Sonora has never been known for culinary excellence. Unlike Oaxaca, it is not the land of fried grasshoppers, complex moles, or endless arrays of chiles and spices. In contrast, Sonora has been snubbed as the place where, in the words of José Vasconcelos, “civilization ends and carne asada begins.”
However, Sonoran cooking is deceptively complex. Sonoran cooking evolved as a brilliant response to the harsh and arid climate of the Sonoran Desert, which is characterized by a lack of diverse food products. Hundreds of years ago, threatened with constant attacks by Apaches, “There wasn’t a lot of time to sit around playing the piano,” said one Sonoran friend. There was, instead, a need to bring to the table food that was filling, nutritious, and flavorful.
North of the border, Sonoran food all too often consists of oversized, bland burritos, excessive amounts of gooey yellow cheese, and watery salsa made with canned and unripe ingredients. In reality, the traditional food of Sonora demonstrates a sophisticated and intelligent use of local and seasonal ingredients.
The city of Hermosillo is a city in transition when it comes to food and cultural arts. In addition to many well-executed traditional classics, cooks and chefs are extracting new tastes from the austerity of the surrounding landscape. In other words, as my friend and author, Alan Weisman, wrote about Hermosillo in 1988 for the now-defunct City magazine, “It is no longer the place where civilization ends.” City magazine editor Chuck Bowden wanted Alan to write something that would enable readers to understand that Hermosillo was more than just a bunch of stop lights between Tucson and the beach at Bahia Kino. It is a worthy destination in itself.
Where is Hermosillo? It is a comfortable, three-hour drive south of Nogales on a well-maintained, four-lane road that leads to a modern and progressive city with a population of around 800,000.
The idea of touring eating places in Hermosillo came out of conversations between me and Ernesto Camou Healy, a former researcher at Hermosillo’s CIAD (Centro de Investigacion en Alimentación y Desarrollo) with a Ph.D. in social anthropology. The opportunity to sample diverse foods throughout the city sounded ever so intriguing, irresistible, and delightful, even though it would most likely be exhausting. Sonoran hospitality, whether in a home or on the street, has a simplicity and completeness that stands in stark contrast to the rapid pace of modern life.
Ernesto was the perfect companion for a culinary adventure of this type. Both he and his wife, Emma Paulina, are highly regarded and well-published anthropologists who have written extensively about Sonoran rural culture and foods.
At best, this article represents a very small sampling of the many great food venues available in the city of Hermosillo. Although Sonora is a meat-oriented state, vegetarian options can be found at every place reviewed below.
Deciding how to begin our tour was easy for Ernesto. “We should begin with what is a common tradition here in Mexico, unique by region, los tacos mananeros (morning tacos),” he said. “For some they can be breakfast, for others a morning snack or even an almuerzo (early lunch). Typically, they consist of slow-cooked meats, stews, and, for those wishing a lighter fare, quesadillas or frijoles. And of course they are popular for hangovers.”
Tacos mananeros are typically eaten either while standing at puestos callejeros (street carts) or sitting at open-air taquerias that open anywhere from 5 to 6 in the morning. We began our expedition on a Monday morning at the popular Taqueria el Chino Mario. It’s a delightful, clean, open-air taqueria with metal tables situated under the shade of a large ficus tree.
Maria Antonieto Romo greeted us at the counter. Maria, who has worked for the owner of the taqueria, Mario Valenzuela Vera, for 23 years, opens the taqueria daily at 6 a.m. and closes it at 1 p.m. After closing, she begins cooking the meats for the following day, goes home, and rises again at 3 a.m. to begin preparations for the next day. Her husband has also worked as a taquero, making tacos for more than 40 years.
Ernesto tells me, “Here beef is the common ingredient. Most popular are the tacos de cabeza (meat from the skull), but you can also order tacos de lengua, sesos, ojos, cachetes (tongue, brains, eyes, and cheeks). To bring out the taste, you can choose from a variety of salsas, finely chopped onions, cabbage, and lime. You have to be careful because they are very juicy and it is difficult to eat four to five tacos without messing up your shirt. It is a good idea to tuck in one’s tummy.”
Intersection of De Anza and Roman Yocupicio
Next stop was a taquería serving a newer variation of tacos mananeros, fish, shrimp, and cahuamanta (manta ray). Cooked in a batter, they might be described as a Baja-Sonora-Japanese fusión. Mayonnaise, chopped vegetables, and salsas complete the tacos.
From behind a shiny food cart that occupies a prominent space in the open-air eating area, German Palafox, brother of the owner, Abel Palafox, is there to greet you with a smile when you enter Double AA Tacos—Taco Fish. The atmosphere is bright, the place spotless.
Ernesto suggested we try the cahuamanta tacos, saying, “Cahuamanta is served either as tacos on corn tortillas or as a delicious caldo (soup) with small pieces of manta, tomatoes, carrots, celery, and spices. It is fantastic either as tacos or soup and it is typically served with finely shredded cabbage, onions, lime and a salsa prepared from chile del arbol. The tacos are particularly great when accompanied by the clear broth known as bichy.” Cahuamanta was invented as a substitute for tacos and soups prepared from sea turtles, known as caguama, which have been placed on the endangered species list.
Intersection of Calle General Escobedo and Veracruz
What I remember most about this tiny, cute, open-air restaurant in the middle of Ejido Victoria, on the north end of Hermosillo, were the smiling faces of several women upon our arrival—and their delight upon seeing Ernesto. Las Mujeres de Don Juan is one of his favorite stops. The restaurant is run by three women, Dona Aurelia Contreras and her two daughters, Maria Antonieta and Adelita. “This is the place to go when you want fantastic, classic, simple, Sonoran food,” says Ernesto. When Dona Aurelia’s husband, Don Juan died, she and the daughters opened the restaurant as a tribute to him. Dona Aurelia makes all the day’s tortillas, both the small tortillas de harina (wheat flour), called gorditas, and the large tortillas de harina that span almost 30 inches in diameter.
“The tamales are the best you will ever have,” says Ernesto. “The daily traditional soups such as cocido, cazuela, gallina pinta don’t get any better … This food is the countryside, the streets, the heart of Mexico.”
My favorite meal of the day was a quesadilla made with Dona Aurelia’s gorditas, Sonoran cheese, and a side of chiltepin salsa, accompanied by Sonora’s traditional café colado, made from pan-roasted coffee beans with a raw sugar glaze.
Coming into Hermosillo, take a left at La Victoria and continue for approximately a mile and a half. The restaurant is on the right.
A voluminous voice from the back of the room greeted us. The voice was that of Alfonso Lira, the owner of Mochomos, an innovative, modern restaurant. His chef is Sergio Ivan Ruiz, who was formally trained in San Francisco. Since opening in 2010, they’ve continued to redefine the culinary map of Sonora by offering a sophisticated and contemporary version of Sonora cuisine. The word mochomos traditionally refers to a type of Sonoran ant; it’s also used as the name for dried shredded beef, machaca, that has been fried crisp.
We began with bocadillos de atun, cubes of Ahi tuna braised to perfection and served on lightly toasted crackers, topped with salmon mousse and a pepper sauce. Next came the papada de puerco, pork meat from the throat or chin grilled Mochomos-style. Completing the meal were servings of calamar rebozado de la casa, pieces of breaded and pan fried squid; pulpo al grill, small fillet pieces of octopus with a garlic, parsley, and chile sauce; and rib eye mochomos, marinated in herbs and a proprietary sauce. The menu is diverse, original, and reasonably priced, considering the offerings.
Plaza Graciela, Blvd. Morelos 701
“Bermejo is the original name of the Sea of Cortez,” Arturo Puigferrat, one of the partners in this recently opened restaurant, tells me. “The Sea of Cortez is the connecting link between Sonora and Baja where much of modern Mexican cuisine has evolved. This restaurant is about that connection. Our food celebrates the seafood from the Sea of Cortez, Sonoran beef, and the traditional foods like one would find along the Rio Sonora. We are creating a new Sonoran cuisine with an emphasis on local and fresh.”
Arturo’s partner in this venture is the highly celebrated chef from Baja California, Javier Plascencia. Javier’s innovative cuisine has turned Baja, Tijuana, and the Guadalupe Valley into culinary destinations.
Arturo told me, “We wanted the interior of the restaurant to be modern, tasteful, and comfortable at the same time. We used a mix of mesquite wood, driftwood, and handmade tiles from Hermosillo to decorate the bar. It is symbolic of the connection between the Sea of Cortez and the Sonoran Desert.”
“Bring us the Marlin tacos,” Arturo requested of one of the waiters. Like the surroundings, the presentation was elegant. Marlin prepared with fideos (toasted vermicelli), queso Mennonita (Mennonite cheese from Chihuahua), and Mexican cream. Next came the ceviche verde (ceviche with raw tomatillo sauce). And then aguachile negro—a serving of shrimp, scallops, a sauce from charred Serrano chiles, watercress, and red onion. The lonja de pescado, grilled fish served with crispy chinchulines (chitterlings), topped with chayote cream and a raw salsa verde, await me on my return. When visiting Hermosillo, Bermejo is required dining.
Blvd. Kino 177, Local 20 Plaza Pitic
When looking for carne asada in Hermosillo, there are is no shortage of options, from the numerous street carts to the taquerias, asaderos, and high-end restaurants. Ernesto had made his choice when his daughter, 23-year-old Jimena, vetoed her father’s choice and suggested another option. “You should go to El Lenador, the Lumberjack. The food is better and the prices are very reasonable,” she said.
The owner, Alfonso Ojeda, and his wife, Yolanda Sabela, opened El Lenador in 2000. Alfonso had worked at a Sizzler Steak House in San Jose, California. “When I returned to Hermosillo,” he said, “I wanted to make a restaurant that had a family atmosphere, reasonable prices, high quality beef, and a decent selection of liquors, wine, and beer.”
The menu is varied and extensive. I had a carne asada taco, served on top of a grilled nopal penca (prickly pear cactus pad) and a corn tortilla. Another dining companion suggested the empanaditas with cuitlacoche (wild corn fungus) and a cream cilantro sauce. They were flavorful, perfect for vegetarians. They also serve tacos light, with carne asada served on a romaine lettuce leaf. El Lenador also has the most extensive and highest quality salsa bar of anywhere I have been.
Calle Luis Donaldo Colosio 168
A visual and aromatic fun house, the main market in the center of Hermosillo is where you can find almost any ingredient used in Sonoran foods, along with a variety of places to eat. The most popular time of day is early morning, when people come to meet for coffee and breakfast. You can find tacos, tortas, comidas (meals), caldos (traditional Sonoran soups), liquados, and more. I stopped at a puesto (food stand) that caught my eye, called Carnitas La Dieta. The owner, Edmundo Castillo, told me his father had started the puesto 50 years ago; he’s been working there for 30. I think of carnitas as being somewhat like a pork confit. However, as far as I could tell, Edmundo serves every part of the pig—a surtida, or a little bit of everything.
Avenida Plutarco Elías Calles
The diversity of the menu at La Casa Grande was what caught my eye when I first visited. There was everything from modern and innovative cuisine to all the traditional favorites. My dining companions and I shared plates across the table—duck tacos, crepes with cuitlacoche (corn fungus) and cilantro, avocado cream, and mochomos (dried shredded beef fried crisp).
With indoor dining and an outdoor terrace, La Casa Grande is family-friendly and the prices comfortable. The breakfast is also diverse, making it a great morning choice. Around 9 a.m., once children are off to school and husbands have gone to work, the restaurant fills with women who meet for coffee and a late breakfast. La Casa Grande is located next to Sonora Steak in the Zona Hotelera (the hotel zone).
Blvd. Eusebio Kino No. 902
Bill Steen and his wife, Athena, are founders of The Canelo Project, a nonprofit organization in Santa Cruz County dedicated to “connecting people, culture, and nature.”
While there are many great lodging options in Hermosillo, these three hotels are in the Zona Hotelera, clearly visble when you enter town off Highway 15. When calling from the U.S., dial 011.52 before area code. Call for seasonal rates.
Blvd. Francisco Eusebio Kino y Ramon Corral
Blvd. Eusebio Kino No. 369, Col. Lomas Pitic
Boulevard Cultura 48