A few weeks ago, I started counting the years since I've visited my hometown of Hermosillo. After removing my socks so the counting may continue, and hitting the very high number of 10 fingers and 7 toes, I was glad to have toes to spare, but I panicked at my increasing age and resolved to stop the counting right then and there.
Hermosillo is only a six-hour drive away, but it's a drive that easily can get much, much longer due to the border crossing. I decided instead to opt for the hour-long flight to my hometown. At $569, the direct AeroMexico flight isn't cheap, but a small price to pay for skipping a chaotic border crossing in Nogales.
Flight, hotel, and rental car booked -- and passport in hand and stomach rumbling -- it was time to head to the birthplace of Minervaland and eat. And eat and eat and eat and eat.
Some practical notes for visiting Hermosillo: If you're planning on renting a car, be sure to show up at the airport with a reservation. Rental agencies do not have a large surplus of rental cars on hand at the airport, as they do in the United States. If you do reserve a car in advance, do not bother buying rental insurance online. The insurance will not be valid, and you will be forced to purchase an additional insurance policy from your car rental agency anyway.
And a fun note on driving in Hermosillo: Traffic there does not reward the timid, either as a driver or as a pedestrian. Be prepared to recall your teenage driving bravado and launch yourself carefully yet recklessly onto oncoming traffic. Or be prepared to wait. Other practical information: ATMs in Hermosillo have lines longer than an American post office on Tax Day, and I would highly recommend taking advantage of the much shorter line at the airport. Stick to Banamex ATMs, as the national bank has much lower withdrawal fees than private or other international banks do.
As for accommodations, I stayed at the very affordable ($58/night) and clean Hotel Colonial located within walking distance of the historic center of Hermosillo, with only three minor glitches: a rock-hard mattress, a raging quinceañera on Saturday night lasting until 2 or 3 in the morning, and awful coffee. For other hotel options, check out ibis Hermosillo and Araiza Hermosillo.
Friday afternoon was spent circling the historic center of Hermosillo, poking around the Plaza Zaragoza, home to the cathedral, the city and state of Sonora's government palaces, both adorned with colorful murals and open to public viewing, and a 19th-century Florentine kiosk. This is the only bit of Hermosillo that seems to have remained the same over time, and on any given evening it is teeming with families and a variety of food vendors.
With no small bills in my pocket, I decided to skip the street food, choosing instead to have dinner at Bonifacio's barra-gourmet. With a supper-club-meets-hacienda interior and a cool tree-shaded courtyard, I first experienced a great deal of sadness at seeing the extensive and somewhat Americanized menu and then a great deal of joy at tasting it. Guacamole on the menu at a white-tablecloth restaurant in Mexico? Guacamole would never have been on a menu even at the most casual of joins in the past. Free chips and salsa brought to the table? What?!? What country am I in? This wouldn't have been out of place in a pozoleria in Mexico City, but in Hermosillo, never! Fuming now, though pacified with a bottle of Indio beer and its beautiful gilded label, I settled on seafood for my dinner. Sonora is well-known for good beef, but it is also well known for fantastic seafood. Being only an hour away from the Sea of Cortez means that Hermosillo has a huge selection of seafood restaurants, especially for a hot desert city.
With my expectations severely lowered by unremarkable chips and salsa, the first bite of that fresh, Clamato-spiked ceviche shut me right up and brought a smile to my face. This was ceviche like my father makes, like he taught me to make -- this was the Mexican food I had been dreaming of! My second plate, Callo de hacha Aguachile, bordered on life-changing. Sweet, buttery, ever so slightly briny warm-water mollusks, which are similar to a scallop but housed in a half-moon shell, eaten raw, marinated in citrus, kissed with a chile-soy sauce, and covered with thinly shaved onions (which I carefully moved to the side, as there is nothing worse than onion breath) and cucumbers.
Sadly, the restaurant's lights had been dimmed to a theatrically low level to accommodate the band, and my photos of this remarkable dish are useless.
If you're not familiar with Indio beer, you will be soon. American distribution has been limited so far, but it will ramp up soon, thanks to AB InBev. Tastewise, think of it as being Tecate's maltier, tanned cousin.
Saturday morning started with a trip to the Villa de Seris neighborhood, an old village swallowed by the growth of Hermosillo over the 20th century, and the birthplace of Coyotas, a piloncillo (unrefined brown sugar) stuffed lardy tortilla-like pastry with a fragrance so rich that the smell alone was my guide through a maze of narrow one-way streets lined with neatly maintained and colorful houses. Created by Doña María Ochoa González in the 50s, these pastries have been widely copied, including by yours truly, but nothing beats the original wood-fired Coyotas Doña Maria, including the many variations of stuffings now available, such as strawberry, pineapple and caramel. Pick up a pack of ten for MEX$50, around $4, and do like I did and eat at least one on your way out the door.
This fragrant bakery now also offers other Sonoran edible goods, including local palo fierro (ironwood) honey, chiltepin, machaca (spiced, dried and pounded beef), and, to my delight, bacanora, a Sonoran tequila-like liquor distilled from a regional maguey (agave) variety called lechugilla. It still is very much artisanal in its production and mostly unavailable in the United States. It's even hard to find in Hermosillo, despite its being produced only 120 miles away. A 750 millileter bottle of Don Beto set me back MEX$300, about $24. Right next to Coyotas Doña Maria is La Seri Artesanías Mexicanas, a very warm (as in both hot and welcoming) gift shop selling locally carved palo fierro figurines, embroidered linen shirts, and smaller bottles of bacanora. A 50 milliliter bottle was MEX$50, a good and boozy $4 souvenir for a friend.
I finished my trip to the Villa de Seris with a quick walk around the small but neat square, which is flanked by a small chapel and features a picturesque kiosk nearby.It would have been unusual when I was a kid walking this area to see a woman and her family selling freshly made Sonoran-style flour tortillas on the sidewalk. This area is dotted with tortillerias, as is most of Hermosillo (and the good reason why a lot of folks in this town do not know how to make tortillas). Unusual as it may have been, I could not resist the warm, slightly powdery tortillas. I bought a half-dozen and, not surprisingly, they did not last long.
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The taste of the previous night's calla de hacha stayed with me till the next day -- in a good way -- and so I popped in Mariscos La Concha for another taste after finding a row of open-air seafood restaurants. I also ordered a caguamanta taco, the manta ray substitute for the delicious but now protected and therefore untouchable caguama, or sea turtle. If you're like me and still salivate over the tender and dark taste of sea turtle cooked in a spiced tomato broth, manta ray will be a poor substitute, but for a first timer, it makes a fine and juicy taco. If I ever end up in a Mexican jail, it will be over trying to take a bite out of a delicious and probably still alive and kicking caguama . . .
Come back next week for more on the food of Hermosillo.
As proprietor of Muñeca Mexicana handcrafted food, Minerva Orduno Rincon makes everything from mole poblano to goat milk caramel to spiced (not spicy) cocoa. Find her at a farmers market near you.