On-the-Road Food: Arizona’s Best BBQ, Diners & Drive-Ins
By Tiffany Owens
Armed with a copy of Roadfood by Jane & Michael Stern, I vowed to not eat any fast food during a more than 4,000-mile road trip from midcoast Maine to Portland, Oregon last year. No small feat, considering that America’s highways typically contain a mind-numbingly repetitive offering of the same chain restaurants, with very little variation. To seek out small, independently owned eateries while on the road requires a little research, but is well worth the extra effort. Like indigenous folk art, these regional specialties are at the very heart of great tourism and there’s no better way to experience an area’s richly textured history, character and flavor than through the local cuisine.
As a former Arizona resident for 13+ years, I spent a great deal of time road-tripping around the state and discovering the best places to eat along the way. As such, here’s a roundup of Arizona’s best taste-tested, traveler-approved road food, sure to help make your next trip more memorable and palatable.
Interstate 10: Phoenix to Tucson/Willcox
Mrs. White’s Golden Rule Café, Phoenix
Mrs. White has been serving up some of the city’s best home-style Southern/Soul food since 1964. Thinking about her golden-brown fried chicken provokes an immediate Pavlovian response — the best I’ve tasted aside from my Mom’s — especially when served with red beans and rice, collard greens or cornbread.The fare is always fresh and tasty, following Mrs. White’s motto that “good food is not cheap and cheap food is not good…we serve good food at a reasonable price.” No low-calorie plates here, but while the food might be bad for the waistline, it’s fantastic for the soul. (808 E. Jefferson, Phoenix; 602.262.9256; mrswhitesgoldenrulecafe.com)
Knock Kneed Lobster, Phoenix
Don’t let the Knock Kneed’s odd location in an industrial part of Phoenix deter you from sampling some of the city’s freshest fish and chips. Step up to the counter, amidst the kitschy fishing net and seagull décor, to order steaming platters of fried cod, shrimp, catfish, okra, mushrooms, zucchini and more. The “secret recipe” golden-fried hush puppies, speckled with real corn kernels, are a zesty delight.
(3202 E. Washington St., Phoenix; 602.273.1068)
Pat’s Drive-In, Tucson
Spicy chilidogs and hand-cut, skin-on shoestring fries are the order of the day at this cash-only, landmark Tucson eatery. The vintage-style neon sign and red-and-black tiled exterior hearken back to the 1950s when these tiny, family-friendly eateries were all the rage. Locals swear that the “Big Pat Burger,” served sizzling from the griddle, beats In-N-Out’s much-beloved burger hands-down, a mighty tall order indeed.
(1202 W. Niagra St., Tucson; 520.624.0891)
El Minuto Café, Tucson
Often imitated, but rarely duplicated, this downtown institution at the edge of the Barrio Historico has been serving up a winning combination of lively atmosphere and generous plates of Sonoran-style Mexican home-cooking since 1939. Specialties include the cheese crisps, carne seca (air-dried beef) enchiladas, chile relleno and authentic sopapillas.
(354 S Main Ave., Tucson; 520.882.4145; elminutocafe.com)
Carter’s Drive-In, Willcox
Fans of the old A&W drive-ins will be thrilled to discover this nostalgic landmark still in business, with the original trio of mom, pop and teenager statues to mark your arrival. Pull up and place your order for one of the trademark flat-patty hamburgers, a side of onion rings and a frosty root beer float that are still as delicious now as they were when you were a kid.
(575 S. Haskell Ave., Willcox; 520.384.2277)