Southwestern Vacation Recap: Tucson

Welcome to the second post from our Southwestern vacation recap. You can read our El Paso and New Mexico recap here.

Paul climbing Tumamoc Hill in Tucson, Arizona

We took Amtrak from El Paso to Tucson, about a seven hour trip. Although it was not overnight, we got a roomette so that we would have our own space for the journey. Most of the trip was through the Chihuahuan Desert landscape of New Mexico. Since we were traveling in the evening, we were able to eat dinner in the dining car. Of course, I had my traditional Amtrak signature steak.

The dining car on Amtrak from El Paso, Texas to Tucson, Arizona

Our Airbnb was near the University of Arizona and along the route of the Tucson street car. It was a very modest home, and from the front window we would sit and watch the streetcar go by. Our Airbnb hosts were local restaurateurs and we practically lived at the nearby Time Market, a gourmet market and restaurant that they owned. The market bakes its own bread daily and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Paul walking into our Airbnb in Tucson, Arizona

Eating breakfast at Time Market in Tucson, Arizona

What we ate

Tucson is a large city and home to many different types of food, especially Sonoran cuisine: a mix from Mexico (specifically the state of Sonora), Arizona and Native Americans.

For local modern-American cuisine, we found nowhere better than Augustin Kitchen, in the mixed-used neighborhood of Mercado San Augustin. Highlights included the Mustard and Melon Salad with perfectly cooked Arizona sirloin and a sarsaparilla float for dessert with Isabella’s vanilla ice cream.

The Mustard and Melon Salad with perfectly cooked Arizona sirloin for lunch from Augstin Kitchen at Mercado San Augustin in Tucson, Arizona

We returned to Mercado San Augustin the following day to have one of their quintessential Sonoran desserts, the raspado at Sonoran Sno-Cones. Raspados are shaved ice made with real fruit and real juice and often come in sour flavors, such as chamoy lime. You can also add condensed milk and Mexican-chile candies. Marnay and got a mangoyada and I got a mango and chamoy raspado with chile candies. The chile candies were spicy, but still sweet like candy and had a chewy texture. We sat in the open-air courtyard of the mercado and enjoyed the live music and the Tucson night-sky.

Raspados from Sonoran Sno-Cones at Mercado San Augustin in Tucson, Arizona

South Tucson is where the best Mexican-restaurants can be found, and Los Tacos Apson did not disappoint. In fact, we had the best barbacoa tacos we have ever had! It’s hard to describe just how amazing the taste was of these tacos. They have a smoky flavor and simply melted in your mouth.

Barbacoa and rib tacos at Los Tacos Apson in Tucson, Arizona

Smoking the meat at Los Tacos Apson in Tucson, Arizona

On our last day in Tucson, we had Sonoran-style hot dogs! We went to El Guero Canelo, which unbeknownst to us had just won a James Beard Foundation American Classic Award. A Sonoran-style hot dog is a bacon-wrapped dog top with beans, onions, mustard, jalapenos and a little bit of mayo. All of this is inside a special bolillo bun, a soft Mexican roll that is the most important part of a Sonoran-style dog. It’s not a Sonoran hot dog without the bolillo bun.

Sonoran-style hot dogs from El Guero Canelo in Tucson, Arizona

What we did

We weren’t sure what to expect at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, however, it blew us away. It’s a museum in name only, as it is over 80% outdoors. It also seamlessly blends in with the landscape, since it’s completely surrounded by Tucson Mountain Park and Saguaro National Park.

Marnay walking at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona

Our Airbnb host recommended the hike up Tumamoc Hill, on the western edge of downtown Tucson. The trail is paved and it basically goes straight up, with some very steep switchbacks. It’s a nature preserve and it shows off the most distinctive feature of the Sonoran Desert landscape, Saguaro cacti. These monarchs of the desert can grow to over 40 feet tall and live for over 150 years. This is an intense hike, but it is remarkably popular with locals. Because it is so hot in the summer, people don’t start hiking until sunset. We opted to go a little earlier so that by the time we reached the top the sun would be setting.

View from the top of our hike at Tumamoc Hill in Tucson, Arizona

From the top, you can see almost all of Tucson, and if you are facing south you can see all the way to the Mexico border. I could tell because you can make out the route of Interstate 19 going from Tucson to Nogales. I think that we saw arguably the best sunset of the trip here. We loved Tumamoc Hill so much we did it twice!

Sunset at the top of our hike at Tumamoc Hill in Tucson, Arizona

This desert vacation was like nothing we had ever done. I highly recommend going to the desert, if only for the amazing sunsets. Perhaps one day we will be back!

Chicago recap

During the long Columbus Day weekend, we took a train trip to Chicago! It was another overnight Amtrak trip, this time on Amtrak’s Capitol Limited.

Friday

Friday was a travel day. Our train left Union Station at 4:05pm with a scheduled arrival of 8:45am Saturday. The Capitol Limited starts in DC and then heads through Maryland, West Virginia, returns to western Maryland and then turns north through Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Finally, it takes a more direct route through northern Indiana before arriving in Chicago.

Paul sitting in the Capitol Limited train from Washington DC to Chicago

Our sleeping car was a little more modern than the Crescent, which we took to Greenville. The Capitol Limited is a double-decker train and our bedroom was on the top level, which made for some great views. We ate dinner in the dining car as we arrived in Martinsburg, WV. Even the food was better on the Capitol Limited. In particular, Marnay’s vegetarian pasta with soy chorizo was a hit.

Capitol Limited dining car

The Capitol Limited also has an observation car! It has huge floor to ceiling windows and seats which face outward. We watched the sunset there until we arrived in Cumberland, MD and then went back to our room. The last stop we saw before setting up our beds was Pittsburgh, at around 11:30pm. Time to call it a night! Unlike Greenville, we had the added bonus of getting a full night of sleep instead of waking up at 4:00am.

Saturday

Good Morning from Indiana! We woke up at 7:30am and pulled open the curtains to watch the farmland go by. It was so much fun to wake up on a train! We skipped the sit-down breakfast in the dining car and instead opted for the free coffee in the hallway of our sleeping car.

Capitol Limited Amtrak train stop in South Bend, IN

We arrived at Chicago Union Station around 9:15am and were ready to hit the ground running. We ran right to Firecakes Donuts, in fact! The donuts were delicious but not as good as Blue Star. It’s an unfair comparison but we had Blue Star so recently, we can’t help but make it.

donuts

We checked into our fantastic Airbnb, located just steps from the Logan Square L station. After resting and regrouping, we met our friend Rachel at Portillo’s, one of the most famous places for Chicago-style hot dogs. If you aren’t familiar with Chicago-style dogs, a true Chicago-dog has: all beef hot dog, yellow mustard, chopped raw onions, neon green relish, tomato slices, a dill pickle (spear), sport peppers and celery salt. In my opinion, the celery salt is what makes the hot dog so tasty.

hot dog

Our big plan for the afternoon was to take an architecture boat tour of the Chicago River, rightfully one of the most popular ways to see Chicago. One problem: it started to pour about 30 minutes before our boat was scheduled to leave! No worries, though, we found ponchos at Walgreens and were good to go! It was amazing to learn about the architecture and history of Chicago. The best views on the boat are from the top deck, but we took shelter from the rain on the indoor lower level for the first half of the 90-minute tour. During the second half the rain started to clear up and we made it to the top deck. We even saw a rainbow! There were so few people on the top deck that it was practically a private tour!

Chicago architecture boat tour skyline

For dinner, we had an Opentable gift card at the Publican, one of Chicago’s hottest restaurants. We enjoyed our time, but weren’t blown away. Best bite: the Iowa ham steak, smoked with hay and then flash fried.

Sunday

Sunday was biking and exploring day! We grabbed breakfast at Intelligentsia coffee and then walked through some tree-lined neighborhoods to pick up a Divvy bike, Chicago’s bikeshare system. The bikes are exactly the same as Capital bikeshare, so it didn’t take any getting used to.

Marnay biking on a Divvy bike in Chicago

We biked on the 606, a former elevated train line, now a biking and walking trail. It goes east-west from Logan Square to West Town. I would really classify it as more of a linear park than just a trail, as it was quite wide and there was lots of greenery and benches for hanging out.

The trail dropped us off under a freeway, so we walked through the Lincoln Park neighborhood and got lunch at Budlong Hot Chicken. I got “spicy” chicken and it was so hot I was tearing up! Marnay’s hot chicken tenders were also crazy hot! All and all, it was a delicious lunch and it gave us energy for the rest of the day.

Budlong Hot Chicken in the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago

Post lunch, we made a beeline for North Avenue Beach and dipped our toes in Lake Michigan. The azure water was cold! It was like 80 degrees outside, though, so we didn’t mind. After drying off our feet, we walked along the Lakefront Trail and then biked back west into town, eventually taking the 74 bus back to our place.

Marnay and Paul on a pier in Lake Michigan in Chicago

Marnay found a place called Cruz Blanca, a Rick Bayliss creation that was a combination brewery and taqueria. It was a really cool concept: You order food at the counter, get your beer at the bar, seat yourself and they bring everything out to you. We got a particularly prime seat on the sidewalk patio. We shared an awesome Oaxacan-style taco plate with half chorizo, half carne asada, drank our beers and people-watched. I think this was one of our favorite memories of Chicago.

Cruz Blanca brewery and taqueria

We weren’t ready to call it a night, though. Instead, we headed back to Logan Square and to Lost Lake, a tiki bar. We love tiki bars!! Lost Lake had delicious tiki drinks and a very cool, laid back vibe. Despite being a well-known bar, it had the feeling of a neighborhood spot. Most important: Marnay’s drink came in a parrot glass!

Lost Lake tiki drinks in a parrot glass in Chicago

Lost Lake neon sign in Chicago

We had a nightcap of malort at Longman & Eagle. What is a malort? After Chicago-style dogs and deep dish pizza, it’s one of Chicago’s most famous culinary tradition. It’s an extremely bitter liquor made with wormwood. Ninety percent of all malort is consumed in Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago. We had never had it before and we felt that it was something we needed to try before leaving Chicago. It was BITTER, and I can’t say that it ever got less bitter or had a pleasant aftertaste. But it was a fun cultural experience!

Monday

Even though we were out late Sunday night, we woke up early so that we could appreciate our last few hours in Chicago. We got a small bite to eat at Intelligentsia and then took the L downtown.

One of the major tourist attractions that we had yet to do was Millennium Park and The Bean (aka Cloud Gate). It was very cool! Mainly, it was a nice day out and it was fun to get some walking in.

Millennium Park and The Bean (aka Cloud Gate) in Chicago

After walking for a while, we were hungry! Since we only had a few hours left in town, we decided to get another Chicago hot dog, this time from U.B. Dogs in the West Loop.

Besides the traditional Chicago-style dog described earlier, Chicago also has a traditional of Polish sausages, historically centered on Maxwell Street in what’s now University Village. I got a Polish sausage that was charred, placed on a poppy seed bun and topped with the traditional griddled onions, mustard and sport peppers. The flavor was just outrageous, easily one of my favorite bites of the trip.

U.B. Dogs Chicago-style hot dog and Polish sausage

After lunch, we took a stroll on the Riverwalk and then headed back to our Airbnb to relax for a bit before heading to the airport. What a trip!

Things we did and places we visited

Firecakes Donuts: 68 W. Hubbard Street Chicago, IL 60654

Portillo’s: 520 W. Taylor Street Chicago, IL 60607

Chicago Architecture Foundation Boat Tour

The Publican: 837 W. Fulton Market Chicago, IL 60607

Intelligentsia: Logan Square 2642 N. Milwaukee Avenue Chicago, IL 60647

The Budlong: 1008 W. Armitage Avenue Chicago, IL 60614

Cruz Blanca: 904 W. Randolph Street Chicago, IL 60607

Lost Lake: 3154 W. Diversey Avenue Chicago, IL 60647

Longman & Eagle: 2657 N. Kedzie Avenue Chicago, IL 60647

U.B. Dogs: 185 N. Franklin Street Chicago, IL 60606