This has been a great summer so far. It started (as it always does) with towing the Airstream up to Ohio for Alumapalooza, and it has been a series of great experiences ever since. Visiting friends in Ohio and family in Vermont, motorcycling through the Adirondack Park in New York, camping in an Airstream Interstate, hiking to ancient ruins in Navajo National Monument, attending the International Rally in New Mexico, attending EAA’s Airventure in Oshkosh Wisconsin … and in between, little TBM activities like The Loft’s “Mondo Monday” and card night with the guys.
Last weekend I got a bonus TBM activity. Tesla Motors was in town doing a promotion about Tesla owners having driven over a billion miles on electricity alone, and I took the opportunity to snag a test-drive in a Tesla Model S 85. I won’t go into full fanboy raving about the Tesla here, so suffice to say that it was every bit as awesome as I expected. If I had the funds I’d buy a Tesla Model S right now. But I’ll have to wait for the less-expensive Model 3 to come out.
A $2.50 hotdog is more in my price range at the moment. Having been in Tucson on-and-off for several weeks, it was high time to seek out the Sonoran hot dog carts that occupy vacant parking lots along Tucson’s streets.
You see, a Sonoran hot dog is a one of the two excuses I allow myself each year to consume a hot dog. The first instance is at a beach party on Lake Champlain in the summer, when friends bring over quirky variations on hot dogs from their hometowns in New York state. Malone NY, for example, has a dog known locally as the “Malone Red Hot“. Rochester and Syracuse have their “white hots“. Burlington VT is the home of the McKenzie Natural Casing Frank, which is hardly exotic but definitely my favorite. Such a variety mandates that one make a dietary exception and explore the local eats. It is made a far better experience when standing in a cool breeze on the rocky shores of Lake Champlain at sunset with a gang of friends and a beach fire.
The second exception is in the peak of Tucson’s monsoon season, July through September, when the weather gets hot & wild and people retreat to their air conditioned spaces. I like to roam the main boulevards and seek out those hardy vendors who have staked out vacant lots on prime corners, and maintain their position through the scorching summer and torrential thunderstorms. You know that anyone who keeps their hot dog stand going through such a season has something more important to vend than the average fairground hot dog.
These culinary outlets tend to be just a large hot dog cart with a nearby tent, a few chairs and tables, and—if you’re lucky—an old concrete slab from some long-ago demolished house to serve as a floor. Otherwise you’re usually standing on dirt. Traffic from busy main streets is ever-present. There’s no relief from the heat, and only a small patch of shade.
But it’s Tucson, so there’s also a good chance that you’ll have a view of the beautiful Santa Catalinas as you eat, and the guy who serves your Sonoran dog will certainly speak Spanish as his first language. He won’t kowtow to you, he won’t B.S. you, and he won’t give you anything but his best.
In other words, the experience is wonderfully authentic Tucson: real food served in real outdoor atmosphere, no theme-park imitation anything. It’s an ephemeral experience too: vendors come and go over the years, the locations may change as vacant lots get redeveloped, and even the recipes change like language with little flairs and flourishes added by each Sonoran chef.
These days there are at least half a dozen well-established Sonoran hot dog stands around Tucson, and probably another handful that come and go. If I only sample one per year I’ll never get to them all, so I chose two to compare (and brought a friend to help consume them). This year I went to El Manantial at Park and 36th in South Tucson, and Ruiz at 22nd and 6th near downtown.
Sonoran dogs really aren’t all the same. El Manantial (pictured above) tended to put more mayo on the dog, and their guero pepper (served on the side with most Sonoran dogs) was wrapped in bacon and filled with gooey orange cheese. This was like the one I got from El Sinaloense in 2012. Plenty of beans were inside, and lots of diced tomato and onion.
Ruiz toasted the bun to the point that it was just a bit crispy, which added a nice crunchy mouthfeel that I liked. The top of his dog had a fine puree of tomatillo on top that added decoration, if only a little flavor. Apparently Ruiz is a purist about the pepper, since it was just grilled plain without the bacon or cheese. (Still plenty hot, though. My advice is to keep a little mayo on the side to coat your mouth and help deal with the burn from the pepper.)
A “Mexican” Coke in a glass bottle is always available at these places if you want to have the full culinary experience.
These hot dogs should come with a Surgeon General’s warning. The cardiac consequences should be fairly obvious if you include them as a regular part of your diet, but what isn’t immediately apparent is how filling they are. They aren’t large, yet splitting two dogs left me feeling like I wouldn’t want to eat again for a day or two.
To be fair, I did eat about 2/3 of each one (because my helper was a lightweight) and my grease tolerance isn’t what it used to be, so I suppose a hungry 23-year-old wouldn’t have the same reaction. Still, you have been warned. We wanted to get some gelato afterward, but neither of us could actually make room for it.
OK, so “eat a Sonoran dog” is ticked off my TBM list. Tomorrow marks the end of my Temporary Bachelor Man time. I’m flying back to New England to rejoin my family and watch the last couple of weeks of northern Vermont summer. It’s a short season up there, and by mid August the days are already noticeably cooler. Residents will be frantically working on their summer bucket lists: get in another day of waterskiing, hike another mountain, ride the bike, have dinner on the patio, etc. In just two weeks we will start to see the first hints of fall color in the maple tree leaves, and by September Vermonters will be sighing as the breezes turn cool and the lake begins to get too wavy to leave the boat moored.
We’ll watch the curtain slowly draw on Vermont’s summer, but happily it won’t be over for us. In October we will be taking most of the month to travel back across the country with the Airstream. That’s one of the nice things about this lifestyle—we can extend the season by “chasing 70 degrees” southward in the fall. Summer lasts longer when you’ve got an Airstream. We’re having a great one; I hope you are too.