by Ted Robbins
Correction: In early Web versions of this story, we misspelled the last name of food historian Gary Nabhan.
Americans’ view of the U.S.-Mexico border is pretty narrow these days — basically, drugs and illegal immigrants.
Of course, there’s more than that if you live there. There’s the area’s tasty food — Baja California fish tacos, Tex-Mex fajitas and the newest cross-border concoction: The Sonoran Hot Dog.
Sitting in the always noisy and crowded Tucson restaurant “El Guero Canelo,” food historian Gary Nabhan says the borderlands are the birthplace of many of the Mexican dishes we Americans love.
“Flour tortilla and the burrito, the chimichanga, carne asada and fajita, the margarita — all come from the borderlands and then spread out, not just through the rest of Mexico and the U.S., but to the world,” he says.
Nabhan heads Sabores Sin Fronteras, or Flavors Without Borders, a coalition dedicated to preserving the region’s food traditions.
When students and surfers in Southern California went to Baja California, they brought back the fish taco. When cowboys in South Texas and Northern Chihuahua began using the humble skirt steak, the fajita was born. That’s classic “Tex-Mex” — a term coined in the 1940s — combining ingredients from both sides of the border. It’s a common thread in food history, says Nabhan.
“Most cultures share their flavors and mix and match with foods from surrounding cultures or immigrant cultures,” he says.
But Mexican native and educator Jesus Garcia says that in the borderlands, the sharing goes in both directions. For instance, the chips and salsa on every table — that started in the U.S.
“Whoever invented that, it’s also spilling into Mexico too, because now people demand that,” he says. “And even Mexicans, because they’ve come here, they see you get chips and salsa before the meal. Well, we want it too.”
The restaurant El Guero Canelo made its name on what may be the ultimate example of cross-border pollination — a Mexican take on the all-American food — the hot dog.
They call it the Sonoran-style or Estilo Sonora hot dog. It originated about 20 years ago in the Mexican state of Sonora. Garcia was a college student there at the time. He remembers the hot dog being a novelty from the U.S. sold on the street.
“It’s a typical food that you go out dancing or to a party and you come out 2-3 in the morning and then you go and find a hot dog stand,” he says.
It made its way north with the most recent wave of immigrants, still sold on street carts by vendors called “dogueros.” Over the past decade it has become so popular that Nabhan estimates there are more than 200 places to get it in Tucson — and more in Phoenix.
The Sonoran hot dog may take the phrase “with everything” to new heights. It starts with a hot dog wrapped in bacon. Then you begin piling on the beans, grilled onions, fresh onions, tomatoes, mayonnaise, cream sauce, mustard and jalapeno salsa. Add radishes, cucumbers, whole chilies and even mushrooms, if you want.
Who knows whether the Sonoran hot dog will spread from Arizona across the country, but things seem to be changing form the days when the borderlands were the test kitchen for Mexican-American food. In the last two decades, Mexican immigrants have dispersed across the U.S., in many cases, says Garcia, not even stopping in the borderlands.
“For instance, look at Chicago. There are so many Mexican people in Chicago now that don’t necessarily come from the border,” he says. “Those are people that have connections farther deep into Mexico, so a lot of those food traditions have jumped the border.”
Restaurants featuring food from much farther south — from Michoacan, Vera Cruz, even Guatemala — have popped up in neighborhoods all over the country and U.S. chefs have promoted regional Latin-American food in upscale restaurants. With mass media and a Latin diaspora, it may be that, foodwise, all of North America is becoming the borderlands.