Artistic Triumph

Meet 3 Tucson artists who have mastered their crafts | By Sarah Burton

Some artists are born creating, never stray from that path, and spend the majority of their lives doing just that. Others, although enamored with creativity and expression, go a more traditional direction and let art take a backseat to careers and everyday life. The three artists featured below fall into the latter camp, and describe a singular moment or experience of an overwhelming desire to create. And lucky for us, they did not ignore those thunderclap moments and went on to master their crafts. Visit their galleries or shops and take a piece of their creativity home.


Óptimo Custom Hatworks, 47 Main St., Bisbee, AZ, 520-432-4544,
Tucson Guide - Shop Local

Photography by Steven Meckler

Nestled in the picturesque main street of historic Bisbee, you’ll find Grant Sergot most days, busy crafting custom hats for customers from all over the world. An uninformed passerby may glance through the window of Óptimo Custom Hatworks and mistake it for a quaint albeit run-of-the-mill hat store. But inside, Grant is carefully designing in his unique mediums: felt and straw.

The path that landed Grant squarely in hat-guru territory started by mere chance when he drove into Arizona, along with two dogs as passengers. When his truck got stuck in the mud near the Grand Canyon’s south rim, he found himself sitting around a campfire with an old burned-out ranch hat he found to help keep the snowflakes off his face.

“As it snowed, the brim got more wet and I realized I could manipulate the brim,” he recalls. “In the morning, I threw it up on the dash of my truck and could manipulate even more as it dried, and I realized this is a medium like clay or plaster.” When he couldn’t shape it any longer, he pulled out a tea kettle and got to steaming the Old West, cowboy way.

“That was the start,” he explains. “I traded in my ballcap and woodsman hat for these hats.”

Later, Grant discovered a shimmering hat on a wooden milk crate at an estate sale, beckoning to him, as he tells it. This fortuitous encounter with a real-deal Panama hat only further shaped his life’s work.

“It took my truck breaking down in the mud to realize the importance of a good hat.”

“When I first began making hats in a gallery, everyone thought I was crazy. I said someday I’m going to be in Arizona Highways, and now I’ve been in several times,” Grant reflects with pride.

Since then he’s made quite a name for himself, and grown a loyal following. He’s also collected antique tools from all over as traditional hat shops fell by the wayside. One such fascinating tool of the trade is a conformer from 1911, invented in Paris in 1848, that looks something between a birdcage and a torture device. This is the first step to ensure a custom fit for anyone, any hat. And while you can definitely walk into Óptimo and select an artfully designed pre-made hat, having him make one just for you is the real deal.


Carly Quinn Designs, 730 S. Russell Ave., Tucson, AZ, 520-624-4117,
Tucson Guide - Shop Local

Photography by Steven Meckler

While going to school for a degree in fine arts, Carly Quinn was in need of a job and ended up working part time for a local artist making tile. What began as a way to pay the bills soon had her undivided attention.

“I fell in love with the technique, and after graduation from college I bought my own kiln,” Carly recalls. She continued tile making on the side while beginning her first full-time job as a graphic designer, but it didn’t quite satisfy: “I was designing temporary tattoos for those vending machines you see, as well as a couple other design jobs, but I was so unhappy I decided to quit.”

Carly saved enough for a small studio, which she shared with another artist, and got to work. “It was the craziest thing for me to do, and I knew I had to get the word out, so I built my own website, created an online Etsy store, and called a bunch of magazines.”

“I was so unhappy in my career, but every single day after work I would go home and make tile.”

When timing was right, she opened her shop—Carly Quinn Designs—and it has become quite an attraction for visitors looking for that perfect bit of Tucson to take home. Carly puts it simply: “I have achieved my dream.”

Her technique is self-taught for the most part, based on a Moorish technique from the 1300 and 1400s called cuerda seca (dry cord). “I knew there had to be a name for how I was making my tiles, and eventually I found it.”

She begins on a blank canvas of terra-cotta-colored base tiles from Italy, which she then draws on with a proprietary wax resist pen. Once dried, she colors in between the wax lines with liquid ceramic glazes. She allows the glazes to dry before placing the tiles into one of the four on-site kilns.

“Firing at 2,000 degrees causes a chemical reaction, so the ceramic turns into glass and fuses to the base tile,” Carly explains. “The end product is weather-proof and will last forever, staying bright and glossy.”


Madaras Gallery, 3035 N. Swan Rd., Tucson, AZ, 520-615-3001,
Tucson Guide - Shop Local

Photography by Steven Meckler

Known for her boldly colored scenes of the Southwest, Diana Madaras continues her reign as one of this region’s celebrated painters—but art wasn’t always what filled her days. After running a successful sports marketing company for 12 years, she began dabbling in painting, which caught the eye of a professor at the University of Arizona. “He encouraged me to keep painting. He was relentless,” she recalls.

In 1993, she took a month-long painting trip to Greece that changed her life. “It was as if I got off the plane and the world was black and white, and by the time I returned, it was in technicolor,” Diana explains. Upon returning, her corporate life no longer cut it, and after three years she became an official full-time artist.

She opened Madaras Gallery and quickly garnered attention for her brilliantly colored depictions of the Sonoran Desert. Now with countless awards, exhibits, press, and a gallery shop on most Tucson visitors’ to-do lists—it’s clear this is where she’s meant to be.

“I never felt totally satisfied in any work until I found painting. I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.”

Her newest endeavor is a spirit animal series, inspired by famed Native American artist John Nieto, which debuts this fall. “Art begets art,” she says, explaining the new series. “After being around his work, I was so inspired.” For these works, Diana is opting for watercolor on a tree-free synthetic paper called Yupo. “It’s an interesting effect, which is what I was going for,” Diana shares. “The surface is slick and no water is absorbed, making it one of the most difficult to work with.”

Diana points to her childhood helping out in her father’s veterinarian hospital for the source of her deep love of animals, which are regular subjects in her work. “My job was to take care of wild animals that were dropped off,” she says. “Now I can paint them and give them eternal life.”

Longtime Tucson resident Sarah Burton decorates her home, her garden, and herself with desert-made products from local creatives.

Tasteful Settings

Please your eyes and your tastebuds at these 3 local favorites | By Edie Jarolim

With its sweeping desert vistas and graceful historic buildings, Tucson is known for its distinctive sense of place. Its complex mix of culinary traditions also creates a distinctive sense of taste—one that helped earn Tucson a designation by UNESCO as the first City of Gastronomy in the United States. Here’s a nice surprise: Three top visitor attractions allow you to experience the city’s outstanding settings and its outstanding dining at the same time.

“Zoo” and “cuisine” are rarely mentioned in the same sentence, but the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is not your typical critter showcase. For one thing, rather than highlighting plant and animal species from disparate sections of the globe, this 98-acre exhibition space focuses entirely on the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert.

In addition to interpreting the living land and waterscapes shared by Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora—an aquarium acts as a reminder that the Sea of Cortez is part of the region’s ecology—the Desert Museum explores the area’s natural history with a dazzling array of minerals and rocks, drawing geology buffs from around the world. Although cacti and other prickly plants don’t lend themselves to petting, visitors have plenty of ways to interact with various environments: stroking the scaly charge of a snake-handling docent, say, or strolling through a flower-filled aviary where jewel-toned hummingbirds flit around freely.

Tucson Guide - Shop Local

Photography by Julie Foskett

And at the Desert Museum’s two main dining venues, you can literally savor the region’s flavors. The more upscale Ocotillo Cafe encapsulates Southwest aesthetics, from purple napkins that echo the lavender and sage in the terrace garden to the quote from local Tohono O’odham poet Ofelia Zepeda on the entryway wall. For a sampler of menu highlights, don’t miss the bocadillo board, featuring tepary-bean hummus, Spanish chorizo, house-smoked chicharrones, local cheeses, glazed pepita seeds, dried fruits, and pickled vegetables. The grilled carnitas and green chiles sandwich does a local spin on the classic Cubano, while the chicken Azteca blends seasonal vegetables, pasilla chiles, Oaxacan cheese, cilantro, and lime in a piquant tomato broth.

And at the Desert Museum’s two main dining venues, you can literally savor the region’s flavors.

Offering more casual counter service, the Ironwood Terrace also provides a cross-border experience. You’ll find a variety of tamales, tacos, and quesadillas at the Agave food station, and you can choose your favorite filling and salsa to enfold in a flour or corn tortilla. Familiar kiddie chow such as hamburgers gives a nod to a different regional tradition by using only Arizona-sourced beef for the patties.

Sitting on 49 cactus-studded acres on Tucson’s northwest side, Tohono Chul is closer to the city center than the Desert Museum, but you’d never know it from the serenity of its nature trails or the proximity of the Santa Catalinas, which provide a dramatic mountain backdrop. The Hohokam people settled this swath of land more than 1,000 years ago; citrus and date palm growers took advantage of its mild winter microclimate in the 1920s; and a succession of families who appreciated the aesthetics of desert living built homes here from the 1940s to the 1960s.

Tucson Guide - Shop Local

Photography by Julie Foskett

The nature preserve that was established on the land in 1985 pays homage to all these historical phases—starting with the name Tohono Chul, which means “desert corner” in the language of the Tohono O’odham people, successors of the Hohokam. But perhaps it is the repurposed residence of John Sullivan, built in 1963, that best embodies how past and present come together here. The Spanish hacienda-style home now hosts the Garden Bistro, notable both for its architecture and for the menu’s reliance on fresh ingredients plucked from the park’s Heritage Garden (also called the Ethnobotanical Garden). Indigenous fruits and vegetables traditionally cultivated by Native Americans mingle with plant species brought over by European settlers centuries later.

A large arched doorway and traditional zaguan (covered breezeway) lead to three dining areas: an outdoor back patio, looking out over a patch of unmanicured desert; the interior courtyard, centered by an ornate fountain; and several art-filled interior rooms with white tablecloths. All of them are appealing, though the weather might dictate your decision on where to sit.

Unfettered by anything but the size of your appetite, you might have a harder time deciding which dishes to order. Popular picks include the huevos rancheros, two eggs served with Native American fry bread, calabacitas (a melange of squash, corn, and chile), and chorizo or sausage. The chicken & waffles get a Southwest spin: The crispy chicken breast is glazed with chiltepin-mesquite honey, the waffles are made with blue corn and green chiles, and the seasonal melon (maybe a Hopi casaba) comes spiced with Mexican tajin spice. Bottomless prickly pear margaritas and mimosas—served every day, not just for the weekend brunch—provide a different kind of Southwest kick.

Bottomless prickly pear margaritas and mimosas provide a Southwest kick.

At Cafe a la C’art, you’ll find a longer, more cosmopolitan cocktail list and an elegant dinner menu, in addition to more casual breakfast, lunch, and brunch options. Of course, you’d expect sophistication in a restaurant that’s part of the Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block. The movers and shakers of early Tucson flocked to this 1860s home built by Hiram Stevens, a respected businessman and Territorial legislator. He and his wife, Petra Santa Cruz, a descendant of early Spanish settlers, entertained here in grand style.

Tucson Guide - Shop Local

Photography by Julie Foskett

The Stevens House still hosts movers and shakers—its proximity to downtown law offices and government buildings makes Cafe a la C’art a magnet for attorneys and politicians—as well as visitors to the world-class exhibitions at the art museum. The restaurant itself is a feast for the eyes. Work from the prestigious Etherton Gallery hangs on the walls of a series of intimate rooms with gleaming hardwood floors, while the vine-draped covered patio, its tables set next to colorful mosaic banquettes, sparkles with tiny lights after dark.

It is the artful New American fare that’s the biggest draw, however. The menus change seasonally, but at dinner you might find Southern comfort with shrimp and grits, the blackened crustaceans sided by polenta laced with goat cheese, pickled okra, and peppadew relish. A crossover menu staple—you can get it at lunch, brunch, or dinner times—the Cafe Burger is topped with pepper Jack, avocado, chipotle aioli, and applewood bacon. Creative salads and quiches are crowd-pleasers, too.

But many patrons just cut straight to the chase and make a beeline for the vintage pastry case. Cookies, scones, layer cakes, cheesecake squares, fruit tarts, cream pies ... you never know what form these confections will take. One exception is the signature Chocolate Bomb, a triple-threat combination of chocolate cake, chocolate ganache, and chocolate mousse that is always on offer. Forget the artful setting. When the Chocolate Bomb is sold out, some of the most civilized people go a bit feral.

Murals: Tucson’s Hidden Gems

Discover the most extraordinary murals in and around the Old Pueblo | By Amanda Oien

Tucson is known for its pigmented sunsets that swallow up the sky, creating a backdrop for the indigo mountains. But as you may find while exploring the Old Pueblo, the color isn’t just in the sky—it’s on walls, down mainstreets, side streets, and alleyways.

Tucson isn’t just beautiful scenery that entices you to go outside when it’s 100 degrees or Mexican food that makes you feel like you’re at your abuelita's for dinner. Tucson is art, culture, and diversity. And we’re celebrating it.

There are many artists, both local and Arizona natives, and even international, who have contributed to Tucson’s art scene, such as Rock "Cyfi" Martinez, Fin DAC, Danny Martin, Ignacio Garcia, To-Ree-Nee Wolf, and Joe Pagac, just to name a few.

Click here to get to know local artist Joe Pagac.

We’re inviting you to join us in exploring Tucson’s art culture. We’ve created the ultimate guide to Tucson’s most vibrant and sometimes hidden murals. Say goodbye to always wondering where these pops of color live while delving into Tucson’s creativity and artistry that makes our city unique.

Follow us on Instagram for weekly #MuralMonday updates and all things Tucson. Share your favorite murals with us by using #YESTG.

Meet the Muralist: Joe Pagac

By Amanda Oien

Joe Pagac, a native Tucsonan, has been painting murals in Tucson for 14 years and has painted some of the Old Pueblo’s most famous murals. After studying and traveling the world, Pagac still takes his inspiration from the Sonoran Desert but enjoys keeping his art a little surreal and whimsical.

“When you’re a muralist, every wall is a good spot for a mural,” Pagac said. Epic Rides, one of Pagac’s most famous Tucson murals, features desert critters and a woman riding a bike, whose dress flows into a crimson and apricot colored desert, while her dark hair absorbs into the night sky. Epic Rides was fully funded by the Tucson community through a Kickstarter campaign that raised $21,616 from 302 Tucsonans in 24 days—well over Pagac’s $18,000 goal.

While there are many rewards of painting a giant mural that will greet visitors and offer a warm hello to locals, Pagac said it’s the sense of fulfillment that stands out the most.

Tucson Guide - Shop Local

“Getting to step back and be like, ‘Wow, I did that with my own hands,’ is a real feeling of accomplishment,” Pagac said of when he completes a mural. “Just creating something from simpler parts.”

Daily phone calls from strangers keep Pagac’s passion for art going.

“Whatever mural it might be, people share how it has inspired them or brightened their drive,” Pagac said. “I have a job where I’m out working and every five minutes, someone drives by and screams, ‘You’re awesome!’ So few people get that much positive reinforcement even if they’re doing amazing work.”

Pagac said it’s a good feeling to know he’s making a difference with every mural.

Because Tucson’s summers can put a strain on painting, Pagac said he most often paints overnight.

Tucson Guide - Shop Local

“It’s brutally hot otherwise,” he said.

So much of the Old Pueblo’s culture is hidden behind doors because of the sizzling summer weather, but for Pagac, the murals around the Old Pueblo have added surface culture to the community.

“It really helps brighten the city and show off how vibrant our culture is here, especially to an outsider and people just cruising around,” Pagac said.

Pagac continues paint murals around Tucson, most recently working on a variety of pieces at the Hotel McCoy, and hopes to continue brightening the streets of Tucson.

To see all of Joe Pagac’s work, visit his site at

Arizona’s Secret Canyon

Remote, lush & diverse, steal away to Aravaipa Canyon. | By Edie Jarolim

Looking to escape civilization and its discontents? Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness, a desert oasis tucked away between Tucson and Phoenix, might just be the place. The Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) parcels out only 50 permits a day to enter the 19,410-acre preserve, thus minimizing encounters with other humans while maximizing opportunities to ogle wildlife.

Bighorn sheep, mule deer, bobcats, javelina, and more than 200 types of birds are among the species drawn to the year-round stream that threads its way through the dramatic 11-mile-long gorge in the Galiuro Mountains. Prickly pear cacti poke out from impossible perches in sandstone cliffs that soar as high as 1,000 feet, while sycamores, willows, and cottonwoods hold sway below.

This is the natural universe unplugged, with no formal trails or campsites—just a streambed to follow during the day and whatever canopy of trees you choose to rest under at night.

But maybe you’re not soothed by mysterious animal cries after dark, and prefer to sleep on a mattress that doesn’t require inflating. Good news. In a pristine spread near the preserve’s western entrance, Aravaipa Farms Orchard & Inn offers abundant creature comforts while eliminating creature worries.

Both canyon and inn have rich histories.

Early native peoples, including the Hohokam, Mogollon, Salado, and Sobaipuri, lived along the lush banks of the spring-fed stream. The Western Apaches who followed gave the region its name: Aravaipa means “land of the laughing waters.” Settlers in the early 20th century had a heavier footprint: Farmers diverted the creek, miners dynamited fishing holes, and ranchers hunted cattle-eating species.

Concern over these depredations led Congress to protect the vast Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness in 1984. In addition, the Nature Conservancy took guardianship of 9,000 acres adjacent to the BLM land. Author Edward Abbey finished The Monkey Wrench Gang while serving as the first manager of the Conservancy’s preserve. Among the reasons he was sacked: skinny-dipping in Aravaipa Creek.

Although the mines were shuttered, a scattering of the canyon’s farms and ranches remained—including a spread with an abandoned fruit orchard bought by culinary pioneer Carol Steele. In the 1970s, Steele became known in Scottsdale and Phoenix for such ventures as a French bakery/cooking school that numbered as-yet-unknown chefs Jacques Pepin, Diana Kennedy, and Jeremiah Towner among its instructors. Steele’s foodie devotees flocked to the rustic-chic B&B she created at the orchard in 1995, despite—or perhaps because of—its off-the-beaten-path location.

After Steele retired, new owners updated the inn while maintaining its founder’s spirit.

You can feel Steele’s presence everywhere: in the colorful mosaic tiles of the walk-in showers and patios of the guest casitas; in the assortment of handmade bird feeders and metal sculptures that dot the grounds; and, especially, in the converted barn where guests gather for dinner.

Steele’s farm-to-table ethos is alive and well—and carefully planned additions are ensuring a lasting legacy. Last spring, 350 new trees took root alongside their mature cousins. Varieties include peach, plum, apricot, cherry, pomegranate, fig, apple, and more. In addition, a large new garden produces heirloom tomatoes, yellow watermelon, never know what garden-ripened bounty might turn up on your plate at dinnertime.

Vases of fresh-cut zinnias, sunflowers, gomphrena, and other grown-on-site blooms also appear on the wood plank dinner table, another of the many details that make a stay here special. No question: A little civilization in the wilderness can add a lot of contentment.

Edie Jarolim is a Tucson-based freelance writer who believes in balancing nature and nurture: Great hiking followed by great food.

Finding Her Desert Home

One millennial finds Tucson has a lot to offer

If three years ago you told Quinn Miller that she would not only be living in Tucson, Arizona, but that she would be active in the community and genuinely happy with her life there, she would have given a simple and concise “no.”

Growing up in Los Angeles, Quinn never saw herself leaving the metropolis. Everything she needed was there in her southern California hometown. But once her boyfriend got accepted into a PhD program at the University of Arizona and asked her to move to Tucson with him, she changed her answer to “I don’t see myself living there.”

Thankfully, that isn’t the end of Quinn’s story, and she reconsidered so she could experience life in another city; after all, LA would always be a short drive away if she yearned to return to her comfort zone. So she and her boyfriend packed their bags and headed to sunny Tucson to start their next chapter.

A hidden gem in the desert

When Quinn arrived in Tucson, she saw the sleepy town she imagined. But once she got out of her Armory Park apartment and actually explored Tucson’s revitalized downtown, she saw more than what the moniker “Old Pueblo” suggests.

“People don’t expect all the culture that’s here,” Quinn said, noting the UNESCO-recognized cuisine, history, and art found all around the city.

Quinn thinks one of Tucson’s strongest assets is its people. “When they ask how you’re doing, they actually care.” The genuine nature of Tucsonans gives the city a quality of realness, and adds a lot to Tucson’s easy way of life.

Top-notch cuisine—some of Quinn’s favorite places are 5 Points Market & Kitchen, Seis Kitchen, Reilly Craft Pizza, Cup Café, The Coronet, and Exo Roast Co.—rounds out the offerings downtown, all easily walkable or just a short ride on the Sun Link Modern Streetcar that travels through downtown to the University of Arizona. “I didn’t realize how nice it was to live a life where I didn’t have to spend two hours a day in a car.”

After the sun goes down, vibrant nightlife keeps the urban core alive with awesome breweries like Pueblo Vida Brewing Company, Tap + Bottle, and Crooked Tooth serving up craft brews, mezcals—a Tucson staple—and innovative cocktails. Quinn satisfies her dancing moods at Hotel Congress and Playground right in the heart of downtown, and for live music she heads to the Rialto Theatre.

Quinn found her places to relax in the hustle and bustle, too. Yoga Oasis is one of her top places in Tucson, and pottery classes at the Tucson Clay Co-op provide her with a creative outlet.

Rounding out Quinn’s favorite aspects of Tucson is its Sonoran Desert setting. “The natural surroundings were a really big surprise for me—the desert landscape is so beautiful.” It’s easy to tell the how much Quinn adores being outside here. “Tucson is a green desert surrounded by beautiful mountains—it’s entirely different from what people think of when they picture a desert.” Quinn loves to take visitors to the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum and Saguaro National Park to experience the desert life, and pop up to Mt. Lemmon to cool off during the summer or play in the snow during winter. The Loop—a network of more than 100 miles of paved trails surrounding the city—makes for a perfect way to show off Tucson, too.

Even with all the natural beauty on the outskirts of Tucson, the authentic and colorful casitas in the old barrios always draw her back to downtown. “I love the Tucson architecture. It has such a unique vibe.”

Modern boom town

Quinn isn’t the only one attracted to Tucson’s downtown. Caterpillar has recently moved its regional offices to the urban core and is building a 150,000-square-foot facility—the Caterpillar Tucson Mining Division—at the west end of the streetcar route in the Mercado District. Many high-tech startups and longstanding local businesses also fill the towering buildings of downtown, making it a great environment for college graduates.

Career opportunities aren’t just located in the center of town. Davis-Monthan Air Force Base on the southeastern side of the city is one of Tucson’s top employers. In fact, its presence is the reason the city has such a high number of high-tech industries—Raytheon Missile Systems, Universal Avionics, Honeywell Aerospace, and Bombardier Aerospace all have a large presence in Tucson, as well as Texas Instruments, IBM, and Intuit. That’s not even mentioning the roughly 150 Tucson companies designing and manufacturing optics and optoelectronics, earning Tucson the nickname “Optics Valley.”

Visit Tucson - prominent local business
Visit Tucson - prominent local business
Visit Tucson - prominent local business
Visit Tucson - prominent local business
Visit Tucson - prominent local business
Visit Tucson - prominent local business
Visit Tucson - prominent local business
Visit Tucson - prominent local business
Visit Tucson - prominent local business
Visit Tucson - prominent local business
Visit Tucson - prominent local business
Visit Tucson - prominent local business
Visit Tucson - prominent local business
Visit Tucson - prominent local business
Visit Tucson - prominent local business
Visit Tucson - prominent local business
Visit Tucson - prominent local business
Visit Tucson - prominent local business
Visit Tucson - prominent local business
Visit Tucson - prominent local business

The University of Arizona, located just east of downtown, also attracts highly skilled researchers, and has worked closely with NASA on several missions to Mars. Banner University Medical Center employs many students and graduates of the university, as do Tucson’s other large healthcare employers Ventana Medical Systems and Sanofi-Aventis.

New home

Quinn has connected with Tucson and embraced this new life. “I feel like I’ve found a really nice community.” Compared to living in Los Angeles, life is more relaxed for Quinn here. “I have time to spend on the people and things I love, while also developing my professional skills outside of work.”

And she’s taken her love for the community to new heights by rising up to President of Ad 2 Tucson, a former affiliate of the American Advertising Federation geared toward young professionals who work in advertising, marketing, communications, and media. Ad 2 and another organization, Tucson Young Professionals, helped Quinn get her footing in Tucson when she first moved to the city, and now she is instrumental in doing the same for other millennials in the community.

“I feel like I’m in a really good spot.” All of Tucson’s offerings with low price tags have definitely spoiled Quinn. “I now have a house and I have a good job, and I have time and money to go out and do things that I really enjoy, such as hiking with my dog and getting food and drinks with friends.” And she regularly encourages her friends to visit so she can showcase the city and let them be as surprised as she was.

“I love Tucson, and I do feel at home.”

Mix It Up: Tucson Nightlife

Pull up a barstool and sip on a craft cocktail at these six Tucson waterholes. | By Edie Jarolim

Potent potables raised to an art form, craft cocktails bring out the inner geek in many imbibers. Whether re-creating historic recipes or doing contemporary riffs on the tried-and-true, these drinks are exceptionally detail-oriented, down to the shape of the ice and the origin of the garnish. Tucson is a kicked-back desert and university town where we call our shakers and stirrers bartenders rather than mixologists. Nevertheless, you’ll find a lot of distinctive spots to slake a thirst for meticulous sips.

Consider R Bar, a speakeasy-style watering hole tucked into an alley near downtown’s Rialto Theatre. The theater was built in 1922 to screen silent films, but R Bar didn’t join the scene until 2014. The “R” in the bar’s name is a reference to the performance venue, but it could also stand for the color of the decor. The intimate space is relentlessly, radiantly red, from the walls and ceilings to chairs, banquettes, lampshades, and the light get the rosy picture.

The cocktails don’t conform to any particular color scheme, but they’re likely to leave you feeling rosy, too. You might sip the house specialty Rialtor—a blend of ginger-infused vodka, cardamom, lime, and ginger beer—or a Tiki-inspired Painkiller, mixing rum, coconut liqueur, pineapple, and orange juice. The menu is confined to two types of grilled cheese sandwiches—one with cheddar and tandoori spices, the other featuring gruyere—but limiting the need to make complex food decisions can be a bonus at a bar.

There’s a far larger menu at Maynard’s Kitchen, but the choices—and prices—are pared down during happy hour, when poutine, fresh oysters, and potato pizza are among the options. Part of the historic depot complex that includes downtown’s Amtrak station, the Art Deco–style Maynard’s mimics a railroad dining car with its long, narrow shape, faux tile ceiling, and chandeliers encased in mica and steel.

With footrests made of a length of 1890s rail track and studs on its metal siding resembling boxcar rivets, the polished zinc bar is the perfect backdrop for the restaurant’s most popular cocktail: Maynard’s Manhattan. Its key ingredient is Buffalo Trace bourbon infused with vanilla beans and orange peels, and is aged in a Buffalo Trace barrel. Equal attention is paid to the garnish: Italian Amarena cherries, and soaked in cognac for 30 days. Like to drink your dessert? The White Chocolate Martini, made with Stoli Vanilla and Godiva White Chocolate liqueur, packs a sweet punch.

Just across downtown near Tucson Convention Center, a popular dining and drinking drag, The Coronet has a similarly retro ambience—and a similarly interesting history. The restaurant formerly hosted guests of the 1928 Coronado Hotel. The painstaking restoration included installing a bistro classic floor with encaustic tiles arrayed in intricate fleur-de-lis patterns and a 1906 bar from a small Arizona town.

The cocktails produced behind that bar pay similar attention to detail. The wonderfully simple but potent Vesper, for example, blends gin, vodka, and Lillet, while the Old Fashioned has just the right proportions of bourbon, bitters, and simple syrup. Other drinks have more whimsical names, but don’t be deterred. The Rabbi Slept Late, for example—Bols Genever Gin, Velvet Falernum, lemon, almond milk, vanilla simple syrup, and a dash of nutmeg—is seriously good. So are such happy hour nibbles and snacks as warm olives, bruschettas, and housemade patés.

Pizza and stargazing are on the menu at the solar-powered Sky Bar, the country’s only astronomy bar. Staff astronomers (you read that right) are on hand every night to assist with viewing through three high-powered telescopes on the patio. This is an especially popular gathering spot during galactic events like harvest moons or comet showers—and University of Arizona basketball games. In many ways, this is a typical college bar, with karaoke, live music, TVs, pool tables, and the affiliated Brooklyn Pizza Company next door where you can order a slice, calzone, or hero sandwich.

But several of the cocktails celebrate the features that make Sky Bar—and Tucson—such standouts. The Major Tom, for example, defies gravity with whiskey, brandy, fresh-squeezed lemon and orange juices, organic agave nectar, and a flaming orange peel garnish. Locally grown citrus is also a feature of the Sonoran Lollipop, mixing tequila, watermelon schnapps, lime juice, and chamoy—a sweet-and-salty Mexican sauce made with pickled fruit that captures the city’s distinctive south-of-the-border flavor.

On the topic of south-of-the-border flavor, Reforma Cocina y Cantina, named for the wide boulevard that sweeps through the heart of Mexico City, has it on lock down. The restaurant’s location in the Spanish village-style St. Philip’s Plaza also evokes Mexico’s capital, as do from-scratch preparations of traditional central Mexican recipes like carnitas tacos; everything from grinding the corn masa for the tortillas to butchering pork shoulder for the filling is done on site.

With more than 300 varieties, Reforma has Southern Arizona’s largest selection of distilled agave spirits—bacanora, sotol, and mezcal, as well as tequila—and you can expect unexpected things to be done with them. For example, in the Paloma—Mexico’s most popular tequila cocktail—fresh grapefruit juice and Pamplemousse grapefruit liqueur take the place of grapefruit soda. The Maestro Gentry, named for a leading botanist of agave studies who taught at The University of Arizona, uses housemade pomegranate molasses to offset the smoky taste of mezcal. Even the house margarita does a spin on the tequila classic, using salt foam rather than a crusted salt rim for salinity without the grit.

Also in St. Philip’s Plaza, Union Public House is a sprawling gastropub that serves updated versions of traditional American comfort food—meat loaf that incorporates pork belly, say, or a grilled chicken sandwich with fig jam and Cambazola—as well as such newcomers to that category as ramen noodles with bacon dashi.

The bar is known for its vast selection of whiskey, but the mixed drink that dominates is the Moscow Mule, combining vodka and ginger beer. Even before the cocktail became ubiquitous around town, it was a Union staple—so much so that the copper cups in which it’s served began disappearing at alarming rates. Putting the restaurant’s name on the metallic souvenirs didn’t stop the theft but at least balanced it with free advertising.

Now a variety of mules turn up on the shifting menu, each highlighting a different spirit. The London Mule, for example, incorporates gin, the Brazilian Mule is made with rum, and the Irish Mule uses Jameson. The latest kick is the frozen Moscow Mule, which is produced by a state-of-the-art slushy machine. It’s the quintessential cocktail for a casual city that puts a premium on staying cool.

Tucson Guide Contributing Dining Editor Edie Jarolim found it difficult to choose from all the city’s terrific cocktail spots, so she is continuing her research on the subject, hoping to be assigned a follow-up piece in the future.

Sailing in the Desert

Learn the ropes and set sail with a welcoming community of sailors | By Heather Wuelpern

When people think of Tucson, images of saguaros, roadrunners, or Sonoran hot dogs might come to mind. But sailing?

It’s not a joke. In fact, the Tucson Sailing Club set anchor in the Old Pueblo back in 1970 and has been tacking into the wind ever since. The club has a mission to “promote, protect, and foster the sport of sailing” as well as to encourage its members to “adhere to the rules of navigation and seamanship.” And perhaps the most important portion of the mission statement for the Tucson community is their goal to “promote and encourage sociability and friendship among its members.”


Kerie Seamans and Dan Prevost moved to Tucson from Boston. After feeling a bit landlocked, they longed for the ocean and the camaraderie that came along with boating. They remedied their need by purchasing a sailboat and started to learn the ropes together. While sailing in Lake Pleasant one sunny afternoon, they caught wind that there was a sailing club out of Tucson.

“We showed up to a monthly meeting out of curiosity and the club welcomed us with open arms, giving us sailing tips, inviting us to regattas and parties. It was fantastic!” Kerie said.

They have since joined the club and plan to move their boat to San Carlos, Mexico, where many of the members dock, sail, and race their boats.


Don’t feel intimidated if you don’t know the difference between the port and starboard sides of a boat because Tucson Sailing Club offers sailing lessons for beginners at Silverbell Lake in Tucson. Before you know it, you’ll feel the wind in your hair on your maiden voyage.

Or, if you’ve had your sea legs since you learned to walk, join the club’s active racing program with two regattas each year in San Carlos, Mexico. You might be lucky enough to win a trophy—even if you don’t, it will be a lot of fun simply being out on the water.


Whether you are already an avid sailor, a bit rusty, or would love to learn the basics, show up at a Tucson Sailing Club meeting at 7 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday of every month at Brother John's at 1801 N. Stone Ave. It’s a great way to socialize with people with whom you already have something in common.

Carnivore Carnival

Five local restaurants serve up meaty dishes | By Edie Jarolim

Southern Arizona’s cattle-ranching past is well documented, but the region’s love affair with meat likely dates back to the Paleolithic period, when hunter-gatherers roamed the land. Groups of people still gather to hunt for meat, but now it’s far easier to find. Top spots catering to carnivores in Tucson range from modest taquerias to upscale chophouses, from recent arrivals to local institutions.

Charro Steak spans both ends of the newness spectrum. You can’t detail Tucson’s culinary history without highlighting El Charro Café, established in 1922 and claimed to be the country’s oldest Mexican restaurant still run by the same family. Charro Steak is its latest offspring, an instant downtown hit when it opened in 2016.

The restaurant is both a tribute to and an update of the steakhouse the family had in Casa Grande in the 1940s. The large, open room—it once housed southern Arizona’s first indoor car dealership—has a contemporary look, with lots of natural light. But rustic details include a meat rack-turned-tequila holder found on a family ranch in Mexico.

Beef, free-range and butchered in house, is the star of the menu. The most popular cuts are the US classics: T-bone, boneless rib eye, New York strip, filet. But the sides get a south-of-the-border spin. Instead of the typical creamed corn, for example, you’ll find elote (Mexican street corn), charred and mixed with cotija cheese and dusted with chiles. After dinner, a margarita flan stands in for key lime pie.

PY Steakhouse is an oasis of serenity in the bustling Casino Del Sol Resort, owned and operated by the Pascua Yaqui people on Tucson’s south side. The Rat Pack would have felt at home in the simple but elegant dining room, a study in black and white with sparkling chandeliers—not to mention in the low-lit cigar lounge and the nearby high-roller gaming rooms.

They would also have recognized much of the surf-and-turf menu. Beef tartare and lump crab cakes are among the appetizers; salads include a wedge with blue cheese; basted, broiled, or braised steaks are entrée staples; and every Wednesday brings a prime rib special. The whiskey list is voluminous, with samplings offered in flights based on region of origin, production method, or age.

Likely less familiar to the original Oceans 11 crew: porcini mushroom salt as a steak supplement, chorizo and cilantro in the broiled oysters, and a tandoori spice rub for the rack of lamb. That would hold true too for cocktail ingredients like vanilla pecan orgeat and chai fig. Unfamiliar, maybe, but in the hands of PY’s talented chefs and mixologists, innovation is very tasty.

Tucson’s east side was long dominated by ranch spreads, one of them belonging to the Bedient family. It was their horsy upbringing—which included eating steak almost every night—that inspired Ken and Lisa Bedient and their children, Kevin and Logan, to open The Horseshoe Grill on the side of town they knew best. They enlisted the talents of their son-in-law, Andy Romero, whose long cooking resumé includes the Tanque Verde Ranch Resort.

A horseshoe-shaped bar is the centerpiece of the spacious dining room. The walls are decked with items from the family ranch: coiled ropes used in local rodeos, chaps worn by Lisa, a Navajo horse blanket gifted by a friend. But while the decor is fascinating, most diners’ eyes are riveted on the open kitchen, where mesquite-smoked meat emerges from Tucson’s first indoor smoker. Can’t decide on your entrée meat? A sampler plate lets you try smoked baby-back ribs, sausage, pulled pork, and brisket. Portions are so generous that you might wonder how anyone gets back to work without a nap after enjoying one of the lunchtime special burgers or steaks.

Immigrants are essential to the dining life of any city worth its salt—or soy sauce. (Of course, only the Pascua Yaqui and other native peoples can avoid the immigrant label in Tucson.) Takamatsu, a Japanese/Korean restaurant in midtown, demonstrates that ranchers—whether Mexican or Anglo—have no monopoly on barbecue. The difference is that, in Korea, it’s traditional to cook your own at specially designed tables with built-in grills.

The meat to be roasted falls into two basic categories, marinated and unmarinated.

Bulgogi, the best known of the first group, is thinly sliced rib eye soaked in a sweet-and-peppery mix of soy and sesame oil. Popular cuts on the second type include pork belly and beef deckle, the fatty underside of brisket. Along with the meat, you get sides to throw on the grill—onions, raw garlic, and jalapeños—as well as small dishes not intended to get the heat treatment, such as kimchi. The final step in this elaborate dining ritual: wrap all the ingredients of your choice in the accompanying lettuce leaves.

Yes, lettuce wraps existed in many countries before the Paleo diet became all the rage—at least the modern interpretation of it. Recent studies show that cave people ate carbs. You definitely won’t want to forgo them at BK Tacos, especially if you go for the specialty: Sonoran hot dogs. The buns that enfold Tucson’s famous bacon-wrapped beef franks are baked fresh every day for BK and are large enough to hold the default toppings: pinto beans, onions, diced tomatoes, mayonnaise, mustard, and a house-recipe jalapeño sauce, with a roasted yellow chile on the side.

You’ll find other things to add on the condiments cart: several types of salsas, guacamole, cabbage, and cucumbers. These are equally complementary to another BK favorite, the Caramelo: carne asadaand cheese in a flour or corn tortilla.

The original southside restaurant, which grew out of a taco stand, remains very popular, but the newer branch in midtown has table service and serves alcohol—cocktails as well as beer and wine. The ancient hunter-gatherers moved around too much to ferment beverages, but Tucson has a 4,000-year history of agriculture, so there’s reason to believe we had a jump on producing spirits.

If not, we’re doing a good job catching up.

When it comes to meat, Contributing Dining Editor Edie Jarolim has chops: Her great uncle was Sigmund Freud’s butcher in Vienna (see


BK Tacos  2680 N. 1st Ave., 520-207-2245; 5118 S. 12th Ave., 520-295-0105;

Charro Steak  188 E. Broadway Blvd., 520-485-1922,

The Horseshoe Grill  7713 E. Broadway Blvd., 520-838-0404,

PY Steakhouse  Casino Del Sol Resort, 5655 W. Valencia Rd., 520-324-9350,

Takamatsu  5532 E. Speedway Blvd., 520-512-0800,