In May, I participated in a gastronomic tour of Hermosillo — the capital city of the state of Sonora, Mexico. I was joined by amigo, colleague and editor Nicholas Gilman of Good Food Mexico. Our host, Lourdes Maria Avila of Ambigú Gourmet, organized our visit and graciously chauffeured us across her hometown. We spent three days exploring Hermosillo’s food scene while receiving an experiential education in Sonoran cuisine.
Where’s the Beef?
While pork and goat are the preferred proteins of central Mexico, carne is king in the north. One has only to stroll through Hermosillo’s Mercado Municipal – where a phalanx of butchers in bloodstained white aprons saw through thick portions of red meat – to get a sense of its prominence.
The Spanish established land for imported cattle in arid northwestern Mexico and the modern day southwestern United States in the 17thcentury. Mexican president Porfirio Diaz drafted legislation in 1876 after the Mexican-American War – and the subsequent sell-off of California, Texas and other US border states – directing the formation of large swaths of property for raising cattle south of the Rio Grande. The Sonoran beef industry was born.
Unlike the female concineras and mayoras of central and southern part of the country, Mexico’s northern ranchero culture was driven by testosterone. Surly men cooked slabs of meat over mesquite and encino (oak) in rugged environments. Hermosillo’s steakhouses and taquerias are still predominantly patriarchal.
At Taquería El Chino Mario, owner Mario Valenzuela Vera has been serving a variety of tacos de asada and guisados for 45 years. The specialty here is cachete — savory beef cheek slow cooked until tantalizingly tender. Tacos de lengua de res, chunky bits of braised beef tongue, also tempt.
For the upscale carnivore, at Netto Cocina Sonorense thick ribeyes are cooked in a cast iron skillet, then finished over an open fire. Steaks are accompanied by bulbous grilled green onions, sweetened by the grill. Adding a little surf to their turf, fried octopus is presented in a jammy Asian sauce redolent of garlic and smoky red chilis.
Domain of the Flour Tortilla
Early Spaniards were the first to cultivate wheat in northern Mexico. Later, vaqueros (cowboys) and soldiers carried large, nearly translucent flour tortillas – called sobaqueras or tortillas de agua – along with carne seca (dried beef) for sustenance when traversing the unforgiving Sonoran Desert.
Tortillas de agua are served at every Hermosillo steakhouse, including restaurant Palominos. Here, they’re torn and used to scoop up crispy morsels of grilled tripita de leche (beef intestine). Taco-sized flour tortillas are placed in warming baskets alongside a mind-boggling array of the restaurant’s Sonoran beef preparations. Grilled ribeye is served on hot plates. Flank steak is brushed with tangy black Asian marinade. Sirloin is pan-cooked table-side, doused and flame-seared with a liberal pour of bacanora, a regional agave-based liquor (more on bacanora in a bit).
Flour tortillas are used for burritos – known as burros in Sonora – and usually filled with carne asada (grilled beef) or machaca (reconstituted dried beef). Many in the US mistakenly believe that burritos are a Tex-Mex construct. But the popular dish was actually, and literally, rolled out in estada Sonora.
KeBurros is a casual chain specializing in burros percheron, two tortillas sobaqueras placed side-by-side and filled with seasoned minced steak, garlic and guacamole. They also offer a burro wrapped in bacon. A novelty perhaps, but of course, everything tastes better with bacon.
The Bounty of the Sea
Seafood is widely enjoyed in Hermosillo due to its proximity to the Sea of Cortez and Baja California. A popular regional dish, cahuamanta, is a rich tomato-based stew of manta ray and shrimp. It’s enjoyed with a squeeze of lime and a dash of zesty chili chiltepin salsa, a regional favorite.
Los Efectivos de Sonora and the popular Taquería Sonora Cahuamanta are just two of dozens of al fresco cahuamanta stands operating in Hermosillo. Both serve the specialty as a stew or heaped in corn tortillas as tacos. Order with chunks of gelatinous manta ray fin, which adds a firm, unctuous texture.
La Barcaza Oyster Bar is a contemporary eatery that imports seafood from and is inspired by the cuisine of Baja California. Briny, farm-raised Kumiai oysters are served raw, bathed in a piquant, vinegary red salsa or prepared embarazada (pregnant) with cubed, bright red portions of bluefin tuna. Other dishes include tiraditos of dorado (mahi-mahi) and atun (yellowfin tuna) and grilled seafood tacos.
Room for Dessert
Sonoran postres include jamoncillos, pipitorias and coyotas — a marmalade of piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar) or fruit filling sandwiched between two flat, crusty flour pastries fried in lard. Coyotas are the equivalent and possibly progenitor of Pop Tarts in the US.
The coyota was created in the 1950s by Doña María Ochoa González in the Villa de Seris neighborhood. Her descendants still operate the bakery today and sell the famous pastry along with other sweet delights and soft hand-made flour tortillas.
Beer, Wine & Spirits
Casa Madero is the oldest winery still operating in the Western Hemisphere. It was founded in an area where the owner discovered native grapevines growing in 1597. Centuries later, other wineries have followed suit and a new generation of Sonorense are growing fruit and producing mono-varietals and blends of hearty Italian, Spanish and French grapes.
Las Cuatros Sierras is cradled by four hills that surround the grape growing region of Cananea. Founded in 2009, the winery produces Malbec, Tempranillo and a Syrah Grenache blend, continuing the tradition of winemaking in northern Mexico.
Bacanora is a Sonoran agave-based spirit similar to, but less smoky than mezcal. Bacanora production was banned in the early 1900s due to a flood of bootlegged hooch. The ban was lifted in 1992 and the Mexican government granted Sonora an official regional designation for the distillation and sale of bacanora.
One can sample several bacanora labels at restaurant Mochomos, a flashy Sonoran steakhouse that boasts a menu of over fifty appetizers and operates twelve locations throughout Mexico. Bacanora 42° is served chilled, which accentuates its sharp, peppery and complex finish. It’s a welcome digestivo after a meal of the restaurant’s rich, capaciously-sauced entradas and platos fuertes.
The temperature can rise to 120 degrees during Sonoran summers. Lighter Mexican lagers are obligatorio. Buqui Bichi – the name a riff on regional slang that translates loosely as “Naked Child” – is Sonora’s first and only craft brewery. They offer six distinctive styles — from a refreshing Kölsh to a deep coffee stout.
Buqui Bichi taps its brews and offers a menu of exceptional bar food at its two local brewpubs. Aguachile de papada combines tender strips of slow-cooked pork jowl with a piquant, spicy aguachile of citrus and chili chiltepin. The prime beef burger – topped with a roasted jalapeño – is considered by many to be one of the best burgers in Hermosillo.
In the latter part of the 20thcentury, the US relied increasingly on affordable Mexican labor for the manufacture of automobiles. Maquiladores (factories) were erected across northern Mexico, and Hermosillo was one of the first major cities to industrialize. To attract visiting businessmen from the US, Japan and elsewhere, restaurateurs broke with Mexican tradition to offer a range of international culinary proposals.
Távolo is helmed by Italian chef Alessio Butti, who creates localized versions of his native cuisine. While the tony restaurant’s pastas and pizzas are perfectly passable, the pork tomahawk Milanesa is sublime. A generous cut of loin chop is coated in panko, perfectly seasoned, fried, sprinkled with sea salt and served with wedges of limón real. Which are squeezed on the meat for added acidity.
Hermosillo offers a boundless cross section of colonial and contemporary gastronomic influences. Indeed, Mexico’s most barren landscape has become fertile ground as Hermosillo’s chefs, vintners and brewers sow the seeds for and cultivate the city’s blossoming culinary scene.
Disclaimer & Sponsors:
A Gringo in Mexico’s Hermosillo culinary tour was sponsored by several local culinary establishments who covered the cost of my airfare, lodging and meals. No other compensation was received for writing this article and all opinions are my own. I would like to thank the following for their hospitality: