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Mar 6, 2003 08:09 AM

What is Sonoran?

  • e

I've been reading some of the recent posts where Phoenix hounds have been discussing Mexican places, calling some Sonoran, some not. There was even one post that seemed to equate Sonoran with Tex-Mex. Down here in Yuma, we have some restaurants that seem to be Sonoran, but we also have a lot of Baja and Jalisco influences. What makes a restaurant Sonoran? What are the signature dishes? How do they do green chili? How do they do tacos? Are any caldos or sopas characteristic? Salsas? Enchiladas? Yellow or white cheese? Are there clues that let you decide that a place definitely is/isn't Sonoran? Help!

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    I can't seem to find any good resources that would explain Sonoran food so you're going to get my personal feelings on it. Basically I consider Sonoran the typical Mexican food you see out here in the Southwest like tacos, tostadas, burros, enchiladas, chimichangas, fajitas, red and green chile, chile rellenos, and tamales. I don't include seafood because it tends not to be nearly as common or bastardized. (The American version of fish tacos is pretty poor, and you'll never mistake it the grilled fish tacos that inspired it unless the restaurant has made an effort to rise above complete mediocrity.)

    I was the person who lumped Tex-Mex and Sonoran together, and I do that because sometimes there's not really much difference between the two. Sonoran food has become so common that it almost lacks distinction at times. Of course there are other times when the differences are significant, and maybe it's not fair to think of them as the same.

    The item that demonstrates the most significant difference, I would say, are soft tacos. The typical Mexican soft taco consists of chopped meat served on top of corn tortillas and topped with chopped white onion and cilantro. Obviously that's very different from the type of soft taco they serve at Taco Bell. Hard tacos also tend to be a little different. The typical Mexican ones I've had are shredded meat wrapped up in a corn tortilla and deep fried. They pretty much only come with shredded lettuce and sour cream. The emphasis seems to be more on the shell than the meat, and you can really taste the difference between a premade taco shell and a fresh hard taco straight from the fryer. Even without the emphasis on the meat, the meat tends to be better (if less abundant) than their premade taco shell brethren.

    Anyway, I have to leave so I'll answer a couple of your questions really quickly.

    > How do they do green chili?

    Every place seems to make green chile differently. I've had it anywhere from soupy to pasty to almost completely dry.

    > Are any caldos or sopas characteristic?

    Menudo, chicken tortilla, and albondigas all come to mind.

    7 Replies
    1. re: IamJacksBrain

      I appreciate the information. One of these days, when I have a little more time, I will post about the differences that I think exist between traditional Sonoran and the more common border Mexican that is becoming increasingly popular down here. When I do that post I will really appreciate feedback from you and others about whether it fits with what you've found. You're right that the restaurants tend to copy each other and that one type of Mexican tends to blend seamlessly into another which makes it difficult to be sure if a dish or preparation is truly traditional Sonoran or just something popular that a Sonoran style place felt necessary to add to their menu. Thanks again

      1. re: e.d.

        I hope you're not worried about whether something is authentic or not. In the end it only matters if you think it tastes good.

        1. re: IamJacksBrain

          No, when it comes to eating, I don't much care about authentic--and in fact, I don't think I like authentic Sonoran as much as some other border Mexican foods. But I am interested in how border Mexican food became like it is, and how to tell, from glancing at a menu or trying some food, whether the cuisine is Sonoran or not. My interest in categories is mostly academic curiosity that arose from noticing the variations in the dishes I was eating. Just one example: when ordering green chili in Yuma I have been served a spicy pork with chilies and tomatillos, a similar dish that was mild, a spicy beef stew with chilies and tomatillos, a mild chunky beef dish with big chunks of green chilies, and mild flavored coarsely ground beef with pieces of green chilies. The last two are what I consider the most Sonoran. One local restuarant serves green chile beef enchiladas with ground beef/chile filling in a flour tortilla covered in green sauce.

      2. re: IamJacksBrain

        After coming across this site through the dogpile search engine I feel the need to offer my dos pesos...

        Sonoran food is indeed different from other mexican styles. I don't know what Tex-Mex is like but if Tex-Mex is the typical American restaraunt style food then you certainly can't group Sonoran style in there with it...

        Sonoran style food comes from Sonora Mexico, which is a state in Mexico. Homestyle hardshell tacos, done Sonoran style are fried in the shell...the meat is sometimes shredded, but more often (like my mother and abuelita did it) made into a hamburger like patti which is spiced with salt, pepper, garlic...ect...and the tacos are served with watever condiments you prefer...usually cheese, lettuce, cilatro and salsa...

        Soft tacos are done typically with corn tortillas, flour tortillas are also used and seem to be prefered by the tourists for some reason. Soft tacos are filled with a great variety of meats including but not limited to carne asade (usually marinaded in a citrus mixture), pollo asado (also marinaded), pescado (fish), tripas or tripitas (beef milk ducts), cabeza (tender muscular flesh taken from the head of the cow), carne pastor (pork slow cooked with pineaple gyro style and cut into thin slices)....ect...

        There is really no comparison between what you get in a typical Mexican-American restaraunt and the kind of food you might get in real Sonoran towns like Nogales or Puerto Penasco.

        Chimichangas served Sonoran style are typically pan fried, not deep fried like their American counter parts and almost everything served "Sonoran style" is served with mayonaise...

        There are a thousand different recipes unique to Sonora...or at least there are unique variations of other Mexican dishes. Sonoran style backyard mezcal is called bacanora.

        Here's a "Sonoran" recipe straight from my Tata to you folks out there wanting to know what's up with Sonoran food. He called this the Clam Tostada (also the name of a great and upcoming Arizona band out there for those of you who might want to listen to some good folk-rock/americana ) The clam tostada recipe is delicious and easy...

        Baby Clams (fresh or canned
        )Mix in some diced cilantro and green onions,
        lemon or lime, salt, garlic...

        Serve on a tostada shell over refried beans (remember to refry the beans in bacon grease and cheese cause that's how they do it in Sonora)

        Top with the salsa of your choice preferably fresh...just throw some diced pealed steam tomatos in the blender along with a few jalapenos, green onion, fresh garlic, cilatro, salt and maybe just a dash of cumin...mmmmmm...

        Anyhow...ummm...that may even be 9.5 pesos worth, you guys owe me about 95 cents...depending on current exchange rates...

        --Mark (Living in occupied Sonora)

        1. re: Mark Anthony

          Thanks for your "dos pesos", Mark. We got more than our money's worth. Thanks for the recipe for clam tostados. It sounds easy to put together and delectable.

          We hope you'll find your way back to Chowhound again. Where do you like to eat (details, please!), where you live. We'll anticipate more from you about that on our International message board. Pat

          1. re: Mark Anthony

            Hi Mark -
            I do enjoy the music of the CT - never knew that there was a recipe behind it, though. I think that the Mexican-American food that you referred to can be mroe specifically defined as Arizona's version of Mexican food. Rarely do I see combo food platters ordered by the letter elsewhere in the country. Additionally, the only seafood that I know of that's served with any regularity in Sonora is shrimp in RP.

            1. re: Mark Anthony


              Tex-Mex is a culinary blending of the cusines of the border area of Mexico and Texas. Since that land was once part of Mexico, the heritage goes much deeper, than what one might expect.

              Some aspects have been incorporated into some of what is sold in the rest of the US as "Mexican" fare. However, it is far more complex, than that. One needs to travel that border territory, crossing back and forth, to fully experience it. Unlike much of the cuisine of the rest of Mexico, it transcends a couple of states.

              While I am far from an expert in this subject, I AM a big fan of Tex-Mex food. In another reply to this thread, I cover a very few of my personal observations on the differences. Without specific ingredients, let's just say that it is heavier, heartier, than is Sonoran, or some other Mexican cuisines. Talking to many of the families, who prepare Tex-Mex, this predates any influence from the US, especially as most of that was Mexico, when their forefathers were cooking it. It was different even then - heartier.

              Now, just as in most of the world, recipes and dishes can differ from state to state, and from family to family. Still, there are often regional qualities, ingredients and treatments, that typify that region.

              Tex-Mex can probably best be appreciated in places like Del Rio, Laredo, Nuevo Laredo and such. Get too far into the US, and things have changed to fit a more US-centric palate. Same for going too far into Mexico. Get to Monterey (not THAT far south) and the cuisine changes. The changes are not necessarily for the worse, or the better, they are just changes.

              As the immigrants from Mexico (and other areas south of the US border) spread and bring their family's take on the cuisine, I think that what too many US citizens think of as Mexican cuisine, will change. That, or they will be compromised into serving what the residents of the US "consider" Mexican.

              For good Sonoran, with fewer compromises, head to San Luis, AZ, and stop in at any number of great family restaurants. Even the short distance to Yuma (or Tucson, or Phoenix) has probably filtered this a bit. Much is still great, but it will probably have changed some.

              Now, I am less into "authentic," as I have to ask "authentic to whom." I'm more into good, though I do embrace the differences and delight in these, so long as they are "good."


          2. Hi e.d., Here's an older post by Canon Fowler about Sonoran food. This gentlemen has very strong opinions and a lot to say on the subject.


            1 Reply
            1. re: Pat Hammond

              Thanks Pat. It was reading Canon Fowler's posts when I was a newbie hound and newbie Yuman than got me thinking about this whole subject, and I've been trying to make some sense about it ever since. When I read the recent posts discussing Phoenix area Mex, it made we wonder what folks up there thought about Sonoran because I am kindof working on my own sense of what is and is not Sonoran.

            2. Here's a link to a thread on the General board a while back. Sonoran gets some discussion there.


              1 Reply
              1. re: Chimayo Joe

                Thanks for the link. I think I had read it before, but it was nice to review it again. Your comments seemed especially perceptive.

              2. I am of Sonoran heritage, but I grew up on cooking that was constantly being evolved and sadly devolved.
                To understand the difference is to understand the region. Sonora is a desert region of Mexico. It's also cattle country, versus the rest of Mexico who's meat of choice is pork or goat. With cattle the grain of choice is wheat versus corn for the rest of Mexico. Those two factors weigh heavily on the influences of Sonoran Cooking. Because of the abundance of wheat--the tortillas are made of wheat. Breads, quick breads, sweet rolls are more previlant in Sonoran cooking. Because of the beef; little of the cooking need be complex, sauses are milder, less ingredients used. The best examples of Sonoran cooking compare to the best examples of Neopolitan cooking: there are few great foods grown, but they are in abundance and the quality of these few ingredients are generally higher than elsewhere in Mexico. But Sonoran cooking requires excellent cooks. For the most part, flour tortillas are lousy, unless made by an excellent tortilla maker. Just like pizzas are unremarkable unless made by someone like Lombardi, Pero or Difara. Great Sonoran cooking can be just earthy refried beans and tortillas--but beans and tortillas that'll send you threw the roof. And no salsa is necessary. And yes, it is often border food, but at it's most ideal. Using the freshest and best ingredients, cooked to simple perfection.

                But there are dishes uniquely Sonoran: the flat enchiladas, which are a thick corn masa disk deep fried then soaked in a simple red chile mole and topped with a relish of green olives, onion, then grated cheese of choice.

                Menudo, of course.

                Caldo con Queso.

                Cazuelo: a Machaca stew.

                Torta: not a sandwich, but a Sonoran version of egg foo young.

                More later when I've more time to write.

                10 Replies
                1. re: Pete Feliz

                  Thanks a lot. Very Helpful. A lot of what you say confirms what Canon Fowler (who grew up in Tucson in the 1930s) has written. Any more details that you can add would be most appreciated.

                  Did your Sonoran food include tacos of any sort or green chili?


                  1. re: e.d.

                    Yes, it included tacos, usually of the crisp fried variety (folded over, not rolled). Green chile was usually used for salsas, rajas, or in tamalitos (green corn tamales).


                      1. re: e.d.

                        My Spanish is very poor (assimilation was too successful). I was referring to strips of roasted peeled green chile peppers, often served on melted cheese or in a sour cream sauce. In my recollection, green chile wasn't often used to make chile con carne until the late sixties in Arizona. That influence was imported from New Mexico, not Mexico--though there are some stews in Sinola similar to Green Chile Con Carne.

                        1. re: Pete Feliz

                          Thanks--it was just a term I hadn't heard before. My Spanish is limited to what I've seen on menus. Here (Yuma) we have several kinds of green chilies (also green sauces on things like enchiladas), but no discernable New Mexico influences. Again, thanks for all the information.

                          1. re: Pete Feliz

                            No you had it right, the word rajas is the right word to describe what you were talking about.

                        2. re: Pete Feliz
                          Peter Tillman

                          Don't forget quesadillas -- I always stop in Imuris for a bite and have never been disappointed. Local cheese, I think.

                          Though the best quesadillas I've ever had were in a little cafe near Kino Bay (long gone, sigh).

                          Cheers -- Pete Tillman

                          1. re: Peter Tillman

                            We always referred to quesadillas as the grilling cheese,similar to mozzarella; not the tortilla turnover everyone else knows. I'm not sure if that's Sonoran or Arizonan, though most Sonorans in AZ refer to quesadillas as a cheese also.

                            1. re: Pete Feliz

                              no, quesadillas are either a corn or flour tortilla with melted cheese inside, not just the cheese, you call that just queso in that case.

                      2. re: Pete Feliz

                        Do you have a recipe for the enchilada? My husband wants me to learn? Thank You!

                      3. Hi, A note: in the last 10-15yrs Sonoran food has changed some with the migration of southern Mexicans into the region bringing their style of cooking. But traditional Sonoran cooking is unique and a true cuisine in its own right. The two staples are beef and wheat which are abundant to the state. Sonoran food can best be described as earthy, simple and hearty. You won't find many complex sauces or lots of ingredients in dishes and the food is not as hot/spicy as people might think as salsas are usually a condiment and not necessarily found in the dish itself. I find southern Italian cooking and to a point Argentine cooking somewhat similar in spirit to Sonoran food.
                        I have read people mention tacos, burritos and such, but in my experience ( both my parents, grandparents, and beyond are Sonoran) those items are street food. In all honesty I have never had such food items in a typical Sonoran home for dinner - maybe that's just me. Beef has been on our plate almost everyday whether it was ground beef sauted with potatoes, onions, veggies and tomatoes, steak accompanied by some kind of potato, super thin steak breaded and lightly fried (Milanesa), some kind of hearty stew/soup, albondigas (meatballs). Chicken is either in a dish such as soup, or roasted, or perhaps simply pan fried. Seafood believe it or not is a part of Sonoran cooking (there is a coastline after all) but it is not an everyday thing. It will usually consist of a mild white fish pan fried, shrimp with some garlic, and of course ceviche. Corn, potatos, squash (calabasitas), peas, onions, garlic, tomatos are perhaps the basic "greens" you will find in cooking. Wheat goes on for days and Sonorans don't just eat tortiallas (where flour tortiallas are king) but there is also an array of breads that accompany dinner. Dairy is also important with many cheeses, mostly white mild cheeses like the famous Chihuahua cheese that is also made in the mountains of Sonora, the use of crema or sour cream; all that cheese is put to tasty use in quesadillas (Imuris is famous for their quesadillas). Mayonaise is used quite often as well.
                        Lets not forget the carne asada - most Sonorans can't wait to have an outdoor BBQ with mesquit in the coals for flavor.
                        Everyone has different experiences when it comes to any cuisine but overall Sonoran cooking is flavorful with minimal ingredients, it's hearty, and something to remember.

                        4 Replies
                        1. re: shwmehvn

                          You just had it ALL right, with just a small exception, i think your parents or someone started adding sour cream to the meals but i was raised in the coast of Sonora (Huatabampo) and we do not use sour cream, but just simple table cream which i find it to be more delicious maybe because it was my "costumbre".

                          But you are very right too when you said that tacos and burritos are street foods, also sonoran style hot dogs are street foods and pizza and hamburgers as well. In my home, the only tacos my mom ever made were the hard shell tacos and tostadas which were delicious and miss dearly. Burritos were the kind of "quick food" you made at home to take with you to school for lunch, or to a trip, or somewhere where you knew you would get hungry, also a burrito could be just your cravings to just put beans or fresh cheese on a fresh flour tortilla that your mom just took out of the griddle, we do enjoy both kinds of tortillas, and we eat them every day, mostly the fresh made corn tortilla which is bought at the tortilleria everyday for freshness, in Sonora you try to sell a tortilla in a package with preservatives like they do here in the USA and you will go broke. We also eat fresh bread bought daily at the panaderia, we are very picky in flavor and freshness of the food, that's why our food is so good.

                          We do not spice our food, and there are not many dishes in mexico that may be spicy, usually the spiciness is added in a salsa or hot sauce, unless of course you are talking about ceviche, in my house for example, we liked to use serrano peppers to make it really spicy that would give you a runny nose. I guess it all depends on what people like, but most the ceviche i ate was spicy, and we do eat seafood of course, specially in Huatabampo we can eat it regularly, everyday if we want to, after all the port of Yavaros is only 10 minutes away from Huatabampo and we get all kinds of good fish, clam and shrimp between others every day, fresh of course, they had been fished at 4 am that same day, and there is no comparison to that kind of freshness.

                          Tacos from the street are really good though, the tastes varies from stand to stand because everyone has their own way to make them, but they are way good, and right now i am even wishing to have the ones i didn't really like comparing them to the best ones in town.

                          Out doors BBQs are something that we do have very often too, we do enjoy inviting our friends and getting together to grill the best beef in the country, after all, the best beef in the country is the one from Sonora. ;-)

                          1. re: vampy

                            Vampy -

                            What are some typical seafood dishes of Huatabampo?

                            If I grew up in a casa sonorense what would be some typical homestyle dishes?

                            1. re: vampy

                              Hi Vampy,
                              My mother was born and raised in Huatabampo. She is now deceased, but would LOVE to find out the true way to make tamales from her home town. I know some of the recipes have evolved. She was born in 1932, so whatever you may be able to dig up.... I would GREATLY appreciate! All I remember are having wonderful beef and/or pork tamales with a strip of potato, chili (don't know what kind), green olives a perhaps a few raisins? YUMMO! I'm craving one now! ;-)

                            2. re: shwmehvn

                              shwnegvn -

                              I was wondering if you could expand on the effect of southern mexican emigrants to sonora on the local cuisine?