Early fall, Hermosillo, Sonora. We are drowsing under the shade of an orange tree at Plaza Zaragoza in the city’s historic center. The mercury has been hovering around 100 degrees Fahrenheit all week – October is still the hot season in the Sonoran Desert – and the plaza is half-deserted on a Saturday afternoon. A teenage couple canoodles under the shade of the plaza’s grand kiosk, while a small, elegant bridal party huddles in the shadow of La Catedral de la Asunción, the city’s gracious neoclassical cathedral. A woman cuts through the park in a hurry, her face shielded from the sun by a brightly-colored parasol.
A few hours later, the mercury has dropped almost 20 degrees in the City of the Sun and the hot, sleepy plaza has snapped to life. Families from the nearby colonias emerge from their homes to socialize and walk their dogs around the cobble-stoned streets of el centro. Vendors, selling everything from handmade jewelry to raspados and pirulín candies, line the perimeter of the plaza. Hermosillo is famous for its spectacular desert sunsets, and this particular evening is no exception: the white-hot desert sun has given way to soft amber skies.
It’s a typical Saturday night in Hermosillo, a desert city located about 220 miles south of Tucson. Hermosillo, home to nearly one million residents, is the capital of Sonora and widely recognized as the economic center of northwestern Mexico. For a city of its size, though, Hermosillo is too often overlooked by travelers en route to the beach towns and fishing villages of the nearby Sea of Cortez.
Hermosillo, more than just a pit stop, is one of Mexico’s great underrated food cities. The city boasts a distinct culinary personality firmly rooted in the region’s norteño vaquero history, with foodways richly shaped by the harsh yet fruitful Sonoran desert. Come to Hermosillo for regional delicacies like thin, stretchy flour tortillas; seafood staples like caldo de cahuamanta, made with manta ray and shrimp; and carne seca, a traditional shredded beef dish that’s salted and dried in the sun, and commonly flavored with chiltepin, the region’s native wild chile. Come for the uniquely Sonoran treats like carretas de dogos (hot dog stands selling the region’s famous bacon-wrapped Sonoran hot dogs), coyotas, root beer stands, and dishes that manage to evoke both the desert and the beach on one plate. Hermosillo, of course, is also home to some of the best carne asada anywhere.
How safe is travel to and around Hermosillo? It’s the question I get asked most frequently when I tell people how much we love Hermosillo. Stories of narcoviolence fill our newsfeeds, and parts of Sonora regularly turn up on the U.S. State Department’s travel advisory list. A short answer: Hermosillo feels safe and friendly for a city of its size. You’ll want to exercise the same common sense you would in any big city.
“Donde comienza la carne asada”
Twentieth century Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos is famously credited with saying about el norte: “La civilización termina donde comienza la carne asada” (“Civilization ends where carne asada begins”). This gives you some idea of the historical snubbing that Sonoran food and culture has endured over the years. Interest in typical Sonoran cuisine is growing in places like L.A., particularly Sonoran-style, mesquite-perfumed carne asada.
Jesuit missionaries brought cattle and wheat to this part of the world in the seventeenth century, and beef has been something of a regional obsession ever since. Today, Sonora is one of Mexico’s top beef-producing states, known for its Angus steers and high quality beef. The traditional norteño preparation involves thinly sliced steak, simply seasoned and grilled over mesquite charcoals: irresistibly smokey and well-done, and often chopped down to bubbling, gently-charred nubs. Far more than just grilled meat, carne asada suggests a family or community get-together, in the same way that an American barbecue denotes grilled meat, but also the party that usually goes along with it.
There’s excellent carne asada all over Hermosillo, from streetside asaderos to high-end parrilladas. It’s well worth visiting one of the city’s venerable steakhouses, though. Sonora Steak (Blvd. Kino 914, Pitic) is a friendly, white-tablecloth restaurant situated in the city’s Pitic colonia. The specialty here is high quality, aged rib-eye, which is cut and weighed right at your table.
Restaurant Palominos (Galeana 72, Villa de Seris, ), open since 1973, is well-known for its filete supremo and paquetes – family-size meals of grilled meats with all the fixings, including frijoles maneados and pillowcase-size sobaqueras. The thin, powdery flour tortillas are so named because if you drape one over your arm, it extends from your wrist all the way to your armpits. For a more casual, family-friendly spot, Asadero El Leñador (Av Luis Donaldo Colosio 168, El Centenario) in the Colonia El Centenario rarely disappoints. Open since 2000, the restaurant has become an indispensable spot for carne asada tacos.
New School Sonoran Cooking
Young chefs are putting their own stamp on Sonoran cuisine, playing with norteño culinary tropes in clever and delicious ways. On a recent trip, we discovered chef Antonio Amavizca’s Callejón Condesa (Calle Velazco 15, El Centenario), which opened in 2016 inside a historic adobe home tucked into a quiet alleyway near the Centro Histórico. The ambitious, regionally-themed menu features multiple courses inspired by the deserts, mountains, valleys, and beaches of Sonora. Dishes like Ruta de Carne con Chile are dramatic: a chiltepín-rubbed bone marrow is topped with three variations of chile-sluiced beef and pork. The meaty centerpiece is served with freshly made flour tortillas and a fine dusting of breadcrumbs, which is meant to evoke desert sand. This is high-concept cocina de autor cooking — artistic, playful, and very often delicious.
Bermejo (Blvd. Kino 177, 5 de Mayo) debuted under the aegis of superstar Baja California chef Javier Plascencia in 2014, and it quickly earned accolades for its playful yet refined campo a la mesa (farm-to-table), Sonoran-inspired cuisine – duck confit burritos once graced the menu. The restaurant has one of the best cocktail programs in town, and it’s currently one of the only restaurants in the city where you can order Sonoran-made wine. The restaurant recently introduced three Sonoran reds onto its list, which are produced in the Sierra de Cananea region near the Arizona-Sonora border.
For a Sonoran-style brunch, Reforma 255 (Calle de la Reforma 255, El Centenario) is a hip breakfast and lunch spot where dressed-up lorenzas – a Sonoran specialty featuring an open-faced crispy corn torilla topped with turkey chorizo and melted Monterrey Jack – are served alongside machaca with huevos estrellados.
There Will Be Drinking
Hermosillo is a great drinking town, and you probably won’t want to leave without trying the region’s famously intense native agave spirit, bacanora. This “moonshine mescal,” often described as tequila’s wild and elusive cousin, is not for faint of heart. The spirit is wrapped up in outlaw lore – bacanora was famously banned in the state of Sonora for most of the twentieth century by the state’s conservative government. We keep a small batch of it in our liquor cabinet for special occasions, and it never fails to make an impression on unwitting dinner guests.
Although there’s still something thrilling about taking a sip out of abuelito’s hidden stash, an easier way to get a hold of the good stuff is at Bacanora de Sonora (José María Yañez 40 B, Centro). The shop is regularly stocked with high-quality bacanora, including añejo varieties that are a little softer on the palate.
If you’re looking for something a little less intense, Hermosillo has a growing craft beer scene, which you can sample at Buqui Bichi Brewing (Blvd Eusebio Francisco Kino 69 Local 1, 5 de Mayo), the city’s oldest micro-brewery and taproom. Espuma Artesanal (Calle Gral Álvaro Obregón 75A, Centro), conveniently located in the historic centro, is laid-back, friendly spot for sampling regional Mexican beers.
A Visit to Coyota Alley
Like bacanora, coyotas are synonymous with Sonoran food culture. The best place to try these delightfully flat, round wheat flour pastries is with a visit what I call el callejon de coyotas (Coyota Alley) in the historic village of Villa de Seris. The village was long ago absorbed into Hermosillo proper, and getting here is simple: travel south of the dry Rio Sonora along Calle Comonfort, which winds into this pleasant bakery district.
Coyotas Doña Maria (Calle Sufragio Efectivo #37, Villa del Seris, ) is one of the oldest and most famous coyotas producers in Villa de Seris, and it also carries one of the biggest selections of flavors – everything from standards (jamoncillo, piloncillo) to harder-to-find flavors like figs, strawberries and coconut. There’s even a bakery that makes ice cream-stuffed coyotas (Coyotas del Parque, No Reeleccion 1-A, Villa de Seris). Everyone has an opinion about which local bakery makes the best coyotas. The fun part is making up your own mind by trying as many as you can without falling into a carb-induced stupor.
Coyotas practically beg for a cup of coffee, and Hermosillo has a thriving coffee bar scene. Café Catrín (Bulevar Juan Navarrete 127, Local 19, Santa Fe) is well-loved among the local caffeine cognoscenti for its fresh-baked pastries and artisanal coffee preparations – you’ll find everything from pourover to traditional norteño-style café de talega, a thick, sweet preparation that involves caramelizing the beans in sugar as they roast. Casa Madrid (Avenida Sufragio Efectivo 21, Centro) is an art-filled café in the centro histórico that’s helped resurrect Hermosilllo’s fraying historic district. It’s become a popular gathering point for the city’s artistic community, and it’s a nice spot for a espresso, smoothies and specialty lattes.
A visit to Hermosillo wouldn’t be complete without breakfast or lunch at Mercado Municipal (Avenida Plutarco Elías Calles, Centro). The city’s central meat and produce market has been open for more than a hundred years, and it’s well-known for its fresh seafood and excellent beef cuts – you’ll spot butchers carving enormous (and quite bloody) slabs of beef before your eyes. What’s for to eat? Oh, you know, just the usual: melty tacos de cabeza; shatteringly crisp chimichangas and tacos dorados; belly-warming bowls of gallo pinto stew. In other words, puro sabor norteño.
How to Get There
International flights into Hermosillo International Airport (official name: Aeropuerto Internacional General Ignacio Pesqueira García) from the United States are usually routed through Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Flying into Hermosillo is generally expensive. A cheaper alternative is a Mexican bus service like Tufesa. By car, Hermosillo is about 240 miles (roughly 4 and a half hours) from Tucson, Arizona by car along a fairly straightforward modern highway.