National Award for El Guero Canelo

By Valerie Vinyard –

A Hot Dog Like No Other

Every year, Jennifer and Angel Gallego seem to have a reason to journey from their home in Northern Colorado to Tucson, Angel’s hometown.

Their most recent visit a few weeks ago was for a wedding. Whatever the reason each time, what doesn’t deviate when they hit town is to stop for a Sonoran hot dog at El Guero Canelo.

“No matter what, we always stop here,” said 30-year-old Jennifer Gallego, who works in a bakery. “My taste buds just open up. It’s made with love.”

Angel Gallego introduced his wife to El Guero Canelo about 10 years ago. The couple has tried to encourage restaurants in Colorado to offer their own version of the Sonoran dog, but they’ve had no luck yet.

With the Sonoran hot dog winning a prestigious national award, however, that might change.

El Guero Canelo recently received a James Beard Award, considered the Oscars of food awards, in the America’s Classics category.

Because of that, sales are up 40 percent in the already popular restaurant, said Daniel Contreras, the 57-year-old owner and “hotdoguero” of El Guero Canelo.

“This is like a wake-up call for Tucson,” said Contreras, who had never heard of James Beard before receiving the call about the award from New York in January. That call has led to even more fame for Contreras and his restaurants, which have appeared on TV shows on the Food Channel and have been written about in The New York Times.

Contreras is an engaging man whose vibrant red hair matches his ebullient personality. On a recent Saturday, he walked among the tables at the location at 2480 N. Oracle Road, shaking hands with patrons and chatting with regulars.

“Tucson is the Mexican food capital of the United States,” said Contreras, who started El Guero Canelo as a carne asada cart in 1993. The Sonoran native branched out when customers started requesting Sonoran dogs, which first appeared in Hermosillo, Sonora’s capital.

The original stand is now a restaurant at 5201 S. 12th Ave., complete with picnic tables and a walk-up order window.

“We are originally famous for the carne asada, but we are worldwide famous for Sonoran hot dogs,” said Contreras, who still features his original carne asada on his menus.

Now, his restaurants – three in Tucson and one in Phoenix – and a bakery in Magdalena, Mexico, employ 140 people.

For those who haven’t yet tried the Sonoran hot dog, you’re in for a treat. Contreras keeps his recipe traditional, a “universal Sonoran style,” if you will. First, he takes a beef, chicken and pork dog and snugly wraps a piece of bacon around it. After the meat cooks, it’s nestled in one of Contreras’ fluffy buns.

Then the real fun begins. A parade of fresh ingredients – cooked beans, sautéed onions, raw onions, tomatoes and jalapeno sauce – are slathered on top. A ribbon of mustard and mayonnaise finish off the accompaniments. A mild, fat and slightly smoky Caribe yellow pepper is grilled and is placed next to each Sonoran dog.

“In England they say, ‘Keep it simple,’ and that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life,” Contreras said.

Many describe the magical buns as bolillo or a roll, but Contreras is quick to correct the mistake. His hot dog buns are made about 90 miles away at his small bakery in Magdalena. That is where his employees create the generously sized, super-soft buns that contain a tinge of sweetness. That bun helps offset the saltiness of the hot dog and bacon and helps create a well-rounded flavor profile.

“It’s a dinner in a bun,” said Contreras, who prices each Sonoran dog at $3.50, including tax. “I eat them every day if I can. They are the best.”

The America’s Classics honor is awarded to regional establishments, often family-owned, that are cherished for their quality food, local character and lasting appeal. In addition to El Guero Canelo, other winners included Sun Wah in Chicago for its three-course Beijing Duck Feast and Galleria Umberto in Boston for its “crisp-edged squares of Sicilian pizza.”

The winners will be honored at the James Beard Awards Gala at Lyric Opera of Chicago on May 7.

Contreras, who started as a kid washing dishes and busing tables at a Travelodge, plans to be there to accept his award. He’ll display the trophy at the Oracle location.

His third Tucson location is his smallest at 5802 E. 22nd St., while the Phoenix location is at 5131 W. McDowell Road.

“I’ve been ambitious my whole life,” said Contreras, who has three kids ranging in age from 20 to 30 and three grandkids. He has been married to Blanca Contreras for 30 years.

For non-hot dog lovers, El Guero Canelo’s reasonably priced menu includes caramelos, tortas, tacos and burros that range in price from a $2.75 beef or chicken taco to a $9.25 “very mucho” beef or chicken burro.

Another customer, Markus Martin, has been stopping in to El Guero Canelo since he discovered it while visiting Tucson. The New York resident shrugged off the news of the restaurant’s recent award and was there for the hot dog.

“I don’t care what they won,” Martin said. “I’ve been coming for six years. It’s a killer sweet bun.”

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