Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Do You Think I’m Eating Here?

This was my question to Chuck as we pulled up to the South Twelfth Avenue El Guero Canelo in South Tucson.

And I promptly answered my own question by saying “I don’t think so!”

This place bore no resemblance to the restaurant we saw on Adam Richman’s “Man vs. Food” on the Travel Channel. Where was the modern looking fast food joint? Where were the large windows? Where was the stainless steel? (It turns out these characteristics are present at Guero Canelo El Segundo, located in North Tucson.)

Instead, we were going to eat at the original location—at what can only be described as a joint. In place of the large windows, here were narrow panels, which can be opened, exposing the dining area to the outside. In place of the stainless steel, the order counter is flanked by two “vehicles” – one being a food truck and the other a hot dog cart. And modern? Forget it. I’ve eaten in dives before, but this was pushing my limits. Fortunately, Chuck prevailed.

Pick up all food orders (except hot dogs) at the food truck shown here.

Place your order at these windows.

Pick up hot dog orders at the hot dog cart shown here.

El Guero Canelo (roughly translated as “good looking cinnamon man”) is a full service Sonoran Mexican restaurant serving burros (really large burritos), tacos, tortas, quesadillas, and something called a Carmelo which looks something like a quesadilla. But the reason to come is for the Sonoran Hot Dog – the perfect marriage of hot dogs and Mexican food.

We approached the counter and placed our orders. A Sonoran Hot Dog (hold the mayo) for Chuck and a Sonoran Hot Dog with the works and a Carne Asada taco for me. We each ordered a basket of tortilla chips and found a table in the long dining area to wait for our dogs and my taco.

I immediately checked out the salsa and condiment bar in the center of the room. Here I found a fresh pico de gallo, a very hot red tomato-based salsa, and a green salsa that I think must have been made with fire-roasted chilis. This latter was generously laced with chopped cilantro and was my favorite of the three. On the bar was also a green creamy sauce about the consistency of a salad dressing and that one woman said was made from avocados. The bar also included sliced radishes and cucumbers, hot peppers, and sliced red onion that had been treated in some way to reduce the bite. (I suspect it was doing nothing more elaborate than soaking them in salted ice water.)

I returned to the table hearing a Spanish language version of the Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk” playing over the sound system and bearing small cups each of the green sauce, the pico de gallo, and the two salsas. Soon our number was called to the food truck, and Chuck retrieved my Carne Asada (roasted meat) taco topped with shredded cabbage. Back to the salsa bar to top this with some of the brined onions and the green sauce. The taco was small (What do you expect for $1.50?) and the meat was a little dry.

Finally, our number was called for the dogs, and Chuck went to retrieve them from the hot dog cart.

“Was the Sonoran hot dog invented in northern Mexico or southern Arizona? No one has been able to provide a conclusive answer to that question, but there is little doubt that the continent's most baroque wiener, which first appeared at street carts in Tucson in the late 1960s, found its chief proponent in 1993 when the Contreras family opened El Guero Canelo. Differences among the city's many ‘hot dogs estilo Sonora’ are subtle, but no one could dispute that the one served by this happy restaurant is a benchmark.” (from the Tucson Weekly web site).

So what is a Sonoran Hot Dog? “For those who love hot dogs and Mexican food, the Sonoran hot dog is the Holy Grail. It’s a weenie wrapped in bacon, encapsulated by a soft, sweet bun, and topped with beans, diced tomato, onions (raw and grilled), mayonnaise, mustard, and salsa.” A Sonoran hot dog is wonderful. A Sonoran hot dog is better than a Chicago hot dog. A Sonoran hot dog is as messy as it is delicious. Especially when you add the brined onions, creamy green sauce, and roasted chili salsa as I did.

Those who read this blog regularly know that I am no fan of “soft, white, fluffy bread.” But in the case of this bun, soft, white, and fluffy work perfectly. The hot dog itself isn’t too spicy, isn’t too smoky, and isn’t too garlicky. This lets the flavors of all the toppings meld seamlessly with the meat.

Chuck had no sooner finished taking the hot dog photos when we were approached by the restaurant’s manager, Arturo, “as in King Arthur or Arturo Toscanini,” he announced. (I suspect that restaurant owners get a little nervous when they see a customer photographing the food.) During our brief conversation we learned that El Guero Canelo makes their own rolls and that their food “comes from the heart,” said Arturo, as he tapped his chest.

El Guero Canelo's Sonoran hot dog has been named “Best of Tucson” for the past four years and will be featured when the Travel Channel comes to Tucson to shoot an episode for a new series that will be visiting cities across the country and featuring their iconic food dishes. The show will be a companion to their popular Man vs. Food series and will pit food establishments against each other, (BK Carne Asada vs. El Guero Canelo), interview fans, and choose Superfans.

This is a section of the outdoor seating (above).

Rating restaurants can be a tricky business. How do you compare the up-scale Ocatillo Café (see January 23rd entry) and the joint El Guero Canelo? As much as I would like to give the latter the ultimate 5.0 Addies, the dry Carne Asada did them in and reduced their score to “only” 4.5 Addies.

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