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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Sonoran Hot Dogs -something *positive* from my home town

Hot Dog Sonoran-style
Hey all,

I know it's been too long since I've posted--life has been overwhelming, but this is something I aim to change. Anne's posts are, of course, wonderful--but this is a group blog and from here on out I intend to keep it that way.

Anyhow, as most of you know I'm from Tucson. Obviously, right now that's a painful word--for few more so than me; I worked for Gabby Giffords for three months in 2008, and I can safely say that she is among the best human beings I have ever met. Everyone who meets her, regardless of their politics, will come away talking about what an incredibly kind and understanding person she is. I feel very close to her, and I hope you will join me in sending your prayers and positive thoughts her way.

In this moment though, I'm trying to remind myself that Tucson is not solely a city of doom; that I come from a place I long to return to on these long cold Berkshire nights. It's far from perfect, but I know that Gabby is proud to represent us, and that she would tell you herself that it's a city full of kind and talented people, vibrant art, terrific music and--the subject of this blog--great food.

Now, the first association you are likely to make is with Mexican food, and rightly so--from gourmet, experimental restaurants like Cafe Poca Cosa to the dozens of terrific hole-in-the wall taquerias that dot the south side, we certainly do very well in the Mexican food department. Yet, if I'm to be completely honest, it would be hard to say that Tucson is indisputably the American #1 at any particular aspect of Mexican food; we've got stellar Sonoran and Michoacan style places, but they are likely equaled by others in New Mexico, and while there are some delicious exceptions (like terrific local Mexican seafood chain Mariscos Chihuahua), our coverage of non-northern Mexican styles could certainly be better. Yet there is one area of Mexican (or, at least, Mexican-tinged) cuisine where Tucson stands indisputably supreme, offering a rendition unsurpassed anywhere in this country if not on Earth: the Sonoran-Style Hot Dog.

If you just said something on the order of "350 words of buildup for a post about hot dogs?" then bear with me-- I'm no great hot dog fan myself, but what goes on at these places is nothing short of alchemy. All I ask is that you check your inner nutritionist at the door; eating these more than once a week (at most) would be a very bad idea, but to abstain from them entirely would be worse.

So, then, what makes a Sonoran hot dog different from it's standard ballpark cousin? Working outside-in, it starts with the bun--a big, soft, buttery roll that covers both ends of the dog, with some room on top to spare. It tastes far less like your standard hot-dog bun than like it's larger cousin, the Bolillo roll (which you may recall from this post: ), the traditional bread for the excellent Torta sandwiches you find in Mexican restaurants all over town. In fact, you'll see the Torta way of thinking throughout this process: add lots and lots of powerful flavor, from every direction you can.

Moving inward to the hotdog itself, it's your fairly standard frank, but wrapped thoroughly in bacon and grilled to a nice crisp, producing almost a candy-cane effect on the outside.

As for condiments, there's a good deal of variation, but these are almost always there:
-Chopped Tomato and onion
-Grated cheese (may be soft Mexican cheese like Asadero or just cheddar)
-Pinto beans
-Salsa Verde
-Hot Sauce
-Guacamole, usually in a thin puree and served on the side.

Common additional toppings include sliced jalapenos, marinated mushrooms, cucumbers pickled onions, various other salsas, and crushed potato chips. These will usually all be on the side, and you can mix and match to your heart's content.

The toppings do a good job of showing off the inherently fusion nature of the dish. Sonoran-Style hot dogs were born of cross border cultural interchange, as hot dogs were brought to Mexico in the 50's and 60's, adapted by local cooks, and then brought back across the border.

So, if you're in Tucson, where should you go for a good Sonoran dog? I spent much of last summer trying out various locations, and discovered a few things. Firstly, whatever you do, don't order one at a non-Mexican place. There's a hot-dog restaurant in La Placita Village and, while I'm sure their Chicago dogs are great, the Sonoran dog was very disappointing (good fries though). I'm sure local restaurant maven Janos Wilder's interpretation at J-Bar is better, but what's the point? It will certainly be worse that what you could get for a third of the price from a cart.

Secondly, Mexican restaurant hot dogs really run the gamut. A lot of places in town have them, and they tend to be good but not terrific, though the one at the always-reliable Francisco's was quite nice. If you want one in the security of a restaurant setting (indoors, more regular health department inspections, options for those who don't eat pork, etc.) then your best option is definitely El Guero Canelo. They've built a local empire on their dogs, and it's certainly well earned: the bacon is just slightly crisp and quite flavorful, the hot dog is juicy, and the condiment selection is massive--you could try hundreds of combinations and each one would almost certainly work.

But if you want a truly superlative Sonoran Hot Dog, you really have to go to a food cart, and the one that stands head and shoulders above the rest is Ruiz's Hot Dogs, which sits in a vacant dirt lot at the corner of 22nd and 6th*. It's a simple place--4 plastic tables under a rectangular tent, with the cart at the end. Drinks (mostly Mexican sodas) and additional condiments (Salsa Verde, Guacamole, Cheese, and mushrooms) are self-serve from coolers. Bills are done on a pocket calculator. Hot dogs are the only thing on the menu, though these are technically Sinaloan style--the sole difference being that here, the bun is buttered and grilled first, adding a really nice crunch. What makes these dogs the best though is the integration of flavors; the ones at El Guero are great, but it's still a bacon wrapped hot dog with separate additional tastes on top. Here, the way the cook it all together fuses everything into warm, salty, spicy, amazingly well-rounded experience that, rather like Tucson itself, is surprisingly way more than simply the sum of its parts.

(*Admittedly, this is hardly a novel pick; I heard about it when it won the Daily Star Caliente blind tasting for best Sonoran dog in Tucson, and it's also been featured in the NY Times, as you can see here:

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  1. Colin, you make these sound so fantastic, I'll definitely have to sample one (or more??) when I'm in Tucson this Feb.

  2. Thanks for reminding us of the good things life brings from your hometown. I really want one of these Sonoran-Style Hot Dogs!

  3. The way you write about the sonoran hot dog, I can already taste all those delicious comingled flavors without actually having one!! And it is delicious!


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