Each night, just as the desert sky fades from red to black, a swarm of stainless steel hot dog carts descend upon Tucson’s South 12th Avenue in the Mexican-American neighborhood of Sunnyside. Crowds of families assemble just as quickly, chatting inaudibly beneath the high-pitched hiss of the grills and the buzz of power generators. Everyone is here for the Sonoran hot dog, a bacon-wrapped behemoth with a lightly sweet bun made, ideally, from Sonoran wheat; a barrage of condiments (everything from diced tomatoes and onions to nacho cheese, crushed Ruffles, and creamed corn); and an all-beef wiener swaddled in bacon like Offset in a lilac puffer.
The dogo, as it’s called in Mexico, is one of the two most famous dishes from the coastal Mexican state of Sonora — the other being carne asada. The country’s greatest surf and turf state, Sonora is blessed with a bounty from the Sea of Cortez, a thriving cattle industry in the blistering desert, and a flour-tortilla pedigree that is centuries old. The cuisine of Sonora prioritizes product over technique; prime cuts of steak are simply salted before they’re thrown on a charcoal grill, and local giant pen shell clams are shucked, seasoned, and quickly cooked in a bath of fresh lime juice. A cheese-and-chip-topped hot dog would seem to have as much a place here as chilaquiles in a torta (oh, we forgot — chilangos). But then, drunk food is one of the world’s few culinary constants: Rules, for the buzzed, be damned.
Tucson, Arizona, boasts the largest concentration of Sonoran immigrants of any American city. But aside from the famed Sonoran hot dog, many of Tucson’s most iconic “Sonoran” foods are, at their core, Mexican-American with a Sonoran bent: carne asada cooked on a flat top (sacrilege!); loaded combo plates with overstuffed chimichangas; and Arizona’s open-faced quesadilla-like cheese crisps, the best thing Taco Bell never made.
Over the last few years, though, waves of new immigrants to the area have brought with them more of Sonora’s traditional dishes as well as its latest trends, slinging hometown delicacies from street carts and small restaurants throughout Sunnyside and its surroundings. So you can now get braised beef head breakfast tacos as good as you’ll find in the city of Hermosillo at Tucson’s Tacos de Cabeza Estilo Cajeme. Nearby, Percheron sells the popular burritos percherones, carne asada burritos in large, thin tortillas sobaqueras, that can be wrapped entirely in bacon as an upgrade. And those nostalgic for the Sonoran beach towns of Bahía Kino, Guaymas, and Huatabampo can hit San Carlos Mariscos y Cahuamanta for crab claws in a spicy broth, ceviches, and caguamanta, or stingray soup.
And then there’s Sonoran sushi, Tucson’s buzziest newcomer. Sonoran sushi is not a Mexican-American invention, nor is it some jalapeno-laden riff on the rock and roll sushi craze of the late 1980s and ’90s — though its embrace of excess (and cream cheese) does hint at that era. In fact, Sonoran sushi may be Tucson’s most direct-line Sonoran culinary import since that lauded, loaded hot dog.
This style of Mexican sushi came to Sonora by way of Sinaloa, where, in the early 2000s, Mexican cooks who’d worked at Japanese restaurants in the U.S. began introducing fairly basic sushi rolls onto the menus of fashionable restaurants like El Farallón in the Sinaloan capital of Culiacán, and Que Rollo in Hermosillo. More traditional sushi had been big in Mexico City since the ’80s, but this style — which riffed more on America’s fusion-y California roll than anything from Japan — was wholly new to Sinaloa. The curiosities were billed as “recently arrived from the U.S.!” but didn’t catch on with locals until someone thought to add steak, cooked shrimp, and Philadelphia cream cheese to an inside-out roll filled with avocado, surimi (the ubiquitous crab-like product made from fish paste), and cucumber — the holy trinity of the California roll.
Known as the mar y tierra, or surf and turf, the roll was an early hit for the budding genre of Mexican sushi, along with the guamuchilito (little Guamuchil, referring to the Sinaloan city), a roll sporting cream cheese, surimi, avocado, and cucumber on the inside, and shrimp, avocado, and tampico paste (crab salad) on the outside. With this kind of sushi — as with those hot dogs — it’s all about the condiments, and an embrace of deep-fried abominations oozing with what in some parts Mexico is referred to as “queso Philly.”
It didn’t take long for the craze to make its way to neighboring Sonora, and soon taco carts in Hermosillo were being replaced by maki stands from popular chains like Que Rollo and Tu Rollo Cinco. A regional Sonoran variation soon developed. For the most part, the rolls themselves are similar to those from Sinaloa — loaded with everything from steak to teriyaki chicken to chicken cordon bleu, and of course, cream cheese — but Sonorans have a particular affinity for including boneless Buffalo wings (or just “boneless” to locals), which show up inside rolls as well as standalone sides. The main difference is in the rest of the menu: Sinaloan-style sushi restaurants tend to serve ceviche and other mariscos with their rolls; the Sonoran-style specialists are more like sushi bars attached to a Wingstop, with menus touting fried chicken wings and fried potatoes covered in melted cheese alongside the calorie-rich sushi.
In the last few years, a number of Mexican sushi restaurants have opened across the western U.S. — with mostly Sinaloan joints now found in cities like LA, San Diego, and Seattle. But Arizona is where Sonoran sushi has settled, including a handful of true specialists in Sunnyside catering to Sonoran immigrants craving a taste of their hometown’s hottest culinary trend. Cruising past the low-slung, sun-bleached buildings along 12th Avenue, you’ll spy an old camper with a yellow banner parked between an elote cart and the William D. Aviles American Legion Hall, gated with razor wire. This is El Sushi de Papá, where Tucson locals line up for empanikeke — thick, over-breaded rolls stuffed with cucumber, surimi, and shrimp, and covered in cream cheese — and the chicken roll, a breaded chicken breast stuffed with zucchini and cream cheese, on an oil-slicked bed of fried rice. There’s also a variety of greasy kushiage, breaded and fried meats and seafood on a stick.
A bit off the main drag you’ll find Sushi-lito, a shiny red-and-black food truck with matching tables parked next to a Mexican insurance office. Printed on the side of the truck in the swoopy, brush-style lettering of 50 years’ worth of Asian-American restaurants, the menu features rolls named after Sonoran towns like Caborca, a boneless roll, and plates of hot wings and baked potatoes. The rolls here are assembled with a little more care than most, though Sonoran sushi is not really about finesse. There’s also yakimeshi, or Japanese fried rice, which emerges from the truck window dark and oily before customers liberally dress it with soy sauce, ketchup, and hot sauce. The showpiece, however, is the combo, which stars the namesake Sushi-lito roll — a sliced bundle of breaded cheese, breaded shrimp, and cream cheese topped with thin strips of surimi — crammed into a Styrofoam takeout tray, with foil-wrapped portions of boneless chicken wings, and cheese-covered potatoes.
Flamboyant creations like these are admittedly — proudly, even — far removed from the minimalist Japanese art that inspired them. But a dish with Japanese roots, American ingredients, and a Mexican origin story defies neat categorization. Are cuisines defined by a particular set of ingredients and techniques, or is a dish’s culinary citizenship determined solely by birthright? I’d argue, if Italians can spread Mexico’s tomato salsa on a flatbread and claim pizza as their own, Sonorans can own hot wing sushi rolls.
Of course, none of this matters to anyone crowded around one of the white plastic tables at the Sushi-Kito truck. For the newly arrived Sonorans here, a bite or two of the utterly fish-free, steak-, chicken-, and chile-filled Vaquero Roll offers a rare, comforting taste of home — even more so with a pile of barbecue-slathered boneless on the side.
Bill Esparza is a James Beard Award-winning writer and author of LA Mexicano.
Nick Oza is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist for the Arizona Republic.