The distinction is given to restaurants that "have timeless appeal and are cherished for quality food that reflects the character of their community." The last time an Arizona restaurant received the Classics award was in 2012, when Phoenix's Fry Bread House was singled out by the foundation.
It's a major honor for El Güero Canelo, which got its start as a six-by-eight foot trailer on Tucson's 12th Avenue back in 1993. In a city bursting with great Sonoran dogs, the humble food trailer quickly made a name for itself by offering shaded outdoor seating, prompt service, a killer condiments bar, and dispensing finely tuned Sonoran dogs with conveyor belt-like efficiency.
El Güero Canelo's Sonoran dogs follow a winning formula: plump franks wrapped in bacon, and then topped with chopped tomatoes, mayonnaise, beans, mustard, grilled onions and jalapeño sauce, all of it squeezed into a slightly sweet, fluffy split-top roll. It's a humble dish, for sure, but also one that's become a delicious and unpretentious emblem of Sonoran-Arizona cuisine. It's a cross-cultural mashup, and a small feast, that costs less than $4.
Apart from the food, a big part of El Güero Canelo's appeal is the restaurant's playful branding. The restaurant's name — which translates roughly to something like "the cinnamon blonde" — is the nickname of owner Daniel Contreras. Contreras' friendly-looking, smiling countenance, and ginger crew-cut are emblazoned on most of the restaurant's signage and catering trucks.
Contreras has parlayed his success into a small Sonoran hot dog empire, which now includes four locations (including a west Phoenix location, which opened in 2015), a meat market in Tucson, and a bakery in Magdalena, Sonora, which is used to source the bread and tortillas in his restaurants.
El Güero Canelo's unequivocal success has not come without some tumult. In 2011, Contreras was targeted by a rival Tucson hot dog and carne asada restaurateur, who tried to extort $600,000 from Contreras with anonymous threats of violence. Federal law enforcement, thankfully, quickly captured the would-be extortioner.
The James Beard recognition will no doubt further cement the restaurant's reputation as the top purveyor of Sonoran hot dogs in Arizona. And, among Tucson's Sonoran dog cognoscenti, it's bound to inspire more debate about whether Canelo is the true godfather of Tucson's Sonoran hot dog scene. If you recall your Tucson Sonoran dog history, Contreras opened the first El Guero Canelo location with friend and co-owner Benjamin Galaz, who went on to open Tucson's much-loved BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs.
In any case, one of today's unspoken winners is the entirety of the Sonora-Arizona borderlands, home to a rich, playful, and singular norteño cuisine that is finally getting the national acclaim that it deserves.
The James Beard Foundation Awards Gala will be held at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on Monday, May 7, of this year, and for now, we know that at least one Arizona restaurant will be represented.