Sonora is a special place for me. It's a state with one of the best cuisines in Mexico: rich in seafood and high-quality cattle, delicious stews, bacanora (a mezcal made from agave Pacifica or Yaquiana), the best flour tortillas in Mexico and the fiery chiltepín. I was a frequent visitor as a professional musician to towns such as Cananea, Caborca, Agua Prieta, Navojoa, Ciudad Obregón, but mostly Hermosillo, the largest city in Sonora and the northern state's capital.
I love traveling just to explore the local eats and soak up the local booze; I don't mind throwing in some sightseeing, museums and attractions, but food is the greatest gateway to the heart and soul of a place. Hermosillo has nice day trips to please, including Bahia de Kino and Ures, but it's also a city where a carne asada taco and a cold beer can fulfill all your dreams. Did I mention that Sonora is one of the two most famed states of Mexico for its beautiful women? Cue up "Sonora y Sus Ojos Negros," and let's roll.
Hermosillo is doable by car, and there are several borders to consider: Yuma to San Luis Rio Colorado if you absolutely want to get in as much Mexico as possible (also if you want to avoid being profiled in Arizona), heading south from Gila Bend to Sonoita, or south via Tucson through Nogales. If you're driving east of Sonora's Highway 15 (which goes directly to Arizona's Interstate 19), you'll need a vehicle permit—I always get one because I go looking for bacanora in the Rio Sonora. Be sure to check online before you go or if you are entering through Agua Prieta after shacking up in Tombstone, Arizona, because why not? You'll need a permit crossing there for sure. Or grab a flight on Aeromexico 2201 out of LAX, which departs daily at 1:30 p.m. for a 1.5-hour flight. And there's always Tijuana for cheap flights to Hermosillo on Volaris.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotels are cheap in Hermosillo, and all you're going to find are big chains—best bets are Araiza, Lucerna or the Fiesta Americana. If you're looking for boutique hotels, you're out of luck. I stay exclusively at the La Siesta Motel (Blvd. Eusebio Kino 185, Country Club, 83010 Hermosillo; lasiesta.mx) for its location, value (600 Mexican pesos—about $60 American), but most of all because its restaurant is one of the old-school steakhouses in Hermosillo, La Siesta. That's right, mi gente, Sonoran steaks with all the complements delivered to your cheap motel room—now that's luxury.0x000A
WHERE TO DINE
You are here for carne asada, parrillada packets, Northern burritos, caguamanta (manta ray stew), the best beef-head tacos in Mexico, carne con chile (meat with chile colorado—the O.G. stuff, not the watered-down Cal-Mex version you grew up eating), pozole de trigo (wheat pozole), Sonoran hot dogs, machaca (dried beef), cocido (beef soup), caldo de queso (cheese soup), panochas, sobaquera tortillas and of course, lots of bacanora.
One of the only places in town that actually has a selection of bacanoras on the menu is Tijuana-based chef Javier Plascencia's Bermejo (Blvd. Kino 177, 5 de Mayo, 83010 Hermosillo; www.bermejo.mx), which offers a modern take on Sonoran cuisine. Get the callo de hacha (pen-shell clam) served in its giant shell, duck-confit burritos and the fish with octopus chicharron.
For carne asada, I love to experience the full range of steak options from the novel chimney-stacked carts to taqueros using fine cuts to the parrilladas, which serve complete family packets of mesquite-grilled steak with all the sides. Walking distance from the La Siesta Motel is Bermejo and Tacos Kiko (5 de Mayo just south of Eusebio Francísco Kino), a classic cart for carne asada tacos served on flour tortillas. Just don't forget to spoon on some veneno, or poison, which, in Sonora, means beef-trim carnitas.
The next level up is Tacos Del Pitín (Bl. Navarrete 311, Hermosillo), a taquero that uses Rancho 17 cuts of New York steak, cabreria (bone in sirloin) or rib-eye cut into long, slender strips that are cooked to your preferred degree of doneness. Try some of the local expressions such as the caramelo (taco with melted cheese), lorenza (Sonora's version of the Vampiro) or the Jass (carne asada with melted cheese and roasted Anaheim peppers). You won't get tired of the steak, especially once you've witnessed a Mexican-style parrillada—at El Leñador (Calle Luis Donaldo Colosio 168, El Centenario, 83260, Hermosillo), you get cuts of steak; ultra-thin sobaquera tortillas; impossibly rich beans called frijoles maneados; guacamole; queso fundido; salsa de chiltepín; and a curious salad of iceberg lettuce, sliced tomatoes and roasted chiles that's a Sonoran classic. Bring a friend!
It's only about an hour to Bahia de Kino, where the fresh-shucked callo de hacha and an odd variety of clams can be had at carts such as Conchas Tejon (Muelle Kino Viejo, Bahia de Kino)—this is Tsukiji-level shit, cabrones. There are plenty of beach restaurants at which you can get pescado zarandeado, ceviche and regional seafood stews, but don't miss the crab, which is fresh and delicious here. Sonora has a seafood cuisine that's on par with Sinaloa and Nayarit—there are fewer dishes, but the flavor and style are very close.
It's a ritual of mine to head to the Rio Sonora early in my trip to stock up on bacanora, first stopping in the town of Guadalupe for traditional Sonoran cuisine at La Fonda de Doña Marcela (Carretera Hermosillo-Ures, km 55, Guadalupe de Ures). Get the panochas (don't Google panochas at work) and coyotas, which are the typical sweets of Sonora; caldo de queso, cocido and other regional dishes litter the menu at this roadside fonda. Now that the belly is full, it's time to head to the bus depot in Ures, a recovering but attractive colonial town. The man who runs the depot runs everything—just tell him ahead of time you'd like to buy bacanora, and magical things will happen.
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You could also try your luck visiting the small towns along the fertile Rio Sonora, but you won't really need luck. Just pull up to some locals and say you're looking for bacanora; you might end up at a private back yard or someone's house with bacanora poured from a keg in a master bedroom. There isn't much work along the Rio Sonora, but there's chingo of hustle, as everyone is selling bacanora (even the cops), dried chiles colorados, flour tortillas and wild chiltepín.
BACK TO HERMOSILLO
There are plenty of bars with banda and ranchera music—just be sure to bring a cowboy hat and boots if you want to blend in, or you can do bottle service at one of the trendy clubs. Come on, it's less than a c-note for Bukanas (Buchanan's blended Scotch) and Topo Chico or Grey Goose and juice, plus the crowd is beautiful and friendly.
A badass stand for Sonoran dogs is a half-mile away from La Siesta, Gordo's Hot Dogs (Bl. Valentín Gómez Farías 44, Constitucion, Hermosillo), and it's right around the corner from Taqueria El Chino (Calle Benito Juárez García 36, Modelo, Hermosillo), where you are going in the morning for the juiciest and finest beef-head tacos in the country. After, you should check out the Mercado Municipal (Av. Plutarco Elías Calles, Centro, Hermosillo) to eat a little more—get the molletes and gallina pinta (beef, bean and nixtamal stew)—and take in the sights, sounds and smells of old Sonora.
And that's just scratching the surface, but it's what I do when traveling to Hermosillo with first-timers. One of the few regrets I have in life is that my busy schedule doesn't allow me to spend more time there, and a recent trip to shoot with CNN's Nick Valencia made me realize how much more I've yet to discover. A weekend in Sonora will alter your perception of northern Mexican cuisine—this is where the promise of big Mexican flavors rings as true as the bells at La Parroquia de Dolores Hidalgo.