Most older gabachos have a general idea that the Mexican food they grew up eating in Southern California was heavily influenced by Sonoran cooking: the flour tortillas and burritos and machaca and chile colorado and obsession with beef that distinguishes Cal-Mex from Tex-Mex (which owes most of its heritage to Chihuahua, Tamaulipas and Nuevo León). Some restaurants, such as Los Sanchez in Garden Grove, still hearken to that heritage by proclaiming they sell Sonoran cuisine.
If only! Like all food, Sonorans have evolved into better dishes, while what we consider Sonoran food is stuck in a 1950s time warp. I spent a couple of days in Tucson on tour for Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, which meant I was able to try Sonoran dishes (because, unlike what Arizona's Know Nothings maintain, Tucson is very much a part of Sonora; it was only pendejo borders that put an arbitrary line between the Old Pueblo and its motherland) that need to get on the menus of all Cal-Mex restaurants NOW–after all, it's our heritage.
1. Actual Sonoran Dogs
We also generally know that what we call bacon-wrapped hot dogs have their origins in the Sonoran desert, but I've yet to find a satisfactory Sonoran dog in Southern California. The problem we have is that most places offer a delicious-but-distended monster, whereas the Sonoran dogs of Tucson are far more austere. More importantly, though, is the bun: not a hot dog bun but a modified bolillo, a soft, wheaty marvel. And the condiments: not just ketchup and mustard but roasted chilies, cebollitas, pickled onions–the Mission burrito system writ spicy. Pee-Wee's makes an yummy Sonoran but one that just doesn't compare to what's in Tucson; let's see more Sonoran dogs, and better quality locally.
2. Caldo de Queso
A staple of the Lenten season, caldo de queso is a rustic masterpiece: potato soup enlivened with oregano, chiltepín (the marble-sized pepper that burns with the intensity of habanero and the dryness of chile de árbol), and a block of queso Sonora, a tough, milky, cheese somewhere between Monterey Jack and a sharp cheddar. The cheese melts in the scalding broth so that every spoonful transforms into ropes of the stuff. It was such a good meal that I had it twice in two days, and even better than pho in beating the winter cold. For summer? Great to start an early day.
3. Actual Good Flour Tortillas
Look at the picture above. See that tortilla? Not blinding white but dun, thin and frankly a bit haggard? It's spectacular. Tasting the flour tortillas of the Sonoran desert, where the take reaches an art form ranging from palm-sized beauties to arm-length sobaqueras, puts the Mission-Guerrero monopoly to shame and reminds me why I never buy flour tortillas from Southern California tortillerías: they're almost all uniformly shit. Sonoran expats have constantly hounded me on this question, and I always give them the same advice: go to Tucson. Sigh…
Dave plugged them with a recipe back in 2010, and I'll just repeat what he said then:
A torito, for those of you who've never ventured south of the border, is
a chile güero (a yellow chile that looks like a more bulbous jalapeño)
that has been stuffed with seafood, usually shrimp, crab or marlin,
wrapped in bacon, and cooked. They're absolutely insanely addictive;
they contain seafood, bacon and spicy peppers, things that should appeal
to people of a certain demographic, and they go frighteningly well with
The only thing missing from his fine write-up: the chile-spiked soy sauce at the center of this picture. The next guacamole for sporting events?
5. Poblano Hot Sauce
I had never even heard of this hot sauce until a friend from Tucson gave one to me; now, I consider this the best hot sauce in the United States not made by a Gringo Bandito. Made by the Segura family since 1924, it's thicker and grittier than Tapatío or Cholula, and also spicier due to the liberal use of habaneros and chiltepín. Make like a Sonoran, and drown everything you have in it.