Rey’s La Familiar Restaurante – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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La Familiar Restaurant serves great Mexican, New Mexican and American food

Many similarities exist between writing beautiful lyrics for a memorable song and developing a great recipe for memorable food. Great lyrics involve putting together the right words so that they flow easily around a meaningful topic.  Great recipes involve putting together the right ingredients so they coalesce into a delicious whole.  There are no real rules to writing great lyrics or recipes, but not everybody can do it. You’ve got to have the right combination of talent, dedication and inspiration. Great lyrics and great recipes often require extensive trial and experimentation over a long period of time until they can’t be made any better.

Michael “Rey” is blessed with the rare ability to create both memorable lyrics and memorable recipes.  A larger-than-life personality with a mellifluous voice, Michael always made the time to  regale guests at Rey’s Place with the soul-touching, poignant and beautiful music he’s written.  Some of those songs have reduced grown men to blubbering as my friends will attest after the first time they heard Frame by Frame.  Michael’s lyrics resonate life–its vicissitudes and challenges–and they personify William Shakespeare’s astute observation that music is the food of love. 

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The interior of La Familiar

Although Michael has been a songwriter for a long time, it’s only recently that his songs have caught the attention of Nashville.  Ask Michael how he turned the corner and he’ll credit Luz, his lovely wife and the love of his life.  Luz is the inspiration for the love songs he’s written while reflecting on his life before meeting her helps him write the more heart-rending songs.  When Michael talks about Luz his eyes light up, the very thought of her bringing immense joy to his heart.

Luz is also making Duke City diners joyous in her role as proprietor and chef at La Familiar Restaurant on Fourth Street. La Familiar has been serving Albuquerque for more than thirty years with a broad and diverse menu of Mexican, New Mexican and American favorites. Located in Martinez Town and directly across the street from the Mexican Consulate, La Familiar translates from Spanish to family, kin or relative. The name fits. Luz and her staff work very hard to make their guests feel welcome–like family.

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Salsa and Chips

More than ever before, La Familiar is about family. In September, 2013, Michael and Luz decided to consolidate their restaurant operations, merging Rey’s Place with La Familiar. You won’t see “Rey’s Place” or “Rey’s La Familiar” on the signage, but when you walk into the restaurant, you just might be greeted by the gregarious Michael. He might even escort you to your table, bring your menu and beverage and might also be persuaded to pull out his magical guitar and treat you to a song (ask to hear “How Long Will I Pay.”) Michael will probably not spend as much time in the kitchen as he did at Rey’s Place, but he’s confident guests will love Luz’s cooking as much as they did his. As with Rey’s Place, Michael is proud that La Familiar’s food is “from the pan, not the can.”

From the outside La Familiar is rather nondescript with rather plain signage and darkened windows which many east-facing businesses need on brutally hot summer days. Step inside and you’ll be transported back in time to a dining room which is much longer than it is wide. An old-fashioned counter with stools hearkens back to the days of the soda fountain. The west walls are festooned with paintings of megalithic Mayan or Toltec warrior statues. The walls on a second dining room are adorned with a stereotypical Mexican village scene, including burros and sombreros.  It’s a comfortable milieu.

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Quesadilla Sincronizada

Open seven days a week for breakfast and lunch, La Familiar straddles that sometimes fine demarcation between Mexican and New Mexican food.  The menu includes favorites from both cuisines as well as some which are uniquely Mexican and others which are predominantly New Mexican.  It’s a menu which includes gorditas, enchiladas, tamales, huevos rancheros, chile rellenos, menudo, posole, Spanish rice, caldo de res, flautas, tortas, burritos, carne adovada and so much more.  These are also the menu items served at Rey’s Place.  Cumin is not used on any of the dishes.

23 June 2013: Among the Mexican items are aguas frescas (literally fresh waters), those very refreshing and cooling beverages made with water, sweetener and natural fruits. Kept in large plastic vats until served, aguas frescas will beat the heat better than almost any beverage other than water itself. La Familiar serves one of the best mango agua fresca in New Mexico. It’s served in a 32-ounce glass with plenty of finely crushed ice to keep it cold. You’ll need it if you order the salsa which is as incendiary as you’ll find in Albuquerque. This is a third degree burn salsa that speeds endorphins rushing to your brain, making it impossible to stop eating it. It’s a very good salsa served with crisp, lightly salted chips formidable enough for Gil-sized scoops.

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Burrito stuffed with lengua and covered in red and green chile

23 June 2013: The menu features several quesadillas including one we’ve seen only in Mexican restaurants. The Quesadilla Sincronizada derives its name from the synchronization of two tortillas engulfing their contents to become one. The contents on this quesadilla include breakfast favorites such as chorizo, bacon and ham, a porcine triumvirate that goes so well together with melted cheese. The chorizo with its sweet notes is especially notable in that it’s not greasy as some chorizo tends to be. La Familiar’s Quesadilla Sincronizada is an outstanding version of a tortilla sandwich.

23 June 2013: Offering a variety of breakfast burritos as well as burritos stuffed with a number of ingredients, you’ll find yourself hard-pressed to select from so many choices when you’re in a burrito mood. For the intrepid diner, an offal (not awful) choice is a burrito stuffed with lengua (beef tongue). Lengua is a high calorie indulgence with most if its calories coming from fat. If the notion of getting some tongue offends or scares you, fear not. It is a very tender and very tasty meat. Best of all, La Familiar’s red and green chile are terrific, both with a discernible level of piquancy and with excellent flavor.

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Carne Adovada with rice and two fried eggs

23 June 2013: Carne adovada is another specialty of the house. The tender tendrils of shredded pork marinated in a wondrous red chile are so good, they make grown men swoon. My Kim, who will order carne adovada on her inaugural visit to any New Mexican restaurant, ranks La Familiar’s carne adovada with the adovada served at Rey’s Place. That’s pretty rarefied air. She orders her carne adovada with two eggs fried over easy. There’s something almost sensual about the runny yoke melding with the savory-piquant carne adovada. 

6 October 2013:  Diners who wake up famished will appreciate the chuleta asada (grilled pork chop) plate which includes papas fritas (French fries), rice, beans, avocado, grilled onions and two eggs.  It’s a lot of food, easily enough to feed two big eaters or one University of New Mexico Lobo offensive lineman.  The pork chop is a bit on the thin side at about eight ounces, but it’s perfectly prepared and quite tasty.  The refried beans are topped with shredded yellow and white Cheddar.  The rice is fluffy and delicate and the eggs prepared to your exacting specifications.

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Chuleta Asada Plate

Picadillo is a Spanish and Latin American specialty not often found in Albuquerque restaurants.  It’s a dish prepared differently across the Latin American nations which prepare it and even within a country in which it’s offered, it varies almost from family to family.  That’s why we weren’t surprised that the picadillo entree served at La Familiar is very dissimilar to the picadillo offered at Papa Nachos.  The word picadillo itself is derived from “picar”, meaning “to mince” (but which also has a somewhat vulgar double meaning).

6 October 2013: The picadillo at La Familiar is Mexican comfort food at its finest.  It arrives at your table steaming so you may have to wait a few minutes before you can taste it.  As with some of the very best in comfort foods, it’s a relatively simple stew made with fairly common ingredients: cubed grilled beef, sliced potatoes, white onions, garlic, chile and tomatoes.  La Familiar’s version is more piquant than some picadillos we’ve had, truly living up to the other meaning of the word “picar;” that being “to prick.”  In addition to biting back, this picadillo is as warm and nurturing as any Mexican caldo or stew.

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Large Picadillo Bowl

6 October 2013: Mexico’s answer to the ubiquitous American sandwich is the torta, a behemoth on a bolillo bun which can be overstuffed with ingredients of your choosing.  La Familiar offers seven different tortas: jamon y queso (ham and cheese), desebrada (shredded beef), barbacoa (tender, slow-cooked beef), carnitas (roasted beef cut into small pieces), lengua (tongue), milanesa (thinly sliced fried beef), fajitas, asada (grilled beef) and pollo (chicken). 

It takes two hands to handle the carne asada torta and even with my nine-inch hand span, the torta proved a challenge to hold.  In addition to carne asada, this sandwich is engorged with cheese, tomatoes, green chile, lettuce and guacamole.  The soft and crumbly bolillo bread absorbs the moistness and flavors of the sandwich and somehow manages to hold them all in.  The carne asada, grilled beef cut into small pieces, is plentiful and delicious.  Served with French fries, it’s a sandwich will defeat any appetite.

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Carne Asada Torta with French Fries

If you’ve got a special occasion coming up, La Familiar provides on- or off-site catering almost everywhere in Albuquerque. Carry-out is also a popular option. There’s a reason La Familiar has retained an excellent reputation for more than three decades and it starts with Luz Molinar about whom her beloved husband Michael “Rey”  is probably writing another song right now.

Rey’s La Familiar Restaurant
1611 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 242-9661
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 6 October 2013
1st VISIT: 23 June 2013
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Agua Fresca de Mango, Carne Adovada, Burrito de Lengua, Quesadilla Sincronizada, Pancakes, Torta de Carne Asada, Picadillo, Chuleta Asada

La Familiar New Mexican Restaurant on Urbanspoon

El Agave Restaurante and Tequileria – San Diego, California

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El Agave Tequileria on the eastern fringes of Old Town San Diego

Tequila has long endured a legacy of scorn, derision and misinformation.  It’s  been a proving ground for manhood among frat boys downing shooters to show their mettle.  Urban myths and legends have long been believed of hallucinogenic worms at the bottom of the bottle.  Because of “ta-kill-ya” induced hangovers (usually the result of poor quality tequila), men with iron-cast constitutions have been known to swear off hard liquor.  With such a reputation, it’s no wonder tequila hasn’t been thought of as an adult beverage of choice for discerning drinkers.  

Times have changed.  In recent years, tequila has become a viable option for drinkers of sophisticated taste.  Credit this evolution of thinking to the Mexican government which–similar to what the French government did to bolster the image of Champagne and Cognac–has worked diligently to improve the image of its native beverage.  Stringent regulations have been instituted to ensure the authenticity and quality of tequila and it has been designated an “appellation of origin” which means true tequila can only be produced in a specific region of Mexico.  Premium tequilas, identified by the duration of the aging process, have entered the market, providing excellent choices for discerning drinkers.

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More than 2000 decanters of tequila line the walls and ceiling at El Agave Tequileria

The spiritual Mecca to which all aficionados of premium tequila pilgrimage is El Agave Tequileria on the fringes of Old Town San Diego. El Agave is a veritable museum featuring a display of more than 2,000 tequila brands, easily the largest collection of tequila bottles in America.  El Agave has been named the country’s top spot for tequila by the likes of Playboy and Gourmet magazines.  Its own brand, El Agave Artesanal, has earned a number of awards.

The tequilas form the backdrop for a commodious dining room where diners can experience the authentic flavors of “nouveau” Mexican cuisine.  As you dine, a decanter or ten will catch your eye and you’ll stand up to investigate the bottled curiosity.  We found, for example, some eight decanters in the shape of or depicting Pancho Villa, an irony because Generalissimo Villa was a notorious teetotaler who had drunks in his army shot as cowards and traitors.   Hmmm, perhaps such an approach might help with New Mexico’s notorious DUI problem.

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Three types of salsa and chips

El Agave is appropriately situated above the Old Town Liquor Store which (no coincidence here) offers some of the city’s best selections of tequila.  During our inaugural visit we had the tequila museum turned dining room to ourselves.  Every other diner opted for the patio which provides panoramic views of Old Town San Diego.  El Agave is the antithesis of so many touristy giant margarita and fish taco Mexican restaurants in the city.  It’s got an air of sophistication and class lacking in some of the Mexican “joints” in the frenetic Old Town area, many of whom seem to “mail it in” for the tourists.

Jim Millington, a long-time friend of this blog and one of its most prolific providers of valuable feedback, introduced us to El Agave.  He also provided savvy recommendations on what we should order.  Jim and I must be distantly related because the dish he recommended would probably have been the one I would have ordered.  Maybe there’s a little bit of gastronomic karma involved here.

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Entremes Surtido: appetizer platter which includes guacamole, shrimp and crab empanadas, assorted sopecitos of cochinita; cuitlacoche and shrimp in chipotle; three beef taquitos; four mini quesadillas–two with mushrooms and two with poblano chile strips; four rolled taquitos stuffed with potatoes and homemade chorizo

As we perused the menu for an entree with which my Kim would fall madly in love, we enjoyed the complimentary (and wholly non-traditional) basket of chips and three salsas.  The salsas are made from green tomatillo, black beans and Guajillo chile respectively.  Surprisingly our favorite was the black bean salsa.  Though it had no discernible bite, it was redolent with flavor and served warm.  The Guajillo and tomato-based salsa was the most piquant of the three and the one which most resembled a New Mexican salsa.  All three salsas are quite good.

The Entremes (appetizer) Surtido (assortment) is the most costly starter on the menu, but it’s also the appetizer which will introduce you to the largest variety of Mexican starters.  Bear in mind that El Agave boasts of “nouveau” Mexican cuisine which means it doesn’t hold firmly to tradition, but rather expands upon it through the use of innovative ingredient combinations and culinary techniques.  This means even the entremeses aren’t the de rigueur no surprise appetizers found at too many Mexican restaurants.

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Enchiladas de Pato: two shredded duck enchiladas bathed in sun-dried prune mole sauce and served with El Agave rice

The Entremes Surtido, a turkey platter sized offering, features a family-sized assortment.  At the center of the platter is a large dollop of lime-infused guacamole, among the most fresh and delicious we’ve had.  The shrimp and crab empanadas are also a winner with notes of briny freshness. Perhaps our favorite were the three sopecitos, three fried breads each topped with different ingredients in a chipotle sauce.  The cochinita and especially the cuitlacoche (corn smut) stand out.  Four quesadillas–two with mushrooms and two with poblano chile strips–were more “airy” than ingredient and flavor packed while four rolled taquitos accentuated the flavor melding of potatoes and homemade chorizo.  The danger with ordering a platter such as this one is you might not have much room left for your main entree and you’ll certainly want to enjoy every morsel of your main course.

That’s especially true if you order the enchiladas de pato two shredded duck enchiladas bathed in a sun-dried prune mole sauce.  It’s the dish Jim recommended.  Two large corn tortillas, redolent with the flavor of fresh corn, are engorged with shredded duck meat then topped with a spectacular mole.  To far too many diners in America, “mole” is just the four letters which complete the avocado dish of guacamole.  To discerning diners, mole is a sophisticated and complex sauce, the preparation of which is often laborious and unique.  The sun-dried prune mole sauce is made from dried chile peppers, ground nuts and spices, Mexican chocolate, shredded tortillas and a variety of other ingredients.  This mole is very rich, flavorful and complex with subtle notes of its constituents sneaking through. The duck (pato) meat is mostly lean with just a bit of fat for flavor. Only sharing this meal with Jim and his beloved child bride would have made it better.

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Filete Al Tequila: Filet mignon in a tequila, red wine reduction sauce topped with cambray onions and mushrooms; served with mashed potatoes and vegetable medley

For my Kim whose preferences in exotic foods lean toward the safe and uninteresting, it took just a bit of Kissingeresque diplomacy to convince her the entree to order was the Filete Al Tequila, a filet mignon in a tequila and red wine reduction topped with cambray onions and mushrooms.  This dish is a stupendous success!  If you’re used to filet mignon being prefaced by “petite” on the menu, you’ll be pleased to see two stacked slabs of sumptuous, tender and lean beef, one atop the other.  The filet is nearly fork tender with nary a hint of fat.  With or without the tequila-red wine reduction sauce, the filet is extremely flavorful, as good a steak as we’ve had in recent travels.  The filet is served with mashed potatoes (wonderful for sopping up the sauce) and a vegetable medley, but not the dreaded succotash medley school children despise.  This medley featured zucchini and asparagus, both smoked and delicious.

Dessert isn’t quite an after-thought at El Agave, but with only four selections, it’s not the most interesting post-prandial menu either.  The pastel tres leches is a very good choice.  Rich, decadent and moist courtesy of the three milks-sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk and heavy cream–that make up this cake, it is light in flavor, but not in calorie and fat content.  This tres leches cake is cut and served round with decorative raspberry and chocolate drizzles on the plate.

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Pastel Tres Leches

Just as tequila has become a serious drinker’s adult beverage of choice, El Agave is where discerning diners go when they’re tired of the same old fish tacos, burritos, beans and cheesy glop and they want something sophisticated, interesting and delicious. This is as far a departure from the touristy Taco Bell type restaurants as you’ll find.  

El Agave Restaurante and Tequileria
2304 San Diego Avenue
San Diego (Old Town), California
(619) 220-0692
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 2 July 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 25
BEST BET: Enchiladas de Pato, Filete Al Tequila, Entremes Surtido, Salsa and Chips

El Agave on Urbanspoon

El Guero Canelo – Tucson, Arizona

El Guero Canelo for the quintessential Tucson food, the Sonoran hot dog

El Guero Canelo for the best in the quintessential Tucson food, the Sonoran hot dog

If asked to participate in a word association exercise, any well-traveled foodie undergoing psychoanalysis would find it easy to name the first food that comes to mind when a city is mentioned: Philadelphia – the Philly cheesesteak sandwich; Boston – baked beans; Chicago – Italian beef sandwiches; San Francisco – sourdough bread; Milwaukee – butter burgers; San Antonio, New Mexico – green chile cheeseburgers.  You get the point.  Some foodies might not know that Philadelphia is the birthplace of liberty, but they know about Geno’s and Pat’s King of Steaks and their decades-long battle for Philly cheesesteak supremacy.

You might find it strange that seemingly pedestrian foods would be the defining cuisine of burgeoning cosmopolitan cities, historically significant metropolises and tiny hamlets in the desert, but it’s not solely foodies who associate foods with places. Anthropologist Maribel Alvarez of the University of Arizona says the “quintessential food of Tucson” is the Sonoran hot dog, explaining that instead of taking guests to high-end restaurants, locals will bring their out-of-towners to one of the city’s purveyors of Sonoran hot dogs.

Hot dogs, like baseball and barbecue, aren’t exclusively the domain of Americans any more.  In fact, they never were. Before you call that statement unpatriotic heresy, consider the evolution of the hot dog.  Two words synonymous with that American term–frankfurter and wiener–come from Frankfurt, Germany and Vienna, Austria respectively.  In Germany, pork sausages were served in buns similar to those used in hot dogs while Austrians preferred a sausage made of a pork and beef amalgam.

The colorful menu at El Guero Canelo has something for everyone

The colorful menu at El Guero Canelo has something for everyone

In her fabulous tome The Great American Hot Dog Book, my friend Becky Mercuri writes that many popular foods in Arizona reflect the cuisine of the neighboring Mexican state of Sonora.  Those influences go far and deep in Tucson where the Mexican food is quite dissimilar to the foods with which New Mexicans are intimately familiar.  Not even the humble hot dog escapes those far-reaching Sonoran influences.

The Hot Dog Book celebrates the tremendous diversity of hot dogs across the fruited plain, examining in loving tributes the many ways in which hot dogs are prepared across America.  Becky showcases the best and most popular hot dogs in every state, even including recipes you’ll want to replicate in your own kitchen.  It was only natural that she include as the Arizona selection, the Sonoran-style hot dogs served in such paragons of hot dog deliciousness as El Guero Canelo and BK Carne Asada and Hot Dogs.

Though true hot dog aficionados are well-acquainted with Sonoran-style hot dogs and the aforementioned purveyors non-pariel, in April, 2010, both attained a heretofore unparalleled national profile.  The April 6th episode of the Travel Channel’s Food Wars show pitted El Guero Canelo against BK Carne Asada and Hot Dogs in a delicious duel to determine the best Sonoran hot dogs in Tucson.  Later in the month, Saveur magazine profiled “Eat Street,” the nickname of Tucson’s 12th Avenue in which both are denizens.

Throngs of patrons frequent El Guero Canelo, more since a Food Wars episode aired in 2010

Throngs of patrons frequent El Guero Canelo, more since a Food Wars episode aired in 2010

More than one-hundred vendors ply the Sonoran-style hot dog trade in Tucson.  Known as “hotdogueros,” they offer a surprising number of inventive variations on the Sonoran hot dog.  Where none deviate is in wrapping bacon barbershop pole style around a wiener then griddling or grilling it until the bacon has practically caramelized into the wiener.  A phalanx of garnishes and toppings are then stuffed into a bolillo style Mexican bread that resembles a hot dog bun that hasn’t been completely split length-wise.

Perhaps it’s only appropriate that El Guero Canelo, a claimant to being the original purveyor of the Sonoran hot dog in Tucson, champions authenticity and tradition more than any competitor in town.  El Guero Canelo, which translates to “the cinnamon blonde” is the nickname of its founder and owner Daniel Conteras.  The Contreras family has about a century and a quarter’s worth of cumulative restaurant experience, starting their Tucson operation in a humble 6X8 taco stand.  Today the family operates two full-sized restaurants.

El Guero Canelo, the original Sonoran hot dog restaurant on the celebrated “Eat Street” is the most famous and popular.  Save for the indoor kitchen, the entire complex is situated in a well-shielded outdoor pavilion.  In the summer, cooling misters dispense a fine drizzle to provide respite from the scalding heat.  In the center of the pavilion is a condiment bar that, save for the sneeze guard and metalwork, features the three colors of the Mexican flag: green, white and red.   Seating is more functional than comfortable.

Two Sonoran Hot Dogs, one with beans and one without.

Two Sonoran Hot Dogs, one with beans and one without.

Hungry customers queue up in one of two lines to place their orders, a vast proportion of which are for Sonoran hot dogs.  Order numbers are called out both in English and Spanish  You probably have time to visit the condiment bar for sliced cucumbers, radishes, pico de gallo, grilled onions and more before your order is ready.  Dally too long at the condiment bar and you’re likely to hear a rather animated reminder that customers need to pay attention to the numbers on their order stubs.

There’s a reason El Guero Canelo serves more than 10,000 Sonoran hot dogs a week.  These hot dogs are mouth-watering–a thin dog gift-wrapped in bacon and nestled in a pillowy soft, slightly sweet bun where it shares room with pinto beans, grilled onions, chopped tomatoes, mayo and mustard then topped with a hint of jalapeño sauce.  The buns are imported from a bakery in Mexico which prepares them to the exacting specifications of the Contreras family.  You’ll be besotted at first bite–to the tune of at least two hot dogs per visit.

This hot dog is a wonderful study in contrasts: the sweetness of the bun and the smoky savoriness of the hot dog and bacon; the heat of the hot dog and the cool of the chopped tomato; the piquancy of the jalapeño sauce and the creaminess of the mayo.  Moreover, it’s a study in the appreciation of complex simplicity.  Being in close proximity to other diners, you’ll be privy to your neighbor’s swooning lustily at every bite.  This is truly an amazing hot dog!  During a week’s stay in Tucson, we visited El Guero Canelo three times and readers know I’m the least monogamous person in the world when it comes to repeat visits to restaurants.

Some of the fabulous complementary condiments at El Guero Canelo

Some of the fabulous complementary condiments at El Guero Canelo

You’ll want to wash down your meal with El Guero Canelo’s fabulous aguas frescas.  The jamaica (hibiscus), pina (pineapple) and tamarindo are refreshing and delicious though not homemade.

El Guero Canelo has been serving Tucson since 1993.  While that may not seem like a long time, it’s long enough for the restaurant to have established itself as a standard-setter for a cuisine that is beloved throughout the city.  It is a perennial winner of Tucson Weekly’s annual “best of” in the Sonoran hot dog category and now holder of Gil’s personal “best of” for any hot dog in America.

El Guero Canelo
5201 South 12th Avenue
Tucson, Arizona
(520) 295-9005
Web Site
1ST VISIT: 12 April 2010
LATEST VISIT: 28 June 2013
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 23
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Sonoran Hot Dogs, Aguas Frescas: Pina and Jamaica

El Guero Canelo on Urbanspoon

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