people watch.

The Boxyard

Location: 238 N. Fourth Ave.

Hours: While vendors’ hours vary, The Boxyard is open 11 a.m. to midnight Monday-Wednesday | 11-2 a.m. Thursday-Sunday

Price: Snacks cost around $5. Entrees cost around $10+

For more information, check out their website.

Bratwurst, potato salad and a generous serving of sauerkraut from Haus of Brats food truck at AZ Beer House.

Beer gardens

Here’s a hint of good things to come: I want to throw a spotlight on the prolific food truck rosters of Arizona Beer House and Tucson Hop Shop. Their managers go above and beyond to curate a rock star list of local trucks just about seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. Tucson breweries do a great job of cultivating diverse, tasty food truck vendors to accompany their drink selection.

As someone with an Oma, who has lived in Austria and Germany, Haus of Brats is a lifeline to German food culture in Southern Arizona. Their leberkaese (a pork and veal meatloaf) is off the hook, and nearly impossible to find. They did a national search for the best fleischerei to source their wurst from. And the potato salad? It’s a family recipe.

You can find Haus of Brats regularly at AZ Beer House and Button Brew House, and occasionally at Tucson Hop Shop. Entrees cost from $7-9.

One of the food trucks I’m most excited to try is the Food Groupie Cafe. I’ve heard amazing things about their Ugly Steak sandwich, sourced locally from Dickman’s delis. While they’ve posted up at 13105 E. Colossal Cave Road, you can still find them in Arizona Beer House’s rotation. Sandwiches range in price from $10.50-$16.75, and come with fries.

Tucson is a sleeper pizza town. We have some of the best wood-fired pizza I’ve ever had. If you follow me, you know I can’t say good enough things about Family Joint Pizzeria’s tomatillo-carnitas or elote pizzas, but I’m also stoked to try Over The Counter’s pizza, too. Both are available semi-regularly at Tucson Hop Shop.

Do you have a favorite food truck or brewhouse with a solid food truck lineup? I’m always looking to find more. Email me at [email protected] and we can start a conversation!