If you ask anyone in Tucson, Arizona, where to go for a Sonoran hot dog, you’ll hear about El Güero Canelo. At three locations in town (with a fourth in Phoenix), you can enjoy this picture-perfect fusion of Mexican and American foods: a hot dog wrapped in bacon, topped with beans, onions, tomatoes, jalapeño sauce, mustard, and a delicate filigree of mayonnaise, paired with a grilled yellow pepper on the side.
“We call that chile güerito, like me — güero,” Daniel Contreras told me. Contreras is the eponymous “cinnamon blond” and founder of El Güero Canelo, so named because of his bright red hair and fair complexion. (“I’m even whiter than a gringo,” he said.)
Contreras is an easygoing guy, always ready with a joke. But when it comes to food, he’s a perfectionist, right down to the bakery he owns and operates in Mexico, which delivers fresh hot dog buns to all his Arizona restaurants. I asked if the fluffy oblong buns are called “bolillo” rolls, as I’ve heard them described, and he was quick to gently correct me. “Cemita,” he said. “Not bolillo. But you can call it a bolillo, because I don’t want people to get confused.”
Contreras was born in Magdalena, Sonora, Mexico, the youngest child of 13. His family was “poor in money, but rich in love,” he told me. With no formal education, he worked menial jobs, leaving home at age 12 to work in a tortilla factory. When he was 18, he came to Tucson, working odd jobs in restaurants and construction, and marrying his wife, Blanca, in 1988.
While he loved Tucson, Contreras missed his hometown food. As he put it, “I didn’t have any flavor in my mouth.” He and Blanca started making weekend trips back across the border to Nogales to eat. Dreaming of owning his own business, he finally scraped together $2,500 to open a Tucson taco stand in 1993. Sonoran hot dogs, thought to have originated in Hermosillo, Mexico, in the 1980s, blew up in Arizona in the 2000s, and Contreras got in on the action. Ever since then, El Güero Canelo has been a local fixture.
“Before me, there were 14 or 15 restaurants in this location,” Contreras said, arranging plump, pink, bacon-wrapped dogs on the grill. “Nobody was a success. When I opened this location, they told me, ’It’s a risk for you.’ I didn’t listen to them, because I believe in my product. My product is very high-quality. That’s why I keep my doors open.”
Contreras showed me how he liberally coats the grill in butter — “love,” he calls it — to keep the meat from sticking. How he carefully lays the hot dogs on the grill in such a way that the bacon stays locked around them, and doesn’t curl and peel away. Each time he prepared to apply the mayo, he kissed the bottle — a bit of an act for the camera, but I could tell he meant it.
“I don’t know what is my country anymore, living here for years,” Contreras said. It wasn’t a lament, but an expression of happiness. Like the Sonoran hot dog itself, Contreras has one foot in Mexico and the other in America. A baseball prodigy at 12, he dreamed of playing in the big leagues, and still plays ball every Tuesday. He loves Donald Duck and his 1965 powder blue Mustang convertible. And he plans to keep sharing authentic Sonoran food with the people of Arizona for as long as he can — ideally, until his target kick-the-bucket year of 2053, at which point he’ll be 92, the same age reached by his beloved grandfather.
After loading up my cemita with a hot dog, the bacon perfectly caramelized, and all the fixings, Contreras asked, “What are you missing now?”
I didn’t know.
“A big bite,” he said.
That part was easy.
Tony Carnevale is a senior writer for Studio@Gawker.
Photos by Jake Inferrera.