Why Doesn't Tucson's Mexican Food Scene Get More National Attention?
In the fall of 2012, I discovered the best hot sauce in the United States in, of all places, Tucson.
I had just finished a lecture at the University of Arizona on my then-new book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. My host was Maribel Alvarez, a professor of anthropology at the school who is the executive program director for the Southwest Folklife Alliance. She documents food traditions of the Arizona-Sonora borderlands, and she sent me back home with a goody bag of regional delights: carne seca (sundried beef), tepary beans (a small, meaty legume grown by natives since time immemorial) and flour tortillas called sobaqueras that are the size of a basketball hoop.
But the greatest prize was Poblano Mexican Hot Sauce. The Segura family has sold it since 1924, and their condiment (available in four flavors) embodies Tucson: traditional, vibrant and heavy on the chiltepín, a tiny, wild pepper that starts fruity, then burns long and strong.
Poblano was spectacular — and I was ashamed I had never heard of it until Alvarez's gift. I have atoned for my sins ever since; every year, I drive seven hours to Tucson from Southern California and load up with a year's supply of the stuff direct from their warehouse. Wherever I go, I praise Tucson's Mexican food (always called Sonoran by locals, after the Northern Mexican state where the cuisine originated). And that's why I can say with authority that it remains the most unappreciated Mexican foodways in the United States. The food is that great — and it's that overlooked by the rest of the country.
The statement might come across as hyperbole, because Tucson's comida mexicana already has many accolades going for it. The oldest continuously operating Mexican restaurants in the United States, El Charro Café and Lerua's Fine Mexican Food, have whipped out Sonoran favorites since 1922. Sonora's cattle industry directly influenced America's love affair with carne asada. In 2015, UNESCO deemed Tucson America's first City of Gastronomy, an honor given to towns with important culinary traditions. The Old Pueblo got the nod for its "culturally layered history, a variety of heritage food ingredients, and a continuity of traditional food preparation techniques."
And earlier this year, the James Beard Foundation named El Güero Canelo an America's Classic, the organization's version of a Hall of Fame award for restaurants. Not bad for a place most famous for its Sonoran dogs — franks wrapped in bacon, covered in Mexican cream and pinto beans, and placed in a small bolillo (French roll).
Yet this rich food scene rarely gets any attention in conversations about Mexican cuisine in the United States outside of those hot dogs. Perhaps the most famous export of Tucson's culinary scene isn't a dish but an image: the sleeping Mexican leaning against a saguaro cactus (native to the Sonoran Desert) that still decorates Mexican restaurants across the United States, but which Mexican-American activists have long decried as stereotypical.
"Our taqueros will always be seen as afterthoughts to their primos/primas [cousins] in LA or San Antonio," says Neto Portillo Jr., a Tucson native and longtime columnist for the Arizona Daily Star. "Because we live in a small market in Baja Arizona."
The American food media largely ignore the city's Sonoran treasures: asaderos (Sonora-style taquerías) that grill their beef on open flames over mesquite and make the best carne asada tacos you'll ever eat. Seafood spots that sell chicharrones de camarones (shrimp fried like pork rinds) and chiles toreados, bacon-wrapped, ground shrimp-stuffed chiles you're supposed to dunk in soy sauce, a hint at Northern Mexico's longstanding Chinese population. And my favorite soup of all time: caldo de queso. It's just potato soup with a giant ball of queso Chihuahua. But sprinkle in dried oregano and chiltepín flakes, grab a fresh flour tortilla, and this is the only flu shot you need.
It's Mexican food unlike any other in the United States. When Portillo takes out-of-towners to his favorite Sonoran restaurants, they become "instant converts," he says. "People from Califas will remark that their Mexican food is nothing like ours, and people from the Midwest or East coast are enthralled."
Part of Tucson's problem is provinciality. Unlike other Mexican diasporas, which have spread to multiple areas around the United States and taken their foodways with them, Sonoran migration flows almost exclusively to Arizona. For example, you can only buy Poblano Mexican Hot Sauce in Arizona, and really mostly around Tucson.
That hyper-regionalism means Sonoran cuisine hasn't had a breakout star since the chimichangas (El Charro claims to have invented them) back in the 1980s; nowadays, most of the United States dismisses them as cafeteria food. "Tucson foodways have not had any major crossover — say, like Tex-Mex fajitas did," says Alvarez. She also mentions the influence of "nationalist food initiatives" —that is, how a region's identity makers push some parts of their culture at the expense of others.
Take the case of tequila, which is just one spirit from Mexico, but which the Mexican government promoted heavily in film and music as a metaphor for mexicanidad during the 1930s and 1940s because of its association with the state of Jalisco, home to mariachi and (as the nationalist thinking went), light-skinned, devoutly Catholic people. Those nation-making projects south of the border went on to cross into the United States. And since Mexican elites have long considered Northern Mexico a world apart, Alvarez says, "Sonoran cuisine never had a chance" at widespread acclaim.
But perhaps this is the year when Sonoran cooking gets true national respect. El Güero Canelo will receive its award later this year at the James Beard Foundation's annual restaurant awards. Sonora's native liquor, bacanora, is showing up at craft cocktail bars from New York to Los Angeles. Tucson's city government and Chamber of Commerce continue to push The Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food, a promotion that highlights restaurants within a radius that includes the city's historic barrios and also the separate city of South Tucson. Sonoran-style flour tortillas, translucent and buttery, are now all the rage in Southern California's higher-end Mexican restaurants; Jonathan Gold, the Los Angeles Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic, mentioned them as one of his 10 food trends to watch in 2018 and said restaurants "mete [them] out sparingly like the precious things they are."
"The recognition will boost their confidence and bring them more business, hopefully," says Portillo about Tucson's restaurateurs. "And here's the kicker: Most of that new business will come from gringo Tucsonans who rarely venture to the Southside to try a Sonoran dog. Because they read about it in The New York Times."
Or, for that matter, NPR.
So if you're in Tucson, where should you go eat right now? Portillo recommends (and I second) Tacos Apson, a Tucson asadero run by a member of legendary late-'60s Mexican rock group Los Apson (here's their rocking take on Roy Orbison's "Dream Baby"). Professor Alvarez, meanwhile, gives a shoutout to Barrio Bread, whose master baker Don Guerra uses White Sonora heritage wheat to create "incredibly tasty bread unlike any other you have ever eaten."
She also likes Boca Tacos & Tequila. Chef Maria Mazon was born in Tucson, but raised in Sonora, so she follows her sonorense roots while also experimenting with her American side. "When I ate lunch there," Alvarez said, "one of the salsas was made with Girl Scout Thin Mints and chile de árbol. Oh, man, it was so good!"
Gustavo Arellano is the author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, and a longtime guest on NPR's "Barbershop" segment on Weekend All Things Considered.