Sonoran hot dog test #3

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.

Tesla billion mile braceletLast 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.

El ManantialThe 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.

IMG_5153El Manantial chili with cheese

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 Sonoran DogRuiz Rich receiving sonoran dog

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.

Time to fix

We parked the Airstream back in the carport last Tuesday night, spent the night in it (because it was too late to start unpacking), and it has been go-go-go ever since. There’s just so much to do …

I think one of the problems with coming back to home base is that suddenly I have no excuse to avoid the projects waiting for me here.  I thought last winter season was busy, but already this one is looking like a record-breaker.

The Airstream Safari came back from its summer trip with many little things on the Squawk List, including:

  • belt line trim replacement needed
  • bathroom fan with broken handle
  • MaxxFan with loose motor/fan assembly
  • cabinet trim by refrigerator needing tweaks
  • loose attachment of the galley countertop
  • loose section above bathroom door
  • … and a few other things

As you can see, most of these items have to do with things working loose over time.  A rolling house tends to have such issues, and after six-figure mileage and eight years of heavy use I’m not surprised to have a few.  But these are generally not hard repairs.  Often it’s just a matter of a longer wood screw where an original one worked its way out, or a bit of glue or Loc-Tite.  I see a few hardware store trips in my future, along with a few hours of weekend puttering.

I plan to make a few of the jobs harder than they have to be, in the interest of preventing future problems.  For example, the loose galley countertop is just a matter of a few screws and brackets that could be fixed in a few minutes , but I want to remove the stove and thoroughly inspect the area under the counter to see if anything else is going on under there.  Instead of just re-attaching the loose under-counter brackets, I plan to install some of my homemade aluminum L-brackets (leftover from the cabinetry job of last spring) which are much lighter and offer more area to spread out the stress.  At the same time I will probably also install the countertop-mounted Nu-Tone Food Center that has been sitting in our storage room for a couple of years.

This is the way I’ve always done it.  I see repairing things on the Airstream as a series of opportunities to improve the Airstream.  Not only do I learn more about how it’s put together, the eventual result is far better in many ways than a factory-original model, since it’s customized to our needs.  This builds confidence (assuming everything I’ve touched isn’t going to rattle apart again).  Someday, when we tow over miles of washboard road at Chaco Culture National Monument, or take a long gravel road in Alaska, I’ll appreciate the extra effort.

That means the eight or ten repairs the Safari needs will likely take through October to complete.  And there’s still the Caravel, waiting patiently in the carport to have its plumbing finalized.  That project has been on hold since April, and it’s high time I got back to it.  So already I’ve got Airstream work to keep me busy for a while.

But who needs an Airstream project when you’ve got an old Mercedes to fix?  The 1984 300D has been sitting here waiting for its share of attention.  Everything was working on it when we headed out in May, so I think over the summer it started to feel neglected.  Not seriously neglected —it still started up promptly even after sitting a month—but just the car apparently felt the need for some TLC because three things failed on it:  a climate control actuator, the trip odometer, and the clock.  All of those problems are at least tangentially related to the heat.

You can’t have an old car like this if you can’t fix most of the things yourself.  It would have killed me in repairs already if I had to take it to the local Der Deutscher specialist for every little thing.  So I got on the phone to Pierre, and read the Internet forums, and figured out how to fix the climate control actuator and the clock this week.  That took a few hours, while the Airstreams both looked sullenly on (I swear, you can tell that they are jealous, it’s like having three young children all vying for your attention).  The odometer fix will have to be done later because I’m just about out of time for repairs at the moment.

This week has to be mostly dedicated to “real” work, by which I mean the stuff that pays the bills.  (Isn’t it ironic that the “real” work generates money and the “fun” work costs money?  If only it were the other way around.)  Right now the Winter magazine is in layout and I’m collecting articles for Spring 2014.  At the same time, the R&B Events team (which includes me) is busy trying to get tentative programs for Alumaflamingo (Sarasota FL) and Alumafiesta (Tucson AZ) put together, and that’s a big effort.

And we’re working on a new iPad Newsstand app for Airstream Life, which I hope to have released sometime in the first quarter of next year.  When it comes out, you’ll be able to get most of the back issues (at least back to 2008) on your iPad and read them or refer to them anytime.  That way you can carry all the knowledge around in your Airstream without also carrying fifty pounds of paper.  I’ve been testing demo versions and it’s very cool, so this is an exciting project.

Finally, I’ll be presenting a slideshow at Tucson Modernism Week next Saturday, October 5, at 2:00 pm, about my favorite over-the-top vintage trailer customizations.  It’s basically the best of the interiors we’ve featured in the magazine over the past several years.  The pictures are beautiful and inspirational.  I had forgotten about how incredible they are, until I went through the old magazines and re-read the articles.  My talk is free and open to the public, if you happen to be in the Tucson area right now.  If you aren’t, I might present the slideshow again at Alumafiesta in February.

Walking tour of Tucson

Although these days we’re focused on getting ready to launch the Airstream, it can’t be all work all the time.  To get a break from the long list of “to do” items and a little exercise, I planned a day out to explore downtown Tucson’s historic sites.  We’ve been living here for four years, on and off, and I am still constantly surprised by the many hidden corners of Tucson that I’ve never seen.  It has quirky neighborhoods everywhere, oddball homes, tons of cultural artifacts, great museums, surprising restaurants, and historic buildings.  For a small city, it has a surprising amount to offer.

We used the map provided by the Tucson Presidio Trust for Historic Preservation for our tour.  The entire walk they recommend is about 2.5 miles, which is pretty mild by our street hiking standards especially since downtown is mostly flat.  The catch, however, is that this is mid-May, and so daytime temperatures are pretty consistently in the upper 90s or low 100s.  I tried to get Emma out early with dire warnings about hiking in the heat, but ultimately she decided that snoozing on a Sunday morning was more important than avoiding the heat.  With the 30 minute drive to downtown, our hike didn’t get started until about 10 a.m., and the air was already well into the 90s by then.

Oh well.  We’re used to it.  I know to a northerner the idea of walking around on asphalt in 100-degree heat would be horrendous, but of course it was the famous Arizona “dry heat”.  You put on light colored clothes, apply sunscreen, wear a big hat, and carry a water bottle or two.  With all that prep, my only problem was a burning sensation through the soles of my sneakers …

The first stop on the tour is the best.  Right in downtown there’s a recreated presidio, which is a sort of fortification from the Spanish Colonial era.  Spaniards needed to migrate from Mexico to California through some pretty tough country inhabited by the Apaches, and they were not on good terms.  So Spain established a line of 17 presidios, of which Tucson’s was the largest (11 acres) and and last.  Almost nothing of the original presidio still exists, but on part of the original site a very good recreation has been installed, and it’s well worth a visit.  Being a hot Sunday, we found ourselves the only visitors and so got a private guided tour from the volunteer who was on duty.  Fascinating and free.

The tour ultimately passes 22 sites, including statues commemorating the Mormon Battalion, Pancho Villa, and a Spanish “soldado de cuera” (leather jacket soldier, wearing a sort of armor made from deerskins), two footbridges, historic houses, cathedrals, parks, gardens, a historic hotel, a shrine, and even an elementary school from 1930.

We particularly liked the little shrine called El Tiradito (“The Castaway”), a.k.a. “The Wishing Shrine,” which is said to be the only shrine in the US dedicated to the soul of a sinner buried in unconsecrated ground.  It’s obvious that many people still visit this shrine regularly to light candles and leave notes for those who have departed.  It’s hard not to be struck by the poignancy of this site and the offerings.

(There’s also a public water fountain nearby, which was great for us since we had already used up most of our supply.  In 2.5 miles of 100 degree+ heat we drank about 24 ounces of water each.)

I was most impressed by the fact that walking the streets of Tucson, we encountered no “bad neighborhoods” and discovered several areas that I never knew existed.  There’s really nothing like walking or bicycling a city to get to know it.  I was also pleased to connect the dots between several old neon signs that I’ve documented over the past couple of years.  Some are gone, others have been restored as a result of the new Historic Sign Amendment, including the famous “diving girl” sign.  (She used to advertise the Pueblo Hotel, but now the building houses a law firm.  Thanks to Piccaretta Davis for investing the money in having her restored.)

Of course, being a hot Sunday in downtown, we also encountered very few people until we got to the Congress Street district where retail is concentrated.   It seems few are interested in street hiking when it is over 100 degrees — go figure.


Toward the end of the tour we found ourselves on familiar ground at the Hotel Congress, famous for being the place that John Dillinger and his gang were caught in 1936.  The Hotel Congress has managed to survive by adapting, still offering hotel rooms that hark back to the 1930s, but also offering a nice little restaurant downstairs, a bar, and live music regularly.  We have so few historic hotels left in Tucson that we treasure those that remain. It’s a huge neon sign on the roof that I’ve photographed several times.

Besides the tip of carrying water and dressing correctly, there’s one other thing you must do if you are to street hike here in the summer:  find covered parking for the car.  On Sunday most of the lots were free, so we chose the main Public Library’s underground garage and were glad we did.  Parked underground, the car was only about 102 degrees inside, whereas parked in the sun it would have been unbearable for a while.  The Honda Fit is a great car but its dinky AC really can’t handle desert heat.

What do you do when you’ve conquered downtown on a day that even the lizards are seeking shade?  You go to one of our many cheap and wonderful Mexican restaurants, in this case El Guero Canelo (“the blonde guy”) and you get a Mexican Jarritos fruit soda and a burrito. At least that’s what we did.  Your mileage may vary.

We’ve got a few more days of heat and then we’ll saddle up the Airstream for points north and higher altitude.  By Saturday, the Airstream will be up around 7,000 feet and we’ll be looking for our long sleeved shirts again.

Spreading out

We’re still not in the Airstream but life at home has been just fine.  There’s snow up in the Santa Catalina mountains, which has afforded Emma the chance to use her Hammerhead sled with friends at 7,000 feet elevation, and down here in the valley we’re been having days warm enough to have the windows open every afternoon.  I like the dichotomy of snow up above and palm trees swaying in the breeze down below this time of year.

The Airstream is slowly getting unpacked, as we pull out things that we would have used during our 10-day trip.  Every day we go “shopping” in the Airstream for whatever we need:  clothes, frozen food, a movie, some tools, etc.  Mostly we’ve been taking out food since Eleanor had a program of meals planned for the entire trip.

The Dutch Oven has been fun for both of us, even though our second attempt at cooking was disastrous.  We tried apple crisp, a favorite of mine (traditional up in Vermont, where I grew up), but naively followed the recipe in the “Dutch Oven Cooking 101” booklet.  We should have followed our instincts instead.  The recipe called for way too much nutmeg and not enough brown sugar.  It smelled fantastic as it was cooking out in the back yard, and we were drooling with anticipation, but when we sampled it after dinner the taste was repulsive.  Nobody could even finish their serving.

It was a complete loss, and things got worse the next morning.  Disappointed with the outcome, I left that terrible apple crisp in the Dutch oven overnight rather than transferring it immediately to the compost bin.  When I scooped it out in the morning the bottom of the crisp had an absolutely incredible skunk smell that nearly drove us out of the kitchen.  Some sort of chemical reaction occurred, a final insult in the apple debacle.  Fortunately, after cleaning the oven didn’t retain the smell.

Cooking-wise, the oven has done a good job.  I stacked up some leftover flagstone to make a temporary windscreen, with an aluminum turkey pan for the coals, and it worked so well at retaining the heat from the oven that it may become a semi-permanent feature of our back yard.  (Someday I’d like to build a permanent brick & stone oven that we can also use for pizzas, but that’s way down the home improvement plan.)

Even though the potato recipe we tried earlier did work fairly well, it was a bit on the greasy side and there was more bacon in it than we would have preferred.  So based on that and the apple crisp we’ve learned that the booklet recipes are really just starting points.  From now on, we are going to modify the recipes as we go, using Eleanor’s culinary experience and training as our guide.  Tomorrow the plan is to make “Chisolm Trail Blueberry French Toast Cobbler” from a different recipe book as a special Saturday morning breakfast.

We’re also going to break out one of Eleanor’s Christmas gifts, a deep fryer.  Now, some of you are probably thinking, “You got your wife a deep fryer as a gift?  What’s next, a vacuum cleaner and a scrub mop?”  But don’t worry, Eleanor loves cooking tools.  I once bought her a second refrigerator as a Christmas gift and it was probably the best received thing I’ve ever given her.  She’d rather have a new oven than a diamond ring (and the oven she wants costs about the same as a 1-carat diamond).

All of this cooking is a way of maximizing the value of our staycation.  We would have used the Dutch oven once, maybe twice, and the deep fryer not at all if we were in the Airstream.  The fryer is just too big for our style of travel, especially with the gallons of oil it requires.  Dear old Vince Saltaformaggio would have brought it all—and more—but we don’t have a separate trailer just for the cooking gear, as he did.  So we’re taking full advantage of being at home by spreading out and getting into messy projects.

Until Tuesday, things were nice and quiet.  With the New Year everyone has come out of the woodwork.  Suddenly I’m getting calls about Modernism Week and Alumapalooza again, I’m getting article pitches from PR agencies and freelance writers, advertisers with shiny new budgets are looking to spend money (yahoo!) and people I call are actually answering their phones again.  This has impacted the vacation aspect of this week but I can’t complain because stuff is getting done.

Even Carlos called, wanting to shoot some neon this week.  In the past two years we’ve documented just about every historic sign in Tucson, and certainly all of the “live” ones (those that are still operable).  These days we are just picking up the remaining “dead” signs, like this one.  The upholstery shop is moving and the long-dead neon sign will likely be torn down, so this photo shoot was slightly urgent.  This particular sign doesn’t look like much because the neon is broken and the background was repainted.  In its original form it looked like a ribbon and was undoubtedly considerably more attractive. We’re trying to locate a historic shot that shows the original design, for inclusion in the book.

The brake actuator problem is on its way to resolution.  I have decided to get a Dexter replacement, which is currently on order and should arrive fairly soon.  The replacement unit has a good reputation, takes up about the same space, and requires only four wires.  I’m hoping to install it later this month with Eleanor’s assistance.  As Jim & Debbie pointed out in a comment earlier, installing it ourselves means we’ll know that much more about our Airstream, which is very useful when you are on the road and something goes wrong.

@Alicia Miller:  We hope to be more skilled with our Dutch Oven by Alumapalooza time, but in any case both Eleanor and I hope to attend the DO cooking class this year.  I’m pleased to say that Lodge is going to be a sponsor and so we’ll have a few pieces of their cookware as door prizes too!

Tucson neon hunt

Last night Carlos and I went back out on the prowl for neon and other historic signs.  We’ve been documenting the signs for over a year now, on and off.  Now we’re nearly done, with over 80 separate sites documented by my camera so far.

We picked up another five sites last night — a big night — in about two and a half hours of zipping from one location to another, rapid shooting with the Nikon, and then leaping into the car to race to the next spot before the light faded, like a pair of crazed scavenger hunters.  We’re getting pretty good at it now.  Carlos figures out a plan to hit the unlit signs in the “golden hour” before dark, works in some of the signs that combine neon and paint for twilight, and finally a route to all the neon signs that are still working in the darkness.  I drive and take pictures.

Tucson got aggressive about eliminating obnoxious signage after Life magazine printed a picture of one of our main boulevards and deemed it “the ugliest street in America.  Unfortunately, the pendulum has swung the opposite way.  Our historic buildings are nearly all gone, the dramatic neon signage that helped define the city is a mere shadow of its former glory, and that boulevard that was once the ugliest street in America has been promoted to being as ugly and generic as any other street overrun with retail chains.  Progress has its price.

In the past few months, Tucson finally passed the Historic Landmark Signs Ordinance, which amends the sign code to allow a narrowly-defined set of old and currently non-conforming signs to be taken down, refurbished, and returned to use.  The idea is to keep the most historic, attractive, and irreplaceable old signs in Tucson, lest the town become just another piece of generic America.

Since we started shooting these signs, we’ve noted that several have since disappeared, been horribly “tagged” by spray-painting vandals, or have been destroyed by neglect.  There’s a sense of urgency to the project, as we can actually see the remnants of Tucson’s 50’s and 60’s era sign architecture vanishing as we work.  It’s like we’re driving a 1960s muscle car with 1/8 of a tank of fuel remaining, and we can watch the fuel needle moving toward “E” as we search for a gas station.  I find the job exciting because we are capturing history, depressing because we are watching it disappear, and inspiring because a lot of civic-minded people are volunteering their time to try to bring it back.

I don’t yet know where this will end up, but we expect it will eventually become a book.  We’d like to raise awareness and appreciation of historic signs, especially neon.  Much work lies ahead: organizing, researching, writing, designing, and probably fund-raising. Right now we’re just having fun documenting and researching.  It may be years before this turns into something publishable, but that’s fine.  It’s a journey and for me a wonderful tutorial on Tucson’s modern history, neighborhoods, and architecture.  Not a bad way to spend a few 100-degree summer evenings.