Sonoran hot dogs have never been hotter.
The New York Times. National Public Radio. Bon Appétit magazine. "CBS Sunday Morning." Two Travel Channel shows ("Man v. Food" and "Food Wars"). In the last year, all came to Tucson to sample the delicious dogs that have become our signature snack.
The Sonoran hot dog, hawked by "hotdogueros" at more than 100 roadside carts and restaurants around town, is a bacon-wrapped wiener served in a soft bolillo bun.
Likely invented in Sonora, Mexico, most come loaded with pinto beans, shredded cheese, chopped tomato and onion, mustard, mayo and guacamole sauce, though toppings will differ from dog to dog.
But whose dog is best?
Caliente went on a mission to find out.
How we picked best of pack
Bent on settling a decades-old debate, Caliente solicited suggestions from the public.
Last month our Food Fight asked readers to tell us who makes the best Sonoran hot dog.
From more than 130 responses, we compiled a list of 13 "must try" dogs, based on the number of comments and geography.
To whittle it down to three finalists we put together an eating team chosen for their food acumen and stomach stamina: Jim Griffith, founder of the downtown food and music festival Tucson Meet Yourself; Metromix food blogger and former Caliente apprentice Andi Berlin; and El Grupo cycling members John Kramer, 18, and Donovan Caputo, 16, both students at City High School.
Rankings were based on overall taste, taking into account the spiciness of the dog, the strength of the bacon flavor, the freshness of the bun, and the snap of the hot dog casing.
All of the dogs cost between $2 and $3.
Toppings found at different carts include canned mushrooms, salsa verde and pickled cabbage. Most Sonoran hot dogs are accompanied by a grilled jalapeño.
"I think I gained 10 years' worth of sodium and 10 pounds," says Berlin.
A second team of three judges picked the champ.
• Restaurateur Janos Wilder is a James Beard award winner and creator of the J-Dawg, an upscale take on the Sonoran hot dog made with 4-ounce Big City Reds beef hot dogs and chorizo black beans.
• El Charro Vice President Jason Blackburn says he grew up eating Sonoran dogs and ate his first when he was in the fourth grade at St. Ambrose School. "They served them in the cafeteria," he says.
• KVOA morning anchor Lorraine Rivera joined the News 4 team in 2005. Born and raised in Douglas, Rivera says she'd never had a Sonoran dog until she was 19, when she moved to Tucson to attend UA.
From Hermosillo to Tucson
According to Maribel Alvarez, a researcher at the University of Arizona's Southwest Center, a traveling circus first brought hot dogs to Sonora at the beginning of the 20th century.
Who first wrapped dogs in bacon? That's a matter of some debate.
"We have an oral history from the wife of the man who claims that he started selling them in Hermosillo in 1947," Alvarez says. "It was just a food stand on a corner."
By the 1970s there were carts all over the Universidad de Sonora.
"Even to this day people will tell you the authentic Sonora hot dog is there on the campus, where there is a whole row of vendors at the entrance," Alvarez says.
In the 1980s, she said, Sonoran hot dog carts started showing up in Tucson's Mexican neighborhoods.
Today, they can be found all over town.
Pima County Health Department spokeswoman Sharon Browning says there are 630 mobile food vendors in the county that are inspected twice annually. Most of Tucson's bacon-wrapped dogs are sold out of roadside carts.
Many cart owners wear multiple hats: grilling, washing dishes, emptying the trash. It can be grueling work at any time of year, but in summer when temperatures regularly top 100 degrees, it can be especially tough.
Aurelio De la Paz stands over a grill for eight hours a day at El Manatial at East 36th Street and South Park Avenue. He says at the end of the workday his legs shake.
He stays cool by drinking Gatorade.
"I like lemon-lime flavor," he says.
Some entrepreneuring hotdogueros have turned their carts and trucks into big business.
Benjamin Galaz, who owns BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs at 5118 S. 12th Ave., started out with a southside cart. He said the city tried to shut him down in the late 1990s because a lot of people were coming to his cart after 1 a.m. He put up a sound wall behind his cart, then got a restaurant license and moved his taco operations indoors.
Cart owners who aren't ready to open a restaurant must take pains to make sure their mobile businesses are up to code.
In a dirt lot at the corner of Camino de la Tierra and Orange Grove Road, the Los Jimenez cart has a bottle of hand sanitizer at each table.
Ruiz Hot-Dogs on South Sixth Avenue earned an "excellent" grade when it was inspected last year.
Our top dog in Tucson is …
After sampling 13 dogs from carts and restaurants all over town, our judges decided the bacon-wrapped frank at Ruiz Hot-Dogs was their favorite.
Noe Maciel owns Ruiz Hot-Dogs, a cart at South Sixth Avenue and East 22nd Street that he says serves dogs Sinaloan style.
What's the difference between a Sonoran dog and one from Sinaloa, the state south of Sonora?
Maciel says it's all about the bun.
"The only difference between the Sonoran and the Sinaloan style is in Sinaloa we brush butter on the outside of the bun and grill it," says Maciel.
The grilled bun was a hit with Caliente's eating team. Everyone raved about the added crunch.
Ruiz's dogs also came with pinto beans, chopped tomato and onion, mustard, mayo and guacamole sauce.
Blackburn said he enjoyed Ruiz's green salsa, served on the side.
"That gave it a little bit of spice," he said.
The two closest runners-up? University of Arizona-area hot dog joint Mr. Antojo, and El Sinaloense 3, a cart on South 12th Avenue also owned by Maciel.
Eduardo Sabori owns Mr. Antojo, a Sonoran hot dog stand that attracts a steady stream of construction workers. He has a second location on the east side. Mr. Antojo, which started out as a cart and is now located inside the Jett's Wildcat convenience store, got mixed reviews for its use of melted nacho cheese in place of shredded cheddar. Sabori says he gets his nacho cheese from Hermosillo. "That's the kind of cheese they use over there," he says. Sabori buys his buns from El Rio Bakery, on North Grande Avenue. He also uses a notably thick guacamole sauce, which begins its life as Sam's Club guacamole before Sabori dilutes and purees it.
Several judges approved of Mr. Antojo's shredded lettuce, which added a welcome crunch and sweetness.
Maciel, who previously worked at another cart at South Sixth Avenue and Irvington Road, says he and his three brothers take turns flipping franks at his two carts.
He has owned his own carts for three years. His wife of five years helps him with bookkeeping and by purchasing supplies.
• Aqui Con El Nene, at North Flowing Wells Road and West Wetmore roads.
• Barrio Brewing Co., 800 E.16th St.
• BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs, 2680 N. First Ave. and 5118 S. 12th Ave.
• El Guero Canelo, 5201 S. 12th Ave. and 2480 N. Oracle Road
• El Sinaloense 3, at South 12th Avenue and West Oklahoma Street
• Los Jimenez, at North Camino de la Tierra and West Orange Grove Road
• Los Chulos, in front of Tucson City Court, 103 E. Alameda St.
• Mi Familia, North Thornydale and West Overton roads.
• Mr. Antojo, 501 N. Park Ave.
• Obregon Tacos and Hot Dogs, in the Food City lot at 3030 E. 22nd St..
• Oop's Hot Dogs, East Ajo Way and South Sixth Avenue.
• Ruiz Hot-Dogs, at South Sixth Avenue and East 22nd Street
• Tacos Apson, 3501 S. 12th Ave.
About the judges:
While a few Food Fight readers voted for the J-Dawg, we didn't include it in our competition since it does not include bacon.
El Charro doesn't serve a Sonoran hot dog.