Gil's Thrilling (And Filling) Blog

Follow the Culinary Ruminations of New Mexico's Sesquipedalian Sybarite. 841 Restaurant Reviews, More Than 6500 Visitor Comments…And Counting!

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

  • Ruben says:

    I’m really intrigued, Gil. Are there any hotdogueros in Albuquerque serving a similar fare??

    May 2, 2010 at 1:04 AM
    • Gil Garduno says:

      Hey Ruben

      I’ve heard tell of Mexican-style hot dogs on Bridge, but have been waiting for winter to end before trying to find them. Want to go on a road trip?

      Gil

      May 2, 2010 at 6:53 PM
  • Ruben says:

    He, he. You don’t have to ask twice.

    May 2, 2010 at 7:09 PM
  • Barbara says:

    Someone needs to expand the Phoenix based Nogales Hot Dogs to ABQ…..

    May 2, 2010 at 8:42 PM
  • shotsie says:

    You might want to try The Cube (on Central near the Route 66 Diner) – they have bacon-wrapped dogs in two varieties that are similar to the Mexican-style dogs featured above. The Guadalajara dog is pretty fantastic meal in itself – I can’t remember all the stuff on it, but it’s salad, entree, sides and, well, okay, not dessert rolled up in one. Great sides too – wonderful beans. The only difference is that they use a hot dog bun instead of a Mexican roll, and the bacon/dog is deep-fried instead of just fried (my preference). I always order mine fried on the grill (just trying to train them… I’m from Tucson and know the two dog places quite well.) I’m surprised that you haven’t visited the place – it’s worth the venture.

    May 3, 2010 at 5:09 PM
  • SHEILA says:

    mmmm I* love this place, but I always get the street tacos. El nene on the corner of flowing wells And wetmore, it’s just A corner stANd but it is super fAntAstic

    May 4, 2012 at 3:21 PM
  • Phil says:

    Nice to see El Guero Canelo getting a mention, Gil, but I am disappointed to see no mention of their delicious, marinated, mesquite-grilled chicken and carne asada. Their burritos – with whole pintos, jack cheese, cabbage, and their addictive roasted jalapeno/tomatillo salsa – and caramelos – taco-sized flour tortilla, meat and jack cheese – are the best of their ilk in the entire Southwest, including Sonora and Chihuahua as well as New Mexico. I could live off of the burritos alone – in fact, I nearly did when I was in grad school. If you’ve missed them up till now, you owe yourself a return visit.

    There are a number of carts and vendors serving Sono-dogs in Albuquerque, although many vendors take offense if you refer to them this way…call them Juarez dogs if you’re in this neck of the woods. There is usually a guy in the parking lot of the laundromat on Bridge just west of the river most weekend evenings, and a somewhat larger cart operation can usually be found on the northeastern corner of San Pedro and Central. I’ve seen several other Sono-dog carts in the Southeast heights as well, all on Central or Zuni.

    July 2, 2013 at 3:04 PM

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*