“Top Chef” is always full of curveballs, but we didn’t quite see this one coming.
After 12 glorious episodes of the show exploring all corners of Houston’s rich food scene and culture, host Padma Lakshmi announced the contestants would be treated to a finale in … Tucson, Arizona.
It’s tradition for “Top Chef” to leave its host city for the final episodes of the competition, often visiting a wanderlust-worthy destination overseas. In season 17, the crew headed to Italy; in season 16, they went from Kentucky to Macau, China; in seasons 12 and 14, the finales were in Mexico; even domestic destinations have included flashy places like Hawaii and Las Vegas.
But going from Houston to Tucson? Seems a little sad, but y’all have fun.
This was news to us, but Tucson is actually a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, one of only two in the United States. The other one? San Antonio. Cool.
Anyway—back to Tucson. The second largest city in Arizona, and the home of the University of Arizona (which has a top-notch basketball program, we hear), often touts its food scene, which is heavily influenced by Native American culinary traditions and nearby Mexico. Houston is obviously blessed with a range of Mexican and Mexican-derived options, such as fine-dining restaurants specializing in regional styles, breakfast tacos and street foods and tamales galore, as well as our own unique Tex-Mex cuisine.
Houston has it all, but admittedly what it doesn’t have much of is what Tucson is known for: Sonoran cuisine. The food came over the border from the Mexican state of Sonora, where flour tortillas reign—as opposed to the corn that is historically more traditional in the rest of the country. In Tucson, you’ll find the flour tortillas to be extra buttery and extra thin, dotted with charred griddle spots.
Another delicacy of Tucson is the Sonoran hot dog, which is wrapped in bacon and stuffed with beans, tomatoes, jalapeños, onions, cheese, mustard and mayonnaise. The Arizona city is also known for its great carne asada tacos and chicharrones de camarones (shrimp instead of pork rinds.)
For NPR, food writer Gustavo Arellano wrote that Tucson Mexican food is “the most unappreciated Mexican foodways in the United States.”
Houstonians know what it’s like to be perpetually underrated, so we have to give Tucson this one—even though it can’t rival Texas’ biggest and best city in literally any other food category, including Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, Nigerian, Cajun, barbecue, you name it.
It’s worth wondering how Tucson pulled this off: attracting a big Bravo TV show to host its competition final there. Over the years, you may have noticed ads from the local convention and visitors bureau (CVB), Visit Tucson, the result of an ambitious, and, we must say, pretty well-executed marketing campaign.
According to the Arizona Daily Star, the city of Tucson contributed $4.8 million to Visit Tucson’s budget in 2019, and in 2021, the CVB reported a $205 million economic impact over the last fiscal year, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
As we’ve seen in previous (at times cringeworthy) sponcon moments in this season’s “Top Chef,” money talks.
Hometown favorite Evelyn Garcia was, as she always is, very gracious about the finale destination announcement. “I’ve actually always wanted to go to Arizona,” she said.
She cooked one last love letter to Houston during this final challenge in the city, saying that she felt it was her duty to honor her family in her two dishes—a caldo de pescado with poached redfish and vegetables, and a taco al pastor with roasted redfish and pineapple chile salsa.
After a bit of a scare at the end of the episode, where Lakshmi says “Evelyn …” in a way that makes us think she will be asked to pack her knives and go, Garcia is saved and makes it into the final four.