The hot dog that rose above the rest

El Guero Canelo owner Daniel Contreras poses with a clipping from the Arizona Daily Star announcing the James Beard Award. (Photo by: Sammy Minsk/ASNS)

Just a piece of meat and bread. Skip the plate, pour on the condiments and you have yourself a hot dog. The invention isn’t new. It’s been part of America’s cuisine for years. But one hot dog has risen above all the others and made one man famous.

It’s the Sonoran hot dog that brings back food critics, history and dispute. It sits guiltless on a paper serving bowl with so many toppings the hot dog isn’t even visible. There are hundreds of options around

The famous Sonoran hot dog comes with grilled onions, freshly diced tomatoes and onions, mayonnaise, mustard and jalapeno sauce in a bolillo. (Photo by: Sammy Minsk/ASNS)

El Güero Canelo, a timeless spot for Sonoran cuisine in Tucson, obtained the reputable James Beard award at the beginning of this year. Owner Daniel Contreras has been cooking traditional Sonoran food in Tucson since 1993.

Born in Magdalena, Mexico, Contreras grew up around  Sonoran cuisine. “There was a hot dog stand like me back in the ’70s… It’s still there in my hometown,” said Contreras. He would visit almost everyday. Now he runs four locations in Tucson which sell around thousands of hot dogs each week.

Alex Lancial films the restaurant for the James Beard Award. (Photo by: Sammy Minsk/ASNS)

 

Known as the “Oscars of the food world,” the James Beard Award honors people who have made a notable impact toward America’s food culture. Different categories highlight top “chefs and restaurateurs, cookbook authors and food journalists, restaurant designers and architects, and more,” according to the James Beard website.

El Güero Canelo was one of five recipients that placed under America’s Classics award, among thousands of entrees.

“I don’t have any words left to describe the honor. For me it’s for Tucson because Tucson is the Mexican Food capitol,” said Contreras. “It shows that we are selling the right food at the right price.”

Now that the El Güero Canelo won the James Beard Award, people have started calling with interest in selling the Sonoran hot dog around the U.S. Contreras himself does not see himself expanding the business, but leaves the option open for his managers.

Only a few minutes until the Sonoran hot dog is ready at the pickup counter at El Güero Canelo, where it’s served on a bright orange tray. Grilled onions, freshly diced tomatoes and onions, mayonnaise, mustard, ending with a subtle spice from jalapeno sauce.

“Without the yellow pepper is like woman without lipstick,” said Daniel Contreras. (Photo by: Sammy Minsk/ASNS)

The warmth of the hot dog radiates through the bolillo, a sweet and slightly salty roll making the bread tender and easy to hold. A committed first bite and the flavors flow into the mouth.

“The big difference I think in the ingredients is my hot dog buns. I make my own hot dog buns in Magdalena,” said Contreras. This way he ensures fresh bread with quality ingredients.

The bolillo resembles a traditional hot dog bun, but rather than being cut down the whole bun, a slit is made. The hot dog nests inside the bun so the hefty amount of toppings stay on the hot dog without spilling over.

The dog comes with a yellow pepper on the side, which is to be traded off between the dog after each bite adding extra spice to the meal. Contreras strongly believes the yellow pepper is a vital element to the Sonoran hot dog. Without it, he says, “It’s like a woman without lipstick,” he said.

His award is yet another example of Tucson’s admirable cuisine. In 2015, Tucson was named a World City of Gastronomy by the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), becoming the first city in the United States to receive such a designation.

The Sonoran taste is not alone. From the Chicago dog to the Seattle dog, all the way up to the Reindeer dog in Alaska, each state adds their own twist to a simple piece of meat.

Every Sunday a mariachi band comes to play in the restaurant. (Photo by: Sammy Minsk/ASNS)

The Sonoran hot dog is a perfect example of two cultures influencing one another to create a tasteful gem. The merge between America’s iconic hot dog wrapped in bacon, then grilled on mesquite wood from the Sonoran desert has become a custom in Tucson.

The exact location of where the Sonoran hot dog recipe came from is unknown. Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora,  advanced the spread of the dog. Contreras believes a man from Hermosillo named Don Vicente began wrapping bacon around hot dogs first.

The hot dog was typically found on the street or plazas where people cooked on food carts called dogueros. It grew to be a popular late-night snack after bars closed.

With so many places to find a Sonoran hot dog, the competition remains fierce. El Güero Canelo has one of the longest rivalries between local restaurants with BK’s. They both claim to be the first one to start selling the hot dog on the streets of Tucson.

Also a Sonoran style restaurant, BK’s was founded by Benny Galaz who had the idea to come Tucson at 20 years old and sell the bacon wrapped hot dog. He built his own hot dog cart and sold the hot dogs on 12th Avenue in Tucson.

Thousands of hot dogs are made every day at the restaurant. (Photo by: Sammy Minsk/ASNS)

“Back in 1982, when I was a kid, I started buying hot dogs in Nacozaris,” he said.

It was there he learned how to make the hot dog. Galaz’s food cart become a success, selling thousands of dollars worth of hot dogs in a single day.

Contreras was intrigued by the business plan and wanted to sell Sonoran food from a cart. Galaz agreed to build a food cart for Contreras who would slowly pay him back. Contreras sold tacos and burros (the Sonoran term for burrito), while Galaz sold hot dogs.

To Contreras’s dismay, he never managed to sell nearly as much food as Galaz.

Galaz claims that Contreras said he wanted to go to another city in Arizona to sell hot dogs and would like the recipe of his hot dogs so he could do so. Instead, Contreras opened up his own hot dog cart on the same street, just a block away from Galaz’s cart. This compelled Galaz to try new business concepts and cooking strategies for his food cart.

“[The cart] was the first one in Tucson to use charcoal,” Galaz said. “So I was using mesquite charcoal and he was using gas in a flat grill … and I was the first to have a salsa bar open to the public for free.”

Contreras talks to Chris and Denise Milby from Mesa, who make sure to visit El Güero Canelo every time they’re in town. (Photo by: Sammy Minsk/ASNS)

Travel Channel’s “Food Wars” came to Tucson to settle the dispute in 2010. Both men divulged their hot dog recipes, while fans gathered and raved about their eternal loyalty for BK’s or El Güero Canelo.

El Güero Canelo takes pride in their traditional style hot dog whereas BK’s modifies the recipe slightly.

“We cook the hot dog next to the the onions so the hot dog soaks up the flavors,” explained Galaz. A panel of judges and die-hard fans voted after trying the two dogs blind folded. In a 4-1 vote, BK’s won the war between the dueling hot dogs.

While Galaz won that battle, the newest prize belongs to Contreras. And the Sonoran hot dog.

Click here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution photos.

Sammy Minsk is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at minsk@email.arizona.edu

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