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November 05, 2012

Spelunking in Tucson

Cheese Tortilla with Guacamole Dominic Armato

Oh, the plans I had for a stunning 600x200 pixel vista of the natural wonder of Kartchner Caverns. Sadly, cameras are not allowed therein. And I fear Mi Nidito's cheese crisp is a lame substitute.

When the school year starts, our littlest starts a week before my son, which leaves a week where he actually gets the kind of nonstop attention that he always deserves, and usually a special trip or two. This year, a daylong jaunt down to Tucson seemed just the ticket -- far enough to feel like an adventure, close enough to be manageable -- and who doesn't think massive underground caverns are completely breathtaking? My son, unfortunately. But hopefully it's a memory that'll grow on him over time.

Chicken ChimichangaDominic Armato

And why not take the opportunity to stop at a couple of Tucson culinary landmarks while we're at it? Rather than do deep research, since we now and for the foreseeable future live just a couple of hours away, I figured we'd hit two tourist stops. Hey, sometimes those reputations are deserved! I'm not so sure that's the case with Mi Nidito, however. I was shocked, arriving just 15 minutes after they opened their doors (11:15 AM), to discover that we'd need to wait half an hour for a table. Was there a massive line out front at 10:30? It's undeniably a popular place with a reputation that's bordering on ancient. The atmosphere's sort of a corny pseudo-Mexican throwback to the Chi-Chi's of my childhood (there's a shudder-inducing memory). Or vice-versa, more likely. But Mi Nidito's, if somewhat corny, is of an almost charming neighborhood quality. It's nothing if not genuine, down to the immense amount of pride clearly invested in the scads of celebrity 8x10s that adorn the walls. It's also, judging from the crowd, the place that's received the gringo seal of approval.

Carne SecaDominic Armato

Is it blasphemous that I've lived nearly three years in Phoenix and only just had my first cheese crisp in Tucson? I hope this wasn't a premiere example of the genre. My tolerance for yellow cheese grease is unreasonably (read: embarrassingly) high, but let's just say that this was one of the more flattering photos I took. The little fella recently became obsessed with chimichangas, and given its status as iconic Arizona foodstuff (even if research seems to suggest that they did, in fact, exist in Mexico before appearing here) I certainly wasn't going to argue. Sadly, he took two bites of this monster. I might've managed four. It was delightfully crisp, and disappointingly bland. Even so, I was most disappointed by the Carne Seca. Precisely what does and doesn't constitute machaca is a hotly debated topic, and I'm thrilled to absorb all of the variants I can. But as reconstituted preserved meat goes, Mi Nidito's Carne Seca doesn't make a strong case for the practice. It's less reminiscent of earthy, dried meat, and smacks more of masticated pot roast, over-reduced to the point of being unpleasantly salty and acrid. That the accompanying tortillas were bone dry didn't help.

Hot Dog, Sonora StyleDominic Armato

Following a visit to Kartchner Caverns that was emotionally moving for at least one of us, and particularly considering the disappointment of our lunch stop, an early evening snack was definitely in order before our return north. I really wanted to hit one more of Tucson's iconic stops, and the original South Tucson location of El Güero Canelo fit the bill nicely. It felt significantly more genuine than our first stop, a small stand on a dusty corner with a permanent tent out back, filled with a crowd tucking into hot dogs, even at 4:30 in the afternoon. Though the menu is filled with other standards, your first order here is a given, no? And with good reason. It's not art, but it's undeniably tasty. EGC's standard issue arrives with bacon, beans, onions, tomatoes, mayo, mustard and a "jalapeno sauce" that might as well have not been there. But the accompanying grilled guero chile was PLENTY hot to make up for the lack of zip from the jalapeno sauce. There's an extensive condiment bar, I doctored it a touch before diving in (but left it mostly intact), and was struck by three differences between this and other Sonoran hot dogs I've had. First, the sweetness of the bun. Not pastry sweet, but not at all subtle. I'm still not sure how I feel about this. Second, crisp bacon. Yes, I've had too many Sonoran equivalents of the dirty water dog at Nogales Hot Dogs. It's nice to have bacon that was cooked two minutes ago rather than four hours ago. Third, it's very carefully put together, and this is definitely a good thing. This is the most I've enjoyed a Sonoran hot dog. But I feel compelled to qualify that with the statement that if this is the ceiling, to me these fellows will probably remain a diverting tangent rather than a paragon of hot dog awesomeness.

I've heard it suggested, however, that EGC is by no means the pinnacle of Sonoran hot dog awesomeness. I was struck, as we rolled out of town, by the vast number of little street carts we passed that were also serving Sonoran hot dogs. The dish's popularity down there is apparently no joke. Which raises the question, will the next trip down to Tucson be a carefully-researched affair where I hope to visit some less widely-renowned gems? Or do I drop the kids at school, grab a friend or two, race down to Tucson and stuff as many street cart Sonoran dogs in my face as I can before I have to sprint back for pickup time? Decisions, decisions...

Mi Nidito
1813 S. 4th Avenue
Tucson, AZ 85713
Wed - Sun11 AM - 9 PM
El Güero Canelo
5201 S. 12th Avenue
Tucson, AZ 85706
Sun - Thu10 AM - 11 PM
Fri - Sat10 AM - Midnight


So, might there a Sonoran Dog-off in the works?

You're cheese tortilla with guacomole is killing me inside, that looks so delicious.

IG... do not discount the possibility :-)

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