A tray of Sonoran hot dogs in Tucson — Photo courtesy of Larissa Milne
Anyone visiting Tucson must sample a Sonoran hot dog. The city's signature street food first emerged between the 1960s and 80s, but quickly earned a devoted following. It has had such an impact on the local food culture that it was elevated to James Beard Award status when one local purveyor was included in its 2018 list of America's Classics.
The Sonoran hot dog is a meal unto itself: hot dogs are wrapped in bacon and fried until the bacon is crispy. They are then topped with pinto beans and a collection of various condiments that usually includes chopped fresh tomatoes, chopped onion, jalapeños, mustard, mayonnaise and perhaps cilantro, all sandwiched into a bun with enough heft to manage the load.
Most cost between $3 and $3.50, which is a great deal when you consider that the hot dog is essentially topped with its own side dish.
As a classic street food, Sonoran hot dogs are available throughout the city at food carts, trucks and simple walk-up stands, typically with simple folding tables and chairs nearby. A few more enterprising spots have added more permanent seating, while others have become full-fledged restaurants.
And a dish with such popularity has not escaped the fine-dining scene; stop into DOWNTOWN Kitchen + Cocktails for a chef-inspired version of this street classic.
From simple spots to swanky digs, here are ten spots to grab a taste of Tucson.
Carretas (Hot dog carts)
Ruiz Hot Dogs/Los Chipilones
1140 S 6th Ave | 520-406-1649
Ruiz hot dogs are part of the Tucson landscape — Photo courtesy of Larissa Milne
Ruiz is about as classic as a Tucson hot dog cart gets. The cart, which has a small dining area with a few stools and a counter attached, is parked in a corner lot in southern Tucson.
Fancy it ain't, but Gerardo (whose last name we never got) worked magic with dogs wrapped with perfectly-crisped bacon, topped with delicious beans, mustard, mayo and the ripest red tomatoes. Plus, he grilled the roll to perfection, so it held up to his whopping toppings.
Note: The family now has a brick-and-mortar stand with outdoor seating on the adjacent lot that serves tacos, quesadillas and breakfast.
1901 E Fort Lowell Rd | 520-336-6805
Bacon-wrapped hot dogs ready for topping at Los Ponchos — Photo courtesy of Larissa Milne
This carreta, or 2-wheeled cart, is located on a street corner about 3 miles north of the University of Arizona and is popular with students and faculty alike. In addition to the Sonoran hot dog, Los Ponchos features a "queso-dogo," which is a hot dog-filled quesadilla. Try this if you simply must have a tortilla with your frank.
El Sinaloense Hot Dog Cart
1526 N Alvernon Way | 520-358-0779
El Sinaloense, a classic Tucson "carreta" — Photo courtesy of Michael Milne
Despite its name (Sinaloa is the state in Mexico directly south of Sonora), this cart-with-tables serves up traditional Sonoran dogs. The atmosphere is classic carreta; diners sit at folding tables and chairs tucked under a canvas canopy in the middle of an empty corner lot. The dogs are nestled in a nicely toasted bun, served with the traditional roasted pepper alongside.
Food Trucks/Permanent Seating
704 E Prince Rd | 520-336-3779
View this post on Instagram
La Reyna is a food cart/restaurant hybrid; seating is inside a storefront at a small strip mall, while the "kitchen" is the food truck parked out front. The hot dog is a traditional version of the Sonoran classic, with the bacon-wrapped dog nice and crispy and the roll toasted in butter on the griddle.
When we're feeling super-indulgent, we order Chipilones, which are the same dogs with cheese melted on top YES! In addition to Mexican sodas, La Reyna also serves housemade horchata and limonada, the latter made from fresh limes.
Aqui con El Nene
4415 N Flowing Wells Rd | 520-312-1666 or 65 W Valencia Rd | 520-889-5338
The Sonoran hot dog at Aqui con El Nene in Tucson — Photo courtesy of Larissa Milne
"El Nene," as it's known locally, is a popular spot in northern Tucson that falls into the hybrid-cart category. The large food truck is parked in front of a former restaurant/bar; seating is in a covered outdoor pavilion or inside the former restaurant. (There's a newer, brick-and-mortar shop on the south side of town as well.)
It boasts an extensive condiment bar that includes enough fresh and marinated veggies to create a side dish to accompany your dog. Also popular are the "papanchas," baked potatoes topped with your choice of Mexican meats and other goodies.
Food Culture: Where did the Buffalo wing actually come from?
El Guero Canelo
5201 S. 12th Ave | 520-295-9005
Sonoran hot dog at El Guero Canelo — Photo courtesy of Larissa Milne
Arguably the granddaddy of Sonoran hot dog spots, El Guero is so entrenched in the Tucson food scene that founder Daniel Contreras was given a James Beard Award in 2018 for his role in the city's culinary heritage. The original location is a stand that has morphed to include indoor seating. Fame has brought crowds and a bit of glitz; the diners now receive pagers to alert them when their food is ready, and a video of the James Beard Awards plays on a loop in the dining area.
Regardless, the dogs are still tasty, although the custom-made Mexican rolls are not toasted, and we found them a bit crumbly. Two additional locations in Tucson (and one in Phoenix).
Calle Tepa Mexican Street Grill & Bar
6151 E Broadway Blvd | 520-777-5962
The freshest ingredients top the Sonoran hot dog at Calle Tepa — Photo courtesy of Michael Milne
Calle Tepa is a casual brick-and-mortar restaurant that offers a slightly more upscale setting for this Sonoran classic (i.e. you both order and eat indoors.) The rolls are hefty enough to hoist the dog for the duration, and the pico de gallo served on top is always made with gorgeous red ripe tomatoes and fresh cilantro. The restaurant specializes in a variety of Mexican street foods, such as tacos and tortas (Mexican sandwiches).
2418 N Craycroft Rd | 520-296-1345
Chunks of crispy bacon, along with homemade salsas, adorn the Sonoran hot dog at The Quesadillas — Photo courtesy of Larissa Milne
As the name implies, the focus at this 3-year-old restaurant in eastern Tucson is on quesadillas, but they added a hot dog due to numerous customer requests. Owner Marcos Barragan opted to put his own spin on the Sonoran classic, namely using all-beef franks, omitting the beans and using "bacon bits," which in reality are large chunks of chopped bacon sprinkled on top.
In addition to mustard, mayo and chopped tomatoes, we added some of daughter Alex Barragan's homemade salsas (we especially loved the jalapeno guacamole and pineapple chiltepin), and almost forgot about the other stuff on the menu.
Tip: The restaurant does all grilling for the quesadillas over mesquite wood. If you request it, they will grill your hot dog there as well.
5118 S 12th Ave | 520-295-0105 or 2680 N. 1st Ave | 520-207-2245
The Sonoran hot dog at BKs — Photo courtesy of Michael Milne
BK's is another Tucson brick-and-mortar staple, with two locations in town. Originally known as BK's Carne Asada & Hot Dogs, the name change reflects the growing focus on a variety of Mexican foods. The Sonoran hot dog has all the requisite ingredients, but we found the bun a little uninspired it wasn't toasted, and had trouble holding up to the mammoth fillings.
DOWNTOWN Kitchen + Cocktails
135 S 6th Ave | 520-623-7700
The "J-Dawg," an upscale version of the Sonoran classic — Photo courtesy of Tim Harris
Behold the "J-Dawg," which is a Sonoran hot dog as interpreted by classically-trained chef Janos Wilder (who has his own 2000 James Beard Award as Best Chef in the Southwest). He put a gourmet spin on this street food classic, which is available on the bar menu of his hip and funky restaurant.
Tanner Fleming, Chef de Cuisine (and Tucson native) whips up these "dawgs" on a daily basis, which he says "stick to traditional flavors, but with a unique twist." This upscale version features extra-large Big City Reds hot dogs (imported from Chicago) tucked into a roll custom-baked locally by Alejandros (who make some of the best tortillas in town), cradled with chorizo-infused black beans, whole grain mustard, pickled nopalitos (cactus pods) and chopped red onion, all topped with a smoked poblano crema...aaahhh.
At $7, it's the most expensive dog on the list, but it's larger than the others and is served with a side of fries, which makes it a filling meal. It's the perfect option when you want to indulge that street food craving in an upscale setting.
Tip: At happy hour the J-Dawg is only $5, making it a real bargain.