A cross-cultural taste of the Sonoran Desert in a portable, pandemic-friendly package
“Love at first bite” would be a stretch—everyone knows that the best part of a hot dog is somewhere in the middle, since the ends almost always include a disproportionate amount of bun to filling. “Love at first sight” doesn’t fit, either. This particular version arrives in a golden, grilled bolillo bun (fluffy Mexican version of a French bread roll) overflowing with pinto beans, diced tomatoes, caramelized onions and a squiggly trio of sauces that might be lovingly called “loaded” or less generously labeled “a hot mess.”
Around the second or third bite is where I find buried treasure: the crispy, bacon-wrapped hot dog that, along with these copious toppings, defines the legendary Sonoran Dog. This loaded frank is the signature snack of Tucson, Arizona, and the perfect post-ride fuel for a rogue cyclist who has escaped the snowy mountains during a global pandemic.
I know it’s totally uncool to be traveling right now, but after spending seven months shut inside our Aspen bubble, I could not resist the opportunity to get some serious social distance. I threw my road bike into the backseat, packed up my gear, and set my destination for the desert.
Dubbed “winter cycling heaven” by Outside Magazine and a doable-in-a-day, 12-hour drive from Aspen, Tucson was the perfect place to seek heat safely (current daytime highs hover around 85 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit after sunrise in the 60s). My mission: a few laps on the rollercoaster-like 8-mile loop through Saguaro National Park. Then a climb up Mount Lemmon, which snakes from 2,389 to 9,159 feet above sea level over 25 miles in the Santa Catalina Mountains amid cactus forest and volcanic rock (the Independence Pass of the area, a favorite of cyclists including Aspen’s own Lance Armstrong). And finally, a breezy cruise along “The Loop,” a 130-mile paved bike path hailed as one of the most well-designed in the country.
Since museums, galleries, gem shops, and other cultural attractions in Tucson are closed due to COVID-19, and most restaurants have transitioned to serving food for takeaway or outdoor dining only, I sought cheap eats to fuel outdoor recreation. Offering limited menus and walk-up-ordering only, food trucks are pandemic-friendly by design.
I tried two traditional versions of the Sonoran Dog (at El Perro Loco and El Sinaloense Hot Dog Cart) before learning that the creation was introduced to the area as recently as 1993 or 1994. One vendor credited with bringing it to Arizona (from Sonora, Mexico, where it was popular among college crowds in the 1980s) is Benjamin Galaz, a hot-dog-stand owner who now operates a couple of successful restaurants.
Before skipping town, I went straight to the source: BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs in South Tucson. Galaz wasn’t there, but the Sonoran Dog ($3.95) was on point. This was my sole dine-in experience in Tucson and it seemed safe enough: Each sanitized booth was separated by a sheet of transparent plastic hanging from ceiling. My server mentioned that a “smart grilling station” on the outdoor patio would open soon, to serve more customers during the pandemic.
As a cross-cultural Mexican-American mashup, the Sonoran Dog is cheap, filling, flavorful, portable and a taste from warmer climes—a simple comfort food during these strange times. Just be sure to wash your hands before eating it.
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