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Last Updated on April 30, 2021
The Sonoran hot dog in Tucson is no simple ballpark snack. This humbly-named culinary delight is the recipient of a James Beard Award. It’s a symphony of flavors and cultures (and a meal unto itself!) tucked inside a fluffy bollilo roll. Read on to learn more about the history of the Sonoran hot dog, and where to sample one.
What, exactly, is a Sonoran Hot Dog in Tucson?
Spoiler alert: this puppy is a meal unto itself! Here’s how to recognize a Sonoran hot dog:
- A bacon-wrapped hot dog
- Pinto beans
- Chopped fresh tomatoes & onions (or pico de gallo)
- Mustard & mayonnaise
- A bolillo roll (ideally top-split)
- Bonus: a grilled guero chile on the side
Evolution of a cross-border street food classic
Like many food classics, opinions differ as to the exact origin of the Sonoran hot dog. They first emerged sometime in the 1960s most likely in the neighboring state of Sonora, Mexico. Since this region is just 70 miles to the south of Tucson, flavors, as well as people, cross back and forth. Even the geography has a cross-border name: Tucson is located in the Sonoran desert.
Bobby (a local who never gave me his last name) 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 30-40 years, these street food staples migrated north into the U.S.
The food carts definitely traveled north with the hot dogs. Known as “carretas,” you’ll find them on street corners throughout Tucson. Most basic carretas only make hot dogs, but many grew into more full-service food trucks that offer tacos, quesadillas and more. Sometimes you can sit at a few outdoor chairs and tables scattered out front. Fortunately, the sunny Tucson climate is perfect for this. A few carretas have even “graduated” to restaurants, where you can sit inside.
El Guero Canelo: Tucson’s Sonoran hot dog “ambassador”
Like any great regional food favorite, locals will argue about where to find the best version. Regardless of preference , Daniel Contreras is undoubtedly the Sonoran hot dog’s greatest ambassador. Contreras is the proprietor of El Guero Canelo, a mini-chain of restaurants serving the Sonoran hot dog in Tucson. True to the roots of the Sonoran hot dog, Contreras started “El Guero” as a food cart in the early 1990s in south Tucson.
That humble cart grew and grew, eventually becoming a restaurant with enclosed seating. But as the cart grew, so did El Guero Canelo’s reputation. In 2018 the James Beard Foundation named El Guero Canelo one of its American Classics. And so a hot dog became a legend.
The original cart occupies pride of place out front. In an ironic twist, Daniel Contreras didn’t begin is business with hot dogs. “At the beginning we didn’t sell hot dogs. We sold carne asada. The reason we started selling hot dogs was because our stand was so small that people thought it was a hot dog stand, so they started asking me for hot dogs.”
Today Contreras has three restaurants scattered around Tucson, along with a meat market adjacent to his original South Tucson location. He also owns a bakery in Magdelena, Mexico where he makes all the tortillas and buns for his restaurants. That’s some hot dog entrepreneurship!
Those buns are a signature of “El Guero”: thick, fluffy bolillo rolls. 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.
Where to get Sonoran hot dogs in Tucson, AZ
Following is our list of favorite spots to grab a Sonoran hot dog in Tucson (in alphabetical order). We’ve always been happy with the lip-smacking taste of Tucson at each of these. If you’re really ambitious (or hungry), you could make a mini-road trip out of trying several spots. You might not drive the mileage of an Arizona Route 66 Road Trip, but you’ll definitely cover some territory!
Aqui con el Nene Tucson, is affectionately known as “El Nene” by the locals, who consider it the Sonoran hot dog in Tucson. It’s a popular spot in northern Tucson that falls into the hybrid-cart category. The large food truck is parked in front of a former restaurant/bar. Seating is in a covered outdoor pavilion or inside the former restaurant. (There’s a newer, brick-and-mortar shop on the south side of town as well.) It boasts an extensive condiment bar that includes enough fresh and marinated veggies to create a side dish to accompany your dog. Potato lovers should try the Papanchas, which are baked potato topped with your choice of Mexican meats and other goodies.
- Locations (2): North Tucson; additional location in South Tucson
- Category: The original location (north) is a food truck with indoor/outdoor seating
- Address: 4415 N Flowing Wells Rd., 65 W. Valencia Rd.
BK’s Tucson is another brick-and-mortar staple, with two locations in town. Originally known as BK’s Carne Asada & Hot Dogs, the name change reflects the growing focus on a variety of Mexican foods. The Sonoran hot dog has all the requisite ingredients, but we found the bun a little uninspired—it wasn’t toasted, and had trouble holding up to the mammoth fillings.
- Locations (2): South Tucson; additional location north of downtown
- Category: Restaurant
- Address: 5118 S 12th Ave.
Calle Tepa is a casual brick-and-mortar restaurant that offers a slightly more upscale setting for this Sonoran classic (i.e. you both order and eat indoors.) To keep with the “street food” theme, you order at a food counter that is a converted street cart. The rolls are hefty enough to hoist the dog for the duration, and the pico de gallo served on top is always made with gorgeous red ripe tomatoes and fresh cilantro. The restaurant specializes a variety of Mexican street foods, such as tortas and manchegos. Calle Tepa also has a bar in back, for those who’d like a Margarita or a cerveza with their Sonoran hot dog.
- Location: Southeast Tucson
- Category: Restaurant
- Address: 6151 E Broadway Blvd.
If you’re only going to get one Sonoran hot dog in Tucson, this is the place to go. (C’mon! It won a James Beard Award!) The original location is a stand that has morphed to include indoor seating. Fame has brought crowds and a bit of glitz: the diners now receive pagers to alert them when their food is ready, and a video of the James Beard Awards plays on a loop in the dining area. Regardless, the dogs are still tasty, although the custom-made Mexican rolls are not toasted. Two additional locations in Tucson (and one in Phoenix.)
- Locations (3): South Tucson; additional locations in North & East Tucson
- Category: Restaurant
- Address: 5201 S. 12th Ave., 2480 N Oracle Rd., 5802 E 22nd St.
Despite its name (Sinaloa is the state in Mexico directly south of Sonora), this cart-with-tables serves up traditional a Sonoran dog in Tucson.
The atmosphere is classic careta; diners sit at folding tables and chairs tucked under a canvas canopy in the middle of an empty corner lot. The dogs are nestled in a nicely toasted bun, served with the traditional roasted pepper alongside.
- Location: East Tucson
- Category: Carreta
- Address: 1526 N Alvernon Way
La Reyna is a food cart/restaurant hybrid: seating is inside a storefront at a small strip mall, while the “kitchen” is the food truck parked out front. The hot dog is a traditional version of the classic Sonoran hot dog in Tucson
, with the bacon-wrapped dog nice and crispy and the roll toasted in butter on the griddle. When we’re feeling super-indulgent, we order Chipilones hot dogs. These are the same dogs, only with cheese melted on top-OH YEAH! La Reyna also makes their own horchata and limonada, the latter using fresh limes.
- Category: Carreta with adjacent indoor seating
- Location: North Tucson, just off 1st Ave.
- Address: 704 E Prince Rd, Tucson, AZ 85719
PRO TIP: If you like cheese on your Sonoran hot dog, order “Chipilones”
This carreta, or cart, is located on a street corner about 3 miles north of the University of Arizona. A few tables and chairs under a canopy alongside the cart is a traditional Sonoran hot dog in Tucson setup. It’s popular with students and faculty alike. In addition to the Sonoran hot dog, Los Ponchos features a “queso-dogo,” which is a hot dog-filled quesadilla. Try this if you simply must have a tortilla with your frank. (And we can personally confirm that it’s pretty darned terrific.)
- Category: Food truck with outdoor seating
- Location: About 3 miles north of the University of Arizona, near Midtown
- Address: 1901 E Fort Lowell Rd, Tucson, AZ 85719
The focus at this restaurant in eastern Tucson is on quesadillas, hence the name. But due to customer requests, they added a hot dog to the menu—Yay! Owner Marcos Barragan put his own spin on the classic Sonoran hot dog in Tucson.
. He uses all-beef franks and omits the beans. Instead of wrapping the frank in bacon, Barragan tops them with “bacon bits.” Don’t be fooled by the term, these “bits” are are large chunks of chopped bacon sprinkled on top. In addition to mustard, mayo and chopped tomatoes, we added some of daughter Alex Barragan’s homemade salsas. (we especially loved the jalapeno guacamole and pineapple chiltepin). They were so delicious, we almost forgot about the other stuff on the menu.
Insider tip: the restaurant does all grilling for the quesadillas over mesquite wood. They will they will grill your hot dog there upon request.
- Location: East Tucson
- Category: Restaurant
- Address: 2418 N Craycroft Rd.
The Ruiz cart is about as classic as a Sonoran hot dog in Tucson gets. Order, then sit at one of the few stools attached. You’ll find the cart in a corner lot in southern Tucson. Because the atmosphere is pretty basic, the food must be really good. Here, we watched Gerardo work his magic. The hot dog was tender, with perfectly crisped bacon surrounding it. He topped it with delicious beans, mustard, mayo and the ripest red tomatoes. Plus, he grilled the roll to perfection, so it held up to his whopping toppings. Note: the family now has a brick-and-mortar stand with outdoor seating on the adjacent lot that serves tacos, quesadillas and breakfast.
- Locations (2) : South Tucson (just south of downtown)
- Category: Carreta with seating
- Address: 1140 S 6th Ave, and in brick and mortar location next door.
Do these places have best Sonoran hot dogs in Tucson? We think they’re pretty darn fabulous, but who knows? There are new spots popping up all the time. Please let us know if you find one. These bacon-wrapped beauties are one of our favorite types of street food. We’re always game for chowing down on a Sonoran hot dog! 😋 🌭
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