Tucson's Native Cuisine

We dine with folklorist Jim Griffith and talk about how the foods we eat came to be

"Food is powerful stuff," Jim Griffith will tell you. "What people eat defines them. Think of the slang for different nationalities: Krauts, Beaners, Frogs."

We're Tucsonans because we eat the food of Tucson.

Griffith can speak to this identity. As a folklorist--now semi-retired from the UA Library's Southwest Folklore Center--everything that people do within 100 miles of either side of the border is his beat. And a lot of what people do here, like anywhere else, involves eating.

His food credentials go deep, in all directions. He's locally beloved for running Tucson Meet Yourself, the food-centric multicultural festival, with his wife, Loma, for 20 years after they founded it in 1974. (They're still heavily involved with the festival, which changed names and hands for a while in the '90s.) The weekend-long downtown party features ethnic music, dance and various folk arts, but is best known for its fantastic array of food booths run by nonprofit ethnic associations, clubs and churches. Its thousands of greedy fans like to call it Tucson Eat Yourself.

As a student of the culture and history of Sonora for more than 40 years, Griffith has ranged through the cities and towns and down the back roads of the borderlands doing fieldwork on his specialty, the spiritual life, religious art and iconography of the old Pimería Alta. Naturally, he's had to eat along the way, and has done so with gusto and attention, and with a professional appreciation of not just the taste but the meaning of what's set before him.

Ask him about the exact origin of the chimichanga--a local puzzle with too many solutions (see the sidebar)--and you're off on an odyssey through Sonoran history, culture and, of course, food.

"The fascinating thing, really, isn't that somebody thought to fry a burro, but that we're still eating the foods Father Kino introduced to the native peoples. When he crossed into the Pimería Alta 450 years ago, he brought wheat and cattle."

Next time you cut into a crisp, smoking-hot, 1,600-calorie chimi, thank the padre.

Food reflects daily reality in a region. The classic burro/chimi fillings--carne seca, carne asada, carne stewed with red or green chiles--were developed by generations of cooks with a limited choice of ingredients, including lots of tough beef from animals descended from that Spanish stock: stringy, half-starved criollo cattle that made a hard living on desert shrubs, ephemerals, a little grass and mesquite pods. (Cattle are not well-adapted to arid range, and, as ecologist and author George Wuerthner points out, grazing them on such lands is tantamount to animal cruelty--not that the happiness of cows has ever topped the list of human concerns.)

The cooks' answers to the problem of tough meat? Season, dry and shred it; marinate and grill it, and chop it into little pieces; cook it with chiles and liquid for hours, then pull it apart. As chef and author Anthony Bourdain tells his readers, dishes involving cheap, tough cuts of meat "will take you to far more interesting worlds, and are a lot more fun, than simply slapping a steak on the grill." Tough beef was the only kind Sonoran cooks had, and it took them to some places so good that now, everyone wants to go there.

Sonoran food--Tucson Sonoran food--has become famous. Which brings up another point Griffith makes about what we eat in Mexican restaurants: It's not Mexican food or Southwestern food or even Northern Sonoran food: It's Tucson Mexican restaurant food.

While "the culinary region extends 100 miles on either side of the border," as Griffith once told The New York Times' Marian Burros, defining "Tucson Mexican food" is complicated. You sort of know it when you see it. It's like being in an airport someplace on the way home and spotting some people who just have to be from here, and then, sure enough, they're on the flight. It's hard to say what it is, exactly. They just look and act like they're from Tucson.

"The differences aren't dramatic, but they're there. What we eat is several degrees less picante than anything anyone has ever eaten in New Mexico, and there are all sorts of wonderful dishes they make down in Sonora that are unknown here. For example, there's a thing I love called gallina pinta, a stew of oxtail, frijoles and garbanzos and hominy--nothing to do with chicken, in spite of the name--that's never been served in Tucson, as far as I know.

Pinning down the nature and identity of dishes is intricate, mind-bending work.

"Take pico de gallo. 'Beak of the rooster.' In Texas, that's a hot salsa. Here, it's a fruit cocktail with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkling of hot chile powder that's also called pico de gallo. And why 'rooster beak' in either case? I'm not going chasing that one."

Asked to concoct a brief restaurant tour with an emphasis on exploring the uses to which Sonorans have put Father Kino's gifts, Griffith proposed three meals: lunches at El Güero Canelo, a permanent taco stand on South 12th Avenue, and at the El Minuto downtown; and breakfast at Little Mexico Steakhouse on West Valencia Road. At all three places, as requested, he commented on the reasons he chose each restaurant.

El Güero Canelo
5201 S. 12th Ave.

Griffith wanted to go to El Güero Canelo, named after the strawberry (or cinnamon) blonde owner, because it reminds him of a certain kind of place down in Mexico. Famous even unto the foothills for its bacon-wrapped Sonoran hot dogs--for a while, there were so many lawyers eating there that Griffith stopped coming--El Güero Canelo also serves up a variety of grilled specialties on paper plates. Seating is outdoors, under a big, screened-in ramada, and while the place was doing a lively business on the day we visited, the June heat apparently cleared out the downtown riffraff. (With big blowers going, the shady patio was perfectly comfortable to a realistically dressed semi-native.) A second location, on Oracle Road north of Grant Road, opened this spring.

Griffith and I had carne asada tacos, the Monday special, three for $3, while a visiting friend and fellow folklorist, Meg Glaser, had the caramelo--carne asada and cheese sandwiched between two of the same small tortillas.

In his introduction to Suzanne Myal's Tucson's Mexican Restaurants (UA Press, 1999), Griffith quotes an unnamed Mexican high government official who's believed to have defined Sonora in the 1920s as "where civilization ends and carne asada begins." Marinated, grilled beef is that strongly identified with the region.

We helped ourselves to sides and toppings from the central condiment bar: sliced radishes and cucumbers, pickled peppers, limes, a sauce made with avocado (much thinner than guacamole), pickled red onions, salsa and big, bulby roasted green onions from a warmer.

The carne, hot and chewy, came with a scattering of chopped cabbage on small, sturdy flour tortillas. Washed down with big cups of horchata--drinks come with one refill at El Güero Canelo--it made a wonderful lunch, but not one with a lot of conversation. With the blowers and people being called to pick up their orders, El Güero Canelo is noisy.

Besides, we were busy eating.

Little Mexico Steakhouse
2851 W. Valencia Road

We met at this repurposed steakhouse and bar run by Pat and George Palomarez, who also own Little Mexico Restaurant on West Irvington Road, for the sole purpose of eating menudo, the soup gringos love to be disgusted by.

The eating of offal is economically, not culturally, specific, and lingers on nostalgically after people begin to eat high on the hog: The 1975 edition of the robustly middle-class Joy of Cooking contains four, count 'em, four recipes for tripe. (The chichi 1997 edition left it out altogether, while the 2006 version, which Joy aficionados agree got its feet back on the ground, fields two.)

Honeycomb tripe is the lining of a cow's second stomach and is the key ingredient in menudo. Properly cooked, it has a jelly-like texture and ripply surface, and a bland, faintly skunky flavor. It's nothing like skeletal muscle, which is what we think of when we think of meat.

Tripe, and hooves and tails and heads, was most of what was left for the peasants of Northern Mexico after the hacienda owners took the steaks and roasts. The poor people cooked up the tripe--this takes a long, long time--with gristly hoof bones, onions, oregano and, in Sonora, hominy. The resulting excellent clear soup is served, like Vietnamese pho, with chopped fresh cilantro, chopped green onions, lemon or lime, and chiles. (Texans eat red menudo. It's related to white--blanco--menudo in much the same way that New England and Manhattan clam chowders are related. And, Griffith notes, as in the case of the two chowders, one kind is right, and the other is just wrong.) At Little Mexico, it also comes with toasted, liberally buttered birrotes or rolls.

"Like most people who like menudo, I'm picky about where I eat it," says Griffith. He favors the Saturday menudo at the Steakhouse--we went on a Saturday morning, because George makes the menudo on Friday, and everyone agrees he does something special--but eats his weekday soup at the sister restaurant, mostly because, he says, they threatened him with harm if he were to defect.

Both Little Mexico locations serve menudo every day, but it's traditionally a weekend dish, in part because it's considered to be a curative for hangover: It's jokingly referred to as "the breakfast of champions."

"I think the theory is that you need to put more stomach in your stomach," says Griffith.

In 21st century Tucson, menudo is usually a restaurant specialty: Because the tripe is a pain to clean and takes so long to cook--12 to 24 hours--it's made in large batches. Still, it's often eaten at home. Thirty-something native Tucsonan Helen Bernard (née Gomez) remembers that when she was a girl, her family always stopped after church on Sunday for menudo at the original El Molinito. They brought their own container and got a quantity to take home. The practice speaks to a time of large family meals and restaurants that were as much cook shops as places to sit down and eat. (A number of Tucson restaurants and tortilla factories still sell menudo in quantity.)

According to waitress Irene Ayala, about 60 percent of the customers at Little Mexico Steakhouse order the soup. "They ask me, 'Do you have menudo?' I tell them, 'Yes we have menudo, because you know what? When we run out of menudo, we close.'"

El Minuto Café
354 S. Main Ave.

Our third and last restaurant was El Minuto, one of the oldest restaurants in Tucson. It was founded in 1936, in another downtown building, by John Shaar, an immigrant from Lebanon by way of El Paso whose Mexican-Lebanese-American descendents still run it today. El Charro gets most of the press and carriage trade and tourists, but El Minuto, in a beautiful old bougainvilleia-smothered house across from the Convention Center, is just as Tucson, and just as good.

One thing Griffith especially likes about the place is that you can still get a cheese crisp there made with salty Sonoran queso blanco (unaged farmer's cheese) instead of longhorn or jack.

"It's much more regional. And may I point out that cheese, as well, comes from the animals that Father Kino brought?"

You would think there wouldn't be much to differentiate one quesadilla from another--or you might if you hadn't eaten lots of them--but El Minuto's is entirely distinctive. The tortilla is fried before being covered with cheese and run under the broiler, and since the queso blanco softens rather than melts, the result is supremely crisp and greaseless.

After we polished that off, Griffith had the Sonoran enchilada plate (masa cakes that have been fried, not the more familiar filled kind). I had a bean tostada while we covered topics ranging from the traditional filling for Yuma tacos (burro meat) to the aggravations of running a huge annual festival (endless).

Pausing at the door to talk with Teresa Shaar, who was manning the register, Griffith got into a detailed conversation about the Lebanese dishes her family makes for holidays, including a lamb-and-piñon-nut-stuffed turkey for Thanksgiving.

As we left, he said, "You know, that made me hungry all over again."


One mistake all beginning students of folklore make, says Jim Griffith, is to look for the origins of things--and believe they've found them. There will always, always, be more than one story about exactly when, where and why something like a favorite food came into being, and who the genius was who first thought of it.

Take, for example, the potato chip. It was invented, according to a recent story in The New York Times, in one of the resorts around Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in the 1850s. So far, so good. But there are at least two competing accounts about the who and why and how. One has an angry cook whose fried potatoes had been criticized for being soggy and bland sending out extra thin, salty ones to punish the complainer; another has a cook who was slicing potatoes and frying doughnuts at the same time making a fortunate mistake.

Which, if either, is what God saw as he looked down? No way to tell.

So it is with the chimichanga, of which Tucson is justly, if not necessarily correctly, proud. Crisp, savory, adaptable and calorie-dense, a favorite of editors (Jimmy Boegle) and presidents (Bill Clinton), the chimi is such an obviously good thing that it has spread far and wide.

It came from somewhere around here. Sometime in the last century. Probably. A half-dozen versions of this particular creation story have found their way into print.

One has Monica Flin, the founder of El Charro, dropping a burro into hot oil by accident sometime in the 1950s, and using an obscene Spanish word that sounds something like "chimichanga." She supposedly edited the word--either as she said it, because there were children in the kitchen, or later when she put it on the menu. (Naturally, there are two versions.)

At least two Phoenix restaurateurs have claimed the invention--one story has a hungry restaurateur who'd been visiting his mother in Tucson bringing back a bag of dried-out burros and deciding to fry one to freshen it up. Yet another Tucson origin story features the owner of Club 21 browning a burro for a customer who thought it looked raw, later putting the dish on the menu. The name supposedly came about when someone saw it and remarked, "que chango"--"how clever"--and the phrase somehow morphed into the syllables we know.

There's also vague talk of a long-defunct bar near Nogales called the Chimi Chango, meaning, it's said, "toasted monkey."

"I've heard various stories," says Griffith, "several involving the name being a word made up for the occasion, when someone dropped a burro into hot oil and started to swear or somesuch. But in Tabasco, according to a dictionary of Mexicanismos I've consulted, a 'chimichanga' or 'chibichanga' or 'chivichanga'--and you see the 'v' spelling on some menus--is what you call something you've forgotten or don't know the name of. It's a word like 'thingamajig' or 'whatchmacallit.' So the invented-word part of the stories isn't true.

"What we're talking about, of course, is a burro treated like a flauta or a Yuma taco, and it's not surprising that, in a kitchen with a deep-fat fryer going, somebody would try frying a burro."

Griffith once started a file on the subject, but didn't get very far.

"The most I can say is that it probably originated in the '30s or '40s, in Tucson or somewhere to the south of Tucson, in Arizona or Sonora, where you had cooks who could make the big flour tortillas you need for burros. Not just anybody can make an 18-inch tortilla."

Of course, all the stories may be partly true, and the chimi, by that name or some other, was "invented" by several different people around the same time, just like Newton and Leibniz inventing the calculus almost simultaneously. (OK, maybe not just like.)

Delving even further into the nature of things, why is the ancestor of the chimichanga, the humble burro, named after a small pack animal? And why is a burro called a burrito--a "little burro"--in California?

"I have absolutely no idea," Griffith says.

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