Post-Pandemic Travel: Indigenous Art, Rolled Tacos and Piercing Sunshine in Tucson, AZ

Above Image: MSA Annex

As much as we think we want to get back to ‘normal’ after a year-plus of extreme abnormal, even if that were possible, maybe we shouldn’t…maybe we should just embrace with gusto that indefinable thing everyone has been calling “the new normal” (it’s actually not really a choice, we just like to tell ourselves it is). We say that because it was something that was very much on our minds during our first real trip in more than fifteen months; and while some aspects of our transcontinental voyage were as banal as ever, thanks to this newfound “awareness,” other experiences had to be carefully considered.

While our destination, Tucson, Arizona, is as easy a jaunt from Brooklyn as one can have while still feeling like one was actually traveling (admittedly, we’re not quite ready for Tokyo or Prague just yet), we were on high tension wires when it came to contemplating all the precautions that would need be taken, considering half a million Americans had just lost their lives to an airborne virus. But on arrival, there was a reassuring sense of normalness, which we hoped would allow us to more fully appreciate the city’s particular idiosyncrasies. We took a deep breath and dove in.

Hotel Congress

The wide-open streets that lead from TUS airport traverse a plateau ringed by majestic mountains, and the setting sun remained an orb of spitting fire and heat to the end; it felt about as far from New York City as Iceland…just much, much, much warmer. We pulled up at our residence for the next few days, the locally legendary Hotel Congress – which immediately reminded us of the slightly ominous Hotel Earle in Barton Fink. The turn of the century (the previous century) Congress embraces its historical distinction by emphasizing its old world iconoclasm…so no TVs, or even an elevator. The brass bed, vintage radio, and rotary phone, even a rumored ghost or two, are what would be our amenities throughout our stay.

We set out into downtown Tucson, leaving our heavy metal room key, and instruction to hold our calls, with reception. (Alas, we still got calls.) The hotel’s front door spilled directly onto the lively street scenes of 4th Ave and Congress, and we did a lengthy reconnoiter in anticipation of full days ahead. 

Up and out the next day we headed north, stopping for breakfast at the artful morning hotspot Prep & Pastry, which prides itself on using only locally sourced ingredients. Our Mediterranean style Harissa Shakshuka was anything but what you would expect from a first meal of the day in this part of the American Southwest. Tucson is a big outdoorsy town – although that probably scales back during the more ferociously sunbaked summer months – with citizens resplendent in neon biking outfits everywhere you look. We joined them in pedaling the miles of flat bike and running paths throughout town, except we cheated a bit by using awesome electric Pedego bikes, which made ascending Sentinel Peak, for a birds eye view of downtown, really quite a cinch.

We then headed east to the big cacti at Saguaro National Park where we wandered the scorched desert marveling at the spiky monoliths. Our memories of a Peruvian excursion involving cactus juice medicine came to mind – but we’ll save that for another story.

Rollies Mexican Patio

Craving some shade and food we made for the largely Hispanic south side. And the takeaway from lunch at the slightly campy Rollies Mexican Patio? If you’re ever offered a rolled, err, taco…just say yes. 

A languid evening with no fixed plans ahead allowed us to take a random ramble, where just off busy stretches of Congress and Broadway, were sometimes curiously desolate side streets. A walk though historic Armory Park led us to The Owls Club, an eclectic, decidedly cosmopolitan boitte that specializes in upmarket whiskies and spirits, a cosmopolitan alternative to the college-crowd joints on the main drag. But back at the hotel was exactly the kind of scene we’d been so utterly deprived of during the coronavirus crisis, with the lobby bar teeming with tipplers, and an animated jazz band enlivening the sizable stage in the courtyard. Still a little COVID-shy, we decided to safely take it all in from the window of our hotel room.

Saturday morning, the newly developed Mercado District on the west side of town was already buzzing, with a long line to pick up Mexican street food at Seis Kitchen, and millennials tapping away (aren’t they always?) on laptops in the plaza. Ten years or so ago this whole area was a dusty vacant lot; but what started with the building of affordable housing soon grew into a shopping, dining, and arts destination that completely transformed this corner of the city. Now two apartment complexes flank the dining/shopping Mercado San Agustin, where Agustin Kitchen, and Mast, specializing in handmade jewelry and housewares, were definitive standouts.

Seis Kitchen

Just down the street is the MSA Annex, an arts focused development with a stage and multiple small boutiques housed in modified shipping containers. It represented thoughtful redevelopment, distinctly opposed to the reckless, mercenary sort being carried out in cities like Nashville, DC and, especially, New York.

Admittedly the main reason for our visit to Tucson was its being named in 2015 as the very first UNESCO City of Gastronomy. And though there were other destinations in our past where every meal was a revelation – New Zealand’s North Island, especially – Tucson was just beyond. Even our simple lunch of tamales and eggs at Barrio Charro turned out to be one of the genuine highlights of the trip. After, we took a quick zip through the Catalina Foothills, where windy mountain streets invariably ended in private roads and gated communities. The posh part of town, it’s really most interesting if you’re into golf courses and high-end spas.

But as happens daily in this part of AZ, there again came a time when we had to get the hell out of the sun – and so grabbed a culture fix at the Tucson Museum of Art. On permanent view was an impressive array of regional Southwestern and indigenous art – alongside rotating exhibitions like the current European Art From the Permanent Collection – which can inspire zeitgeisty conversations about true American heritage. Notably, its Café a la C’Art, housed in a historic mansion, has been voted one of the top ten museum restaurants in the country, solidifying Tucson’s culinary cred at the higher end.

Tucson Museum of Art

Back in that heat, we cruised the shops on 4th Avenue, before later collapsing back in our fan-cooled room.

On our last night in town, we capped our epicurean adventure with mouthwatering tuna crudo and braised trout at the rustic-chic Tito & Pep, again, one of the more memorable meals we’ve had in recent memory. The resto’s interesting location on a busy industrial boulevard in midtown, between a tile shop and a truck parts store, said something about the surprising development of Tucson‘s 21st Century cityscape.

Back for a final night at the Congress, we contemplated the strange and wonderful experience of returning to travel mode. And though we’re certainly keen to be back in London and Paris again, this quirky jewel of the Southwest turned out to be exactly what we hoped our ultimate escape from lockdown would be.

MSA Annex

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