Is Tucson the best city for Mexican food in the US?

“On [Top Chef], I was adding fish sauce and sesame to a mole — if an old lady from Mexico City had seen that, she would’ve hit me with a wooden spoon,” Maria says. But it was this kind of risk-taking that helped propel her to victory. The same might be said of the dishes I’m devouring at her restaurant: tacos of grilled cauliflower in a madras curry, orange zest and coriander oil; a mushroom-based sausage; and the famous, ever-changing flights of chips and salsa. Today, Maria’s signature chips are paired with everything from Mexican chipotle sauce to Asian peanut sauce. On the one hand, she says, “I’m going to give you a true Mexican experience — and that’s beautiful.” But, equally, she adds, “I’m going to make you a salsa that can be influenced by Indian cuisine, by Japanese cuisine or by Italian cuisine.” And that, I can confirm, is beautiful, too.

While Mexican desserts like tres leches cakes, ears (puff pastry cookies) and conchas (sweet bread rolls) abound in Tucson, specifically Sonoran sweets are harder to find. But I’ve been determined to track down those coyotes. They’re a staple of the city of Hermosillo, three hours’ south of the border, yet elusive in Tucson. According to Maribel, “They’re still very much an artisanal industry in Sonora — and if you live in Tucson, you’re likely talking about someone bringing them to you from Hermosillo.”

I have, however, found a local vendor: Dolce Pastello. When I stopped by yesterday, owner Aide Almazan told me she had two kinds in stock: pineapple and pumpkin. For the record, I’m grateful for any coyotas, and the pineapple in particular was transcendent. Still, I’d been disappointed not to find the traditional cane sugar-filled variety — and when Aide said she’d try to get some in for me, my stalking began.

Finally, as I sit waiting, I see her phone light up with what has to be the long-awaited call: the man I need is outside, so I jump from my bar stool and accompany Aide to the carpark. The man, who just so happens to be Aide’s stepfather, does n’t know what’s hit him as I take custody of the basket that his wife, baker Maria Ofilia Almazan Serecer, has sent him here with.

Apologizing for my behaviour, I take my spoils to a countertop, where I paw through them like a jackal. caramel? Great! strawberry? Why not? More pineapple? I’ll take them. But the cane sugar is nowhere to be found. Then I look to the counter and see Aide has set some aside for me. Wasting no time, I peel back the protective plastic. Just past the rich, flaky surface, my teeth sink into the whole cane sugar filling. I’ve seen the ingredient — which looks a little like a solid lump of crystallized honey — in Mexican stores, but never imagined how pliant it could be, nor how ethereal it could taste. Had I known, I might never have left Tucson in the first place.

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