How does a hot dog qualify for UNESCO gastronomy status? It takes up residence in Tucson. In late 2015, UNESCO named the town in southern Arizona a Creative City of Gastronomy – the first in the U.S. Their selection was “based on a 300-year history of agriculture that has forged a wide array of heritage foods . . . and a culturally layered history.”
While there are many facets of the city’s cuisine and food culture, the Sonoran hot dog tucks itself into the city’s culinary scene as its signature street food. This is no simple ballpark snack; it is an amalgam of flavors and cultures stuffed inside a fluffy bolillo roll.
This Southwestern treat is not for the fatty food and cholesterol averse. Consider the process of cooking it: First, wrap a hot dog in bacon. Then simmer it in bacon fat until only the lean strips of bacon remain. Finally, top it with pinto beans and a collection of various condiments that usually includes chopped fresh tomatoes, chopped onion, jalapeños, mustard, mayonnaise and perhaps cilantro, and sandwich it in a bun that that can carry the load.
Origin stories vary, but we know one thing for sure: The Sonoran hot dog emerged sometime in the 1960s, likely in the neighboring state of Sonora, Mexico, 70 miles to the south of Tucson.
One local man, who identified himself simply as Bobby, told me, “Sonoran hot dogs came from the food carts in Sonora, Mexico, not from Tucson. I remember eating them there when I was a kid in the ‘80s. You’d never see these hotdogs in Tucson back then.”
Sometime in the last three decades the street food staple migrated north of the border. Tucson is located in the Sonoran desert, so even in the U.S., the hot dog’s geographical moniker is still apt.
Like any great regional food favorite, locals will argue about where to find the best version. Typical Sonoran hot dog sources include taco stands, food trucks and hundreds of carts that pop up on weekends. A few of the more successful carts have moved to brick-and-mortar locations.
View this post on Instagram
Lots of places in Tucson make a Sonoran hot dog but only this one has won a James Beard award. _ _ _ _ #elguerocanelo #sonoranhotdog #jamesbeardawardwinner #ilovehotdogs #hotdog #eatertucson #tucsoneats #tucsonlunch #vacationlunch #traveleats #epicurious #BAreaders #foodandwine #fwx #food52 #f52grams #feedfeed #tastingtable #pdxfoodie #accountantfoodie #foodiepdx #lunchwithmom #foodieontheroad
The Sonoran hot dog’s greatest ambassador is arguably Daniel Contreras, founder of El Guero Canelo, a Tucson mini-chain of Sonoran hot dog restaurants that itself began as a food cart in the early 1990s. Earlier this year, the James Beard Foundation named El Guero Canelo as one of its 2018 American Classics, further securing the Sonoran hot dog’s role as a gastronomic treasure.
A signature of “El Guero” is the bun – a thick, fluffy bolillo roll, custom baked for the restaurant in Magdalena, Mexico and brought north. Unlike typical hot dog rolls, these are sliced across part of the top, creating a “boat” in which to nestle the hot dog and its hefty heap of toppings.
El Guero Canelo’s use of Mexican rolls exemplifies the unique heritage of the Sonoran hot dog – an origin and popularity that transcends international borders. Residents of the Sonoran desert may argue over which food cart is best, or whether or not the toppings should include cilantro or pico de gallo. But they all agree that a Sonoran hot dog is muy bueno.