Where's the Bacon?

For six years, hot dog vendor Hernan Rivera played hide-and-seek with county health inspectors.

Sometimes the Maricopa County Environmental Services Department inspectors would pop up unannounced at one of the three hot dog carts Rivera has stationed throughout Phoenix. They would peek inside at the rows of bacon-wrapped Sonoran-style hot dogs he was selling, and immediately toss them out -- costing Rivera more than a hundred dollars in profits in an evening.

Other times, when Rivera saw the inspectors pull up in their marked vehicles, he would quickly cover the bacon-wrapped dogs with several rows of decoy hot dogs -- sans bacon -- fooling the inspectors into believing he was complying with a county regulation that forbade him to prepare his hot dogs in the traditional, artery-clogging (but Atkins-friendly) style of his Sonoran forefathers.

It got to the point where Rivera was feeling persecuted for simply trying to follow in the footsteps of his uncle, who has been selling the bacon-wrapped hot dogs in Nogales, Sonora, for 35 years.

"They would come by like three to four times a year," says the 31-year-old owner of Nogales Hot Dogs, which are sold every night at 35th Avenue and McDowell Road, 25th Street and Bell Road, and 20th Street and Indian School Road.

"I kept telling them that I wasn't going to stop. My clients like their hot dogs with bacon."

And they still do. Rivera is now able to provide the bacon dogs, thanks to a county variance that took effect last year. Even so, the Sonoran-style hot dog is an endangered species in these parts. Only three variances have been granted, and many Mexican hot dog vendors now chop their bacon -- a poor substitute, some say.

For Rivera, the variance was well worth the effort. By last year, he was sick of getting shut down, and he didn't want to chop bacon. So finally, the New York-born son of Mexican immigrants did what any red-blooded American would do.

He contacted his local public official.

Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, who runs her own Mexican restaurant, El Portal, in downtown Phoenix, had already been instrumental years back in helping the vendors when they were facing elimination after neighbors accused them of attracting blight to their neighborhoods. At that time, in 1999, the hot dog cart operators and other mobile food vendors formed a union, hired a lawyer and struck a deal with the City of Phoenix, which allowed them to operate under certain circumstances, including that they shut down at 2 a.m.

So Rivera figured Wilcox could help again, and he was right. He and the other vendors emerged victorious after Wilcox orchestrated a meeting between the hot dog vendors and the county Environmental Services Department; county officials agreed to allow the vendors to sell the bacon-wrapped hot dogs on the condition they apply for a variance.

The variance, which requires them to prepare the bacon-wrapped hot dogs at a commissary before transferring them to the cart, applies only to those selling hot dogs out of non-motorized pushcarts, not those selling food from mobile food vehicles, which are equipped with full kitchens.

Unlike in Mexico, where vendors grill the bacon-wrapped hot dogs directly on their cart, filling the air with the mouth-watering aroma of pork fat, here in Maricopa County vendors are forbidden from preparing anything but a hot dog on a hot dog cart. The reasoning is that hot dogs are precooked and therefore safe to prepare on the modestly equipped carts, while bacon needs to be fully cooked to be eaten safely.

"It's not like they have a full kitchen out there," says David Ludwig, Maricopa County environmental health manager.

But today, one year after that victory, it is still almost impossible to find a bacon-wrapped hot dog in Phoenix, whereas just a few years ago, before the neighbors rallied against the vendors, they were as common as a 24-hour taco shop.

Although the county does not charge the vendors a fee for applying for the variance, the variance may require them to pay to rent space at a commissary, which may be one reason more haven't applied, Ludwig says.

Rivera -- whose cart is not even equipped with a grill -- says that before the variance was passed, he would bake the bacon-wrapped hot dogs at a local bakery before transferring them to his cart. Today, he bakes the bacon-wrapped hot dogs at the Union Pochteca commissary in central Phoenix, which he partially owns with other food vendors in the Valley.

Perhaps the disappearance of the bacon-wrapped hot dogs from Valley streets is a sign of immigrant assimilation.

Most of the vendors who sell Sonoran-style hot dogs are immigrants who've adjusted their recipes to meet the county standards. Instead of wrapping the dog in bacon, they've started cooking the bacon at another location, chop it up and store it alongside the other condiments on the pushcart.

When a customer orders a hot dog, the vendors sprinkle the bacon on the hot dog, along with the customary pinto beans, mayonnaise, chopped tomatoes and onions.

Not exactly a south-of-the-border-style Sonoran dog, but it still spanks the buns off its American counterparts, says Rocio Sandez, who hails from Sonora and has owned La Pasadita hot dog stand at 75th Avenue and Indian School Road for six years.

"When they first told me I couldn't wrap the hot dogs in bacon, I was shocked," she says. "But I didn't want any trouble from the inspectors, so I would chop up the bacon."

Even though Sandez knows she can apply for the variance, she says she won't because her customers have come to appreciate the hot dogs with the chopped bacon.

In fact, business has been so good for Sandez that two months ago, she opened Delicias La Pasadita, a sit-down restaurant in the 7100 block of North 35th Avenue.

"I can't stop now because I have customers coming from Tempe and Casa Grande for my hot dogs," she says. "I find it better this way because the customer ends up getting more bacon on his hot dog."