Pit Stop

El Guero Canelo Serves Tucson’s Most Mexcellent Hot Dog

Every so often, a restaurant makes a particular dish in such a creative—not to mention tasty—way, that it helps launch its national profile. Meet El Guero Canelo's Sonoran hot dog.

William Steen/The New York Times

The most flamboyant of America's weenies, the Sonoran hot dog, has a murky genealogy. Both the residents of Tucson and those of its namesake in Mexico claim responsibility for its creation. Sausage historians believe that the practice of wrapping a frank in bacon before cooking it (a defining feature of the Sonoran dog) was first popularized at a hot dog cart in Mexico City in 1956. While some Tucsonans recall street-corner vendors selling something like it as far back as the 1960s, Sonora boosters say that Tucson vendors copied the idea from hot dog carts in Hermosillo, Sonora’s capital city, who were doing it a decade earlier. Either way, no one called it a Sonoran hot dog until late in the 20th century.

Regardless of its origin, there is little doubt that the fabulous frank's rise to notoriety was helped in large part by the conspicuous success of Daniel and Blanca Contreras's El Guero Canelo. Opened in 1993 as a six by eight-foot quick-eats trailer selling hot dogs and tacos on Tucson's vibrant 12th Avenue, El Guero Canelo (meaning "the blond guy," after fair-haired Daniel) has become a destination eatery with a broad menu of Mexican specialties, even including breakfast. But its star offering remains the hot dog. El Guero Canelo is to the Sonoran hot dog what Buffalo's Anchor Bar is to the chicken wing: the establishment that configured the dish in a unique way that powered it to widespread fame.

Despite the restaurant's expanded repertoire, the original El Guero Canelo (there are now two additional locations in Tucson) remains a wholly informal joint with no actual indoor dining. You order your hot dog from a cart. You eat it on a broad, enclosed patio under the shade of a canopy, where nozzles all along the rim rain down a mist of cool water that hydrates the savage desert air. Mexican party music is constantly interrupted by a scratchy electric voice on the loud speaker calling out numbers (in Spanish) to let diners know their food is ready. Those not eating hot dogs tote their caramelo, taco, torta, burro, or quesadilla to a fabulous salsa bar for condiments that include chopped tomatoes, pico de gallo, onions, radishes, limes, salsa verde, and sliced cucumbers.

Hot dog eaters do not avail themselves of the do-it-yourself fixings. Sonoran hot dogs are dressed solely by the hot dog chef, and almost always in the exact same way. El Guero Canelo starts with a simple beef frankfurter. It is wrapped in bacon and cooked in a trough alongside other bacon-sheathed hot dogs, where the shed grease makes the process very much like deep-frying. This causes the bacon flavor to melt into the dog, leaving the outside patched with streaks of lean pork that provide a marvelous chewy contrast to the frank they embrace. The condiment line-up is presupposed: chopped tomatoes, a scattering of pinto beans, grilled or raw onions, a line of yellow mustard, a green ribbon of hot jalapeño sauce, and, to top it all off, an artistic squiggle of mayonnaise. Every Sonoran hot dog is served with a roasted guero pepper, which looks like a pale jalapeño and can be every bit as hot. After biting through the thick wall of this fruity pod and hitting the capsicum-charged membrane within, the mercy of a gentle-tempered bun can be welcome tongue relief.

Buns are a vital component of the Sonoran hot dog package. A sandwich this copious demands a bun that is capacious, absorbent, and sturdy. Vendors who sell the "hot-dog estilo Sonora" in and around Tucson all use the same bread, a supple Mexican "bolillo roll," reminiscent of a stubby baguette. It is as yeasty as a dinner roll, and cut to form a pocket with closed ends that shore in all ingredients.

Diners who love the hot dog and bacon duet but find that all the condiments, however essential they are, can overwhelm the meat, have the option to up the ante and get El Guero Canelo's Sammy Dog – two bacon-wrapped all-beefers in a single roll, dressed to the nines. And why not, since there is plenty of space in the roomy bun and the hot dogs are modest in size.

Side dishes, while available, often seem extraneous given the heartiness of a Sonoran hot dog, but what to drink is an important decision. We recommend the sweet rice drink known as horchata. Or try the Mexican variety of the classic Coke and Pepsi, which connoisseurs consider spicier and more complex than domestically bottled colas.

Single or Sammy-style, El Guero Canelo's Sonoran hot dog is a dining experience that warms the heart of all who consider a superior hot dog every bit as awe-inspiring as a Périgord truffle or grand cru Burgundy.

El Guero Canelo: 5201 S. 12th Ave., Tucson. 520-295-9005.