It's spring in Hermosillo, the capital city of Mexico’s desert state of Sonora, which means the mercury is racing toward 100 degrees well before noon and the aroma of grilled beef wafts through the air.
This is a city built by meat.
Sonora's food culture — I’m told by those who live here — is “meat, meat and more meat.” Some say that Mexico’s best meat and best tortillas are in Sonora. Most of the country's beef and pigs are bred in this arid place, over the sierras to the east and in the state's ranchos beyond. If Oaxaca has mole and Jalisco has birria, then Sonora has grilled beef. Lots of it.
“We are meat,” says Sonoran chef Eloy Aluri, who used to own a mini-chain of sandwich and salad shops in Hermosillo. Today, his aim is to spread his love of Sonora’s traditional cuisine and culture, which he does mostly through catering and consulting. Last year Aluri was supposed to be among the 40 taco slingers at Tacolandia, L.A. Weekly’s annual taco festival, but his team got stuck at the border, unable to cross with its mobile kitchen equipment.
For this year's third annual Tacolandia, Aluri will make another go of it — and he’s planning to bring two other Sonoran taqueros with him. It will be the first time that the festival — which has welcomed chefs from across Southern California and northern Baja — includes Sonoran participants.
I traveled to Sonora to see the cocineros sonorenses engaging in some hometown action — and to learn what tacos in Mexico’s meat capital are all about. Aluri is a coordinator for Festival del Chef Sonora, the largest exposition of gourmet Sonoran food. A fundraiser for a local foundation that assists Sonoran families in need, the April 28 festival included 50-plus Hermosillo restaurants and confectioners presenting at stalls in the city’s convention center. More than a dozen prominent chefs from around the country were flown in to serve samples, give classes and tell Sonora residents how their agricultural exports are fueling farm-to-table food in Mexico City, Monterrey and Baja Sur — places far from the dry rocky mountains of northern Mexico.
“We can show our culture, the beef — and show that we are not all gangsters and cowboys,” Aluri says of the festival’s importance. “Baja California is already an emerging culinary destination. Let's make Sonora the next one.”
The first taco I ate in Hermosillo came in the form of a wooden board piled high with crispy wisps of shredded beef, accompanied by a satchel packed with warm tortillas and a few assorted salsas.
Salted, shredded and dried in accordance with northern Mexican tradition, the meat was then fried to give it the consistency of cotton candy. Ever had meat melt on your tongue? You have if it’s been cooked “Mochomos style.”
Later that night and throughout the following day, I encountered an onslaught of tacos, each filled with Sonoran-style meat not easily found in L.A.
Dinner was tacos de arrachera (skirt steak) and cabreria (tenderloin) — yes, two meats in one taco. Dessert was tortillas wrapped in costillas (ribs), which were laced with a craggy black shell of salty char. Breakfast was lengua, cabeza and barbacoa tacos. Lunch was tacos de chilorio (stewed pork).
At Festival del Chef, which began at 4 p.m. and served 2,500 people in the ensuing six hours, restaurants served fideo tacos, seared tuna tacos, mushroom tacos and tacos de poc-chuc (stewed Mayan-style pork).
Inside the convention center, Mexico City chefs including Pedro Martín and Pablo Carrera gave classes on making gachupa (a Spanish fusion soup) and using dry ice for molecular gastronomy tricks. At the booth for El Sonorita — a popular Hermosillo barbecue restaurant with a sister location called Sonora Mia in Tijuana (El Sonorita has a spot on the Tacolandia bill) — chef Bebo Bernal, his brother, Alex, co-owner Eduardo Castro and their team were cooking cuts of local beef for their signature Taco Apapuchi, which has only two ingredients: a perfectly grilled piece of meat and a handmade white-corn tortilla.
Each Taco Apapuchi comes plated on a slat of wood along with a bullito — Bernal’s mini dessert burrito made with meat, cheese and sugar — and a vegetarian taco made with grilled portobello mushroom, bell peppers and a hashbrown-looking fried cheese crisp.
Outside, renowned grill-master Dante Ferrero — an Argentine who currently lives in the state of Monterrey — tends to asadores burning mesquite and applewood in the parking lot, preparing for a seminar on how to dry and age meat. Resting on slats above the smoke are slowly roasting chunks of bone-in meat the size of domesticated pets. I ask Aluri if anyone in Sonora just makes regular carne asada, you know, the bite-sized brown chunks of beef dished out at taco trucks in the States.
“This is real carne asada,” he says.
Chef and restaurateur Carlos Valdez emerges from the venue’s on-site kitchen with trays of marbled beef jowls and throws them on an empty grill. A Sonora native who cut his teeth cooking in his home state, Valdez now operates Buffalo BBQ, a famous steak and seafood restaurant in La Paz, on the eastern coast of Baja Sur, which will be among the three Sonoran representatives at Tacolandia. His familiarity with the bounty of his home state combined with his interest in modern Baja cooking makes him one of the few practicing chefs of a style he coined “BajaSon.”
A few hours later, BajaSon is on full display when the finished papadas de cerdo becomes just one ingredient in Valdez’s Festival del Chef taco.
As a line forms around an indoor prep area set up with a counter and some chairs, Valdez delicately places the sliced pork jowls atop a green cilantro tortilla smeared with a deep red guisado de chicharrón prensado de cabeza de totoaba (a stew of pressed chicharrón and fish heads). His assistants throw on slices of fresh tomato and watermelon radish, giving each taco a squeeze of avocado mousse and a sprinkle of microgreens.
“Sonora is the only state where we have all the meat products and we know the ranches where they come from,” Valdez boasts. “We have so much to offer.”
The festival winds down — or, rather, the wine brought in from the Valle de Guadalupe dries up — around 10 p.m.. The sweetly brined hunks of meat from the seminars earlier in the day are finally done cooking, and in the dark parking lot the remaining gluttons huddle around them, slicing off juicy pieces into their hands.
Later, when the embers go out and all that’s left of the meat is red juice on cutting boards, Aluri declares it’s time for dinner. At his family’s house nearby, a Sonoran hot dog stand and more bacanora (Sonoran mezcal) await the party of chefs, organizers and volunteers.
When I see Aluri the next day, he tells me, “We want to show people what they have and to value it, not take it for granted. I love my city and I hope we can change the image of Sonora from just a place for production to a place of emerging cuisine.”
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He admits he hasn’t yet slept, and when we hug goodbye I am confronted with a now-familiar aroma. His shirt smells distinctly of smoked meat.