When Austinite Eric Neier returns to Tucson, he yearns for Sonoran hot dogs.
“If somebody doesn’t bring some to the airport, then we are immediately headed to El Guero Canelo or BK’s,” Neier says. “We’re going to order 10 for a party of two or four. As many as you can stomach.”
Neier is not the only ex-Arizonan who misses the border food — which mixes ingredients from the Mexican state of Sonora with American influences — in Austin’s increasingly nuanced food scene. Former college roomie Michael Brinley, who also works for chef-owner Larry McGuire’s food empire, finds only few authentic Sonoran dishes at local eateries.
“Mexican restaurants here cherry-pick from different regions,” Brinkley says. “Pollo in mole sauce, for instance. The only place where it tastes right to me is at El Barrego de Oro on South Congress. Best mole in town.”
Sensing a vacuum, the business partners opened Snorin’ Dogs, a food stand pitched among the trailers next to Elizabeth Street Cafe on South First Street.
Their marquee offering is the Sonoran Dog, a Nathan’s all-beef wiener wrapped in bacon and smothered with onions, tomatoes, pinto beans, mayonnaise, mustard and poblano sauce, then served in a sweet bolillo bun. (Frank restaurant downtown offers a similar dog, but not exactly what these Tucson emigrees crave.)
“It’s not something you eat every day,” Neier, 26, admits. “But when that craving catches you, you’ve got to have it. When you can’t find it, you open your own place.”
The Arizona way
Looking vaguely Australian in his customary floppy hat, Brinley, 28, studied all sorts of things at the University of Arizona, then took a degree in business marketing. He spent time in Portland, Louisville and Dallas before “chasing a girl” to Austin.
The girl part didn’t work out. Austin did.
Like Neier, he grew up in food service, bartending, cooking, serving, a lot of that at Sullivan’s Steakhouse in Dallas. Brinley lured his college buddy down to Austin, where he works at Clark’s and Neier at Perla’s. One day they were just hanging out when Brinley hit on an idea.
“Sonoran hot dogs are everywhere in Tucson,” he observed. “Why not here? From there, we just steamrolled.”
Neither had prior experience with mobile eateries — much less Austin’s ubiquitous food trailers — but they knew that part of the formula should fold in the hosting skills they picked up in “the front of the house.” So Neier and Brinley trade off greeting customers, taking orders, bussing plates and chatting up the guests under an umbrella just big enough to keep the sun off their tiny dining area.
It makes a big difference in terms of customer loyalty.
A native of Oregon, modestly raffish Neier also studied business. He’s now pursuing an interest in aerospace engineering, while hoping to make the jump from Austin Community College to the University of Texas.
He comes from a long line of restaurateurs. His parents, for instance, owned fast-food franchises.
“I grew up in the back of Burger King,” he says. “Making forts from Whopper boxes, playing in the walk-ins, learning the deep fryers. My parents worked 100, 120-hour weeks. They tried to make fun out of work. ‘Let’s do payroll and pay you’ — at 8 years old. I grew up learning accounting and inventory.”
When he lived in Dallas, Neier purchased a Porsche to fit in with the money crowd. Now he drives a farm truck more fitted for Austin.
He says that his favorite Sonoran food is a variation on comfort food, what you crave whether sober or inebriated. The usual choice, he says: “I can have this … but I’ve got to have that!”
The stand offers a limited menu of concept food made on a flat-top grill, including the Hasselhoff (a beer brat), the Sammy Davis Jr. (a twist on a Reuben) and Benedict dip (which includes spinach, tomato, scrambled eggs and Bearnaise dipping sauce).
Thimbles of complementary sides deliver samples of jicama mint slaw, serrano cucumber relish and avocado tomatillo puree.
“When we are not here, we are messing with recipes,” Brinley says. “This cart challenges our creativity — in a good way.”
While homesick Tucsonans make a chunk of the new stand’s customers, others are just curious about this alternative to the lobster rolls, giant doughnuts and more traditional tacos available in the same lot.
Brinley: “95 percent of the people we’ve told, they didn’t know what a Sonoran hot dog was.”
Neier: “It’s as if a taco and a hot dog had a baby.”
Sonoran Hot Dog
1 hot dog
1 strip of bacon, uncooked
1 bolillo bun
1 small ladle of frijoles
1/4 cup diced onions
1/4 cup chopped tomatoes
1 squeeze of mayonnaise
1 squeeze of mustard
1 small ladle of poblano sauce
Start with your favorite type of hot dog. An all-beef hot dog is our favorite, Nathan’s works great, but any hot dog will do. Take a strip of your favorite bacon, hardwood smoked varieties are best. Place the strip on one end of the dog and hold in place with your index finger and thumb. With the other hand spin the dog and move the strip of bacon down the length of the hot dog, like the stripes on a candy cane. Tuck the end of the bacon into the bacon wrap to secure it tightly around the hot dog. You can either cook the bacon-wrapped dog in a pan over medium heat until the bacon is crispy golden brown, or you can deep fry it. Bolillo buns are essential, and you can find them at most Mexican bakeries. Place the bacon-wrapped dog into the bolillo bun. Top the dog with frijoles — pinto beans boiled for an hour or so with garlic, epazote, salt and oil. Add finely diced onion and tomato. Take mayonnaise and create a zig zag pattern over the dog from end to end. Use a small amount of yellow mustard in one stripe from end to end. And finally, top the dog with a roasted poblano sauce. We make ours by roasting poblano peppers, tomato and onion and then blending everything together with a little olive oil or vegetable oil and an immersion blender. It will get messy, but that’s half of the fun. — Michael Brinley and Eric Neier
Snorin’ Dogs is next to Elizabeth Street Cafe on South First Street. The trailer is open from 11 a.m. to sellout (usually 10 p.m. or 11 p.m.) Friday through Sunday. They offer about six hot dogs on their menu, $5 to $6 each.