No words are exchanged. A man nods, the gate lifts, and your car noses into another country. Easy, immediate, like it could be an accident—follow the road, follow the route, follow the sign to Frontera and suddenly: Mexico. Tiendas, taquerias, and mercados—El Super Que Queries!—suddenly, the world speaks to you in Spanish. It’s another dozen miles before you’ll get your passports stamped; stay in the car, shift into this new traffic tempo, and continue straight through the crowded border city, one half of Ambos Nogales, and onto the open road—already you are wished a Feliz Viaje. (If you drive past the passport control exit, intoxicated by the green landscape and the smooth freeway, a very nice man in a blue uniform will let you make an embarrassed U-turn.)
After your passport has been stamped, the road relaxes and unwinds, and so can you. You’re here because you can be—because Magdalena, Sonora, is only 10 miles farther from Tucson than Phoenix is. But when you head south instead of north, those extra 10 miles buy you access not only to a new landscape and culture, but also a new cuisine, one that’s thrillingly accessible, literally on the side of the road you’ll drive in on.
In northern Sonora, roadside food stands offer more than a quick taco. The average stand is stocked with rows of thick glass jars, full of all manner of treats—fig jam, pickled garlic, a diversity of preserved fruits, suspended in their own sweet syrup, and, of course, chiltepin peppers in their myriad incarnations.
“The stands will tell you what’s worth buying, with painted signs declaring the season’s wares.”
After you drive across the border, the landscape continues, contiguously American. It is still the Sonoran desert, but because of the slight elevation gain, the green of this land is thicker. Saguaros dot hills just as they do outside Tucson, but in between is a carpet of green, a floor of foliage.
Follow I-15, the road to Hermosillo, and you’ll hit Imuris within the hour. Adjacent to the road, trucks scattered along the road’s shoulder brim with things worth stopping for—café tostado (roasted coffee), fresh basil plants, jams galore, fresh cheeses, and, farther down the road, copper cookware.
Press on to Magdalena, about 10 miles south from Imuris on 1-15. On the edge of town, when the road swerves right, so should you. After the first curve comes your first stop; the sign says “tortillas” and that’s all they sell, often still warm in the bag. Keep your eye out for shops selling coyotas—a sweet sugar-cookie-like pastry—and stop for carne asada tacos at any of the taquerias scattered along Avenida Niños Hèreos—the main artery through town, although it turns into 5 de Mayo somewhere along the way. But don’t fill up just yet, as the best roadside stands are scattered on the south edge of town (“past the hotels,” according to local instruction). Before the second Oxxo gas station, before the last stoplight before leaving town, park your car and walk back up the block, stopping at each of the four or five food stands stationed along the road.
The stands will tell you what’s worth buying, with painted signs declaring the season’s wares—membrillo or queso fresco (fresh, homemade cheese with a feta-like texture) or tortillas grandes. And they mean big—these translucent, paper-thin tortillas stretch almost two feet across, often called “water tortillas” in reference to their main ingredient. For 30 pesos, you’ll get a bag with six tortillas folded like sheets.
Although you’ll find it year round, in the summer, when figs hang heavy from neighborhood trees, you’ll find stands stacked with jars full of a thick, dark purple; walk away with a pint-sized jar of fig jam for only about 100 pesos. For the savory-food inclined, look for bags of machaca, a type of dried beef (sometimes pork) that you can sauté with scrambled eggs; wrap it up in one of those tortillas you snagged for the perfect breakfast burrito. In addition to numerous fruit jams—peach or lemon, even—you’ll find glass jars holding seasonal fruits suspended (and preserved) in their own syrup. There’s chiltepin salsa, standard-issue fiery or with added membrillio for a tinge of sweetness; there are dried chiltepines, pickled chiltepines, brined olives, pickled garlic, honey, acorns. Ristras of dried red chiles hang from the walls like decoration but, of course, they are edible, too.
Don’t forget the fresh produce. These stands are smaller and tend to migrate; if you can find the neveria (ice cream shop) a few blocks up the road, you’ll also find tables spread with a fresh array of colors, including, depending on the season, nopales, acorns, and fresh and dried chile peppers.
The key to successful roadside eating is a quick reaction time—the ability to resist the inertia of the road when you spot something potentially interesting.
One such instant decision might lead you to Mariscos Con Coco, located on the outskirts of Magdalena, next to the Gasolinera Alcatraz. In all likelihood, it’ll be Ramón Soto who greets you when you exit your car, unsure of what exactly you’ve stopped for. He’s been running the stand for 18 years, although he says he “invented” the dish a decade before that in Mazatlán. The dish? For 130 pesos, you’ll get a coconut brimming over with shrimp, clam, calamari, tomato, onion, cucumber, served under lime, salt, and salsa—enough food to fill two bellies, and happily so.
“The key to successful roadside eating is a quick reaction time—the ability to resist the inertia of the road when you spot something potentially interesting.”
As you head back north, the border announces itself gradually—Frontera, 20 kilómetros. You’ll be siphoned into lanes—truck or passenger car—again and again, and the lanes seem to shift. Traveling south, from the U.S., the border is a thick black line—unequivocal and unquestioned. But on the northbound return, in a car laden with fresh tortillas—with perhaps a few less after a roadside picnic—jars of fig jam, a coaster-sized disc of queso cocido and a heavy block of queso fresco—not to mention a corked wine bottle full of bacanora, a gift from a new friend—you’ll be asked where you’ve come from and where you’re going to.
Of course, Magdalena is farther than Phoenix by more than just 10 miles. But the more you cross this border, the more it begins to seem like a membrane rather than a line; like an opening instead of a crossing. ✜