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.
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.
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.
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.
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
1ST VISIT: 12 April 2010
LATEST VISIT: 28 June 2013
# OF VISITS: 5
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Sonoran Hot Dogs, Aguas Frescas: Pina and Jamaica