Of Hot Dogs and Border Walls
As Trump struggles to build his wall, el Güero Canelo quietly wins a James beard award
“I will build a great wall—nobody builds walls better than me, believe me—and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our Southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”
—Donald J. Trump, announcing his candidacy for president in June 2015
As Trump continues to struggle to make good on his campaign promise, the James Beard foundation announced quietly last week that Tucson hot-dog-stand-turned-multi-location-restaurant El Güero Canelo had won an award usually reserved for the likes of Thomas Keller and Mario Batali.
The local Tucson, AZ favorite has become famous in recent years for its perfect execution of the Sonoran hot dog. The Sonoran dog, for the uninitiated, is a hot dog wrapped in bacon and grilled, nestled inside a pillowy bolillo roll, and topped with the whole world, specifically pinto beans, onions, tomatoes, jalapeño sauce, mayonnaise, mustard, and sometimes crushed potato chips.
The Sonoran dog is the consummate immigrant. Google it, and you’ll find conflicting origin stories, but it likely first appeared on the streets of Hermosillo, Mexico in the 1950s, possibly as a response to an aggressive bacon wrapped wiener ad campaign by Oscar Meyer, or possibly as a way to emulate the fashionable cooking style of U.S. housewives. From there it traveled north with the rest of the immigrants, and today there are more than 200 places in Tucson to get one.
White people love these border crossers. “The idea makes you go Oh My God,” says Pamela Hamilton, Editor and Publisher of Edible Phoenix, “But when I took visitors around Phoenix, at the end they begged me to FedEx them hot dogs in Cape Cod.”
“The problem with American hot dogs is that they’re American,” Tania Murillo told the New York Times, “A ketchup-and-mustard hot dog is boring. They’re not colorful enough. You’ve got to make them colorful, and pile on the stuff. The best hot dogs come from Sonora. Everybody knows that.”
Last year, my wife and I moved to the north border of South Tucson, to a neighborhood called Barrio Libre or Barrio Viejo or the Lost Barrio. With its lazy palm trees, flamboyantly painted adobe buildings and sleepy cobble stoned streets, it feels like a different dimension from the strip malls and McMansions that make up most of Tucson.
It’s also what’s left of a vibrant Mexican American neighborhood that was demolished in the 1960’s to make way for an ugly convention center no one uses.
I love my neighborhood. Walking the bright and narrow streets fills me with quiet excitement, and I can get tripe and guajillo chilies along with my milk and eggs at the Food City a five minute drive south. But I think a lot about how my wife and I are textbook gentrifiers who may be helping to push out families who have lived here for generations.
“The problem with American hot dogs is that they’re American,
a ketchup-and-mustard hot dog is boring. They’re not colorful enough.”
I grew up in Tucson. I never came this far south until I moved back in my twenties for grad school. South Tucson is a separate municipality with an 81% Latinx population. I don’t remember who first told me it was dangerous, but somehow I grew up with an internalized belief in its danger.
“We must have Security at our VERY DANGEROUS SOUTHERN BORDER, and we must have a great WALL to help protect us,” Donald Trump tweeted on January 16, 2018 at 2:54 p.m. When the Washington Post fact checked this alleged danger, they came to the conclusion that, “If you are an American concerned about safety, your best statistical bet is to live close to the border.”
Meanwhile, more than 7,200 migrants have died crossing the border from Mexico since 1998, about 1,500 more than the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
On January 17, 2018 Tucson aid group No Más Muertes (no more deaths) released a video that showed Border Patrol kicking over water jugs in the desert, in order to, in the words of No Más Muertes, "condemn border crossers to suffer death and disappearance.” That same day, a long time No Más Muertes volunteer was arrested on “preliminary felony charges of alien smuggling,” with timing that has been called suspicious.
Daniel Contreras, the owner and eponymous “blonde redhead” of El Güero Canelo, was born in Sonora, Mexico. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1979, and washed dishes at a Travelodge before starting his first hot dog stand in 1993.
On June 16, 2015, Trump announced his candidacy by saying, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
Yesterday, I went to lunch at El Güero Canelo’s original South Tucson Location. The restaurant has preserved the atmosphere of its street cart origins, with patio seating and walk up order windows. The special of the day was two Sonoran hot dogs and a drink for $8. I’m not a big soda drinker these days, but I can never resist a Mexican Coke, whose cane sugar sweetener gives it a sophisticated, molassesy je ne se quoi.
My Sonoran dogs were ready quicker than seemed possible, even for a hot dog. Because I’m a glutton, I took mine to the salsa bar to overdress in grilled green onions, whole roasted jalapeños, bright red radish slivers, and that pale green creamy tomatillo salsa I could drink by the glass.
The clientele that day was a mix of blue and white collar. At one point, a white man who looked homeless came in and started piling his plate with cucumbers and salsa. The staff did nothing to dissuade him and he took his plate outside to eat in peace beneath the eternally blue Arizona sky.
My Sonoran dogs were predictably delicious, wave after wave of pleasantly aggressive salt and heat, grounded by a satisfyingly meaty bacon wrapped wiener.
America’s Classics, the category of James Beard award given to El Güero Canelo is meant to honor “regional establishments, often family owned, that are treasured for their quality food, local character and lasting appeal.” Past recipients have included the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York and Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami.
On May 5, 2016, Trump tweeted a picture of himself giving a thumbs up, ostensibly about to dig into a fried tortilla bowl (although this may have been all for show if you believe Michael Wolff). The caption reads: “Happy #CincoDeMayo! The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!”
As we continue to endure Trump’s second year in office, I’d like to take this moment to give thanks to this country’s immigrants, and the delicious food traditions they bring with them.