Does Arizona have a distinctive regional cuisine it can call its own? Like much of the U.S., Arizona is a melting pot of many cultures, and its food reflects those diverse influences. But perhaps the most distinctive marker of Arizonan cuisine is Sonoran-style Mexican food, an approach to border cooking that differs from Tex-Mex, New Mexican, or Baja styles and is seldom found outside of Arizona.
Arizona shares its southern border with the Mexican state of Sonora, which includes the vast Sonoran desert, and its cooking has been greatly influenced by immigrants from that region. Unlike much of the rest of Mexico where corn is king, Sonora is a wheat-growing region. Thus, although they use corn tortillas for a variety of dishes, the flour tortilla gets special attention. Sonoran-style flour tortillas are stretched paper thin and cooked on a griddle producing small blisters that give them a smoky flavor. In California you are asked if you want flour or corn tortillas with dinner. In the Sonoran-style restaurants of Arizona, it is assumed you would want flour.
Sonora is also a land of vast cattle ranches and thus the emphasis is on beef—especially machaca, carne asada, and al carbon. In Sonoran-style Arizona restaurants (where burritos are called burros), machaca burros are ubiquitous and not restricted to breakfast and mixed with egg, but are found throughout the menu and may contain nothing but shredded beef and perhaps some pinto beans. Machaca tacos with lettuce and tomato are equally ubiquitous as is chile colorado. Pork, chicken, and some fish may be included on the menu but the number of these items will be limited. This tendency toward hearty simplicity is typical of the Sonoran style—fresh, quality ingredients without a lot of fuss or refinement. Many Sonoran-style restaurants in Arizona have only a tomato-based hot sauce as a condiment although some are adding salsa bars to give customers more choice.
Enchiladas, cheese or meat, with red or green sauce are common, but many menus will include stacked enchiladas, which are also found in New Mexico and West Texas. Much easier and less time consuming to make than rolled enchiladas, corn tortillas are fried and then stacked with red or green sauce, and cheese or meat between the layers, and sometimes topped with a fried egg, or olives and onions.
While we’re on this theme of simplicity, the simplest appetizer is also the most addicting—cheese crisps. I don’t know if they originated in Sonora but they are uniquely common in Arizona. It is a flour tortilla, topped with cheddar or Oaxachan cheese and baked until the tortilla is crisp with small burned marks around the edges. It is not folded over or pan fried as a quesadilla is and may include a few toppings such as sliced jalapenos, onions, or cilantro.
Of course, no account of Sonoran-style cuisine is complete without mentioning the Sonoran Hot Dog, a hot dog wrapped in bacon, grilled, and served on a roll topped with beans, tomatoes, onions, jalapenos, cheese, mayonnaise, and mustard. It originated in Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora, and is readily available in Phoenix and Tucson.
And finally the Chimichanga, although available throughout the U.S., is claimed by Arizona as its own. Two restaurants—El Charro and Macayo’s Mexican Kitchen—claim to have invented it, but some food historians think it originated in Sonora or Sinaloa. In any case, if you like your burrito fried you have Arizona to thank for disseminating, if not inventing, the idea.
Where can you find Sonoran-style Mexican food?
It is common in Tucson and Phoenix. The palace of this style of cooking is Carolinas with several locations in Phoenix. Their claim to fame is flour tortillas, which are, indeed, wonderful. Freshly made every day and so thin you can see through them, if the only flour tortilla you’re familiar with is the stodgy, gummy kind you find in the supermarket, get yourself to Carolinas. The rest of their menu is characteristically simple, well-prepared, fast, and cheap. Their downtown location has lines of hungry devotees coming out the door. El Charro in Tucson has an equally stellar reputation although I haven’t yet visited. But, truth be told, you cannot throw a pinto bean without hitting a Mexican restaurant in Southern Arizona and most will serve some aspect of Sonoran-style cuisine. But the essence of it is the flour tortilla—any restaurant that doesn’t get that right is Sonoran in name only.
If you’re accustomed to the hodgepodge of different styles and endless choice that one finds in California Mexican restaurants, you might find Sonoran-style food dull and limited. But this is a reflection of its origins in the Ranchero culture of Sonora and their need for hearty, easily-prepared sustenance in a forbidding climate. The goal is to make the most out of the ingredients you have.