Gabe Ceniceros: Tucson’s hot dog king

I’ve been struggling with how to best describe Gabe Ceniceros for the start of this profile. And it took me a while to realize what the “problem” was. The bottom line is there aren’t many guys like him. If you make time to talk to this dude you’ll see right away that he’s got a natural charisma that never comes off as fake. He’s effortlessly cool without seeming aloof. He speaks with the heart of a poet without sounding pretentious. And he tells you what’s on his mind without a filter but never comes off like a dick. If you’ve spent any time around the Tucson craft beer scene in the last seven years you’ve likely met him and if you’ve met him you know exactly what I mean.

Gabe is the founder of The Blacktop Grill, a restaurant in Marana, AZ that opened in November 2020. But long before I sat with him on a patio sharing a beer outside of the building that was the culmination of a dream he’d been chasing for years, Gabe was parked outside of Tucson’s craft breweries making a name for himself selling nothing more than hot dogs and quesadillas from a tiny little food cart.

Opening your own restaurant is a hell of an achievement for anyone under normal circumstances. And doing it in the middle of a pandemic after starting out working on a grill that was literally as wide as your spread-out arms means Gabe has earned some bragging rights. But instead of singing his own praises and trying to come off like a total badass during my interview with him, the man never failed to stay humble. I was sitting across the table from the owner of a successful small business and the driving force behind a brand with a loyal customer base and a stellar reputation across all of Tucson. But even so, when I asked him when he learned to cook, he practically stopped me in my tracks with his answer.

“I’ve never cooked,” he said. “I grill.”

Photo by The Classy Alcoholic.

I FAILED A MILLION TIMES

Gabe is a lifelong desert-dweller who was born and raised in Yuma. He describes his father as a very hard worker who “did it all,” from church elder to social worker to auto parts salesman. But he makes it very clear that he means no disrespect to his dad when he pivoted to talking about how much he admired his mother’s work ethic. He is the eldest of six and told me about how his mom managed to get him and his siblings to school, help them with their homework, and give them plenty of time and attention while still managing to get herself a teaching degree. Watching her do all this shaped him into the kind of guy who doesn’t make excuses for himself and avoids complaining about his lot in life. When he says he learned to bust his ass because he didn’t want to let her down you can hear the reverence in his voice.

His path toward Tucson and to owning his own restaurant didn’t actually come through food but through music first. Gabe is also a singer-songwriter with a deep love of reggae and has been a making music since his time living in Yuma. In 2008 he was invited to play at a Tucson event called Club Crawl and fell in love with the town. He even met the woman who would eventually become his wife.

Gabe and I reminisced about how shitty and stabby downtown Tucson was back then. If you’re only familiar with the town as it stands today you’ll be surprised to hear that apart from Hotel Congress it used to be a dead zone with only a few crappy bars and restaurants that were burned down for the insurance money long ago. But even so Gabe decided to move to Tucson because he saw a lot of opportunity for growth; both personal and professional. The key to his success hasn’t just been hard work and drive. It’s also been his ability to look at a seed and immediately start planning on what to do with the flowers. And also luck. A shitload of crazy luck.

When I asked if music or food was his first passion I got a very Gabe-like answer.

“Creativity is my first passion. Music and food both fit into that.”

Somehow this guy always knew that he wanted to own his own business. He spent over 20 years working in restaurants but dreamed of the day he could be his own boss. Not that that was ever an easy or clear path for him.

“I failed a million times at starting a business,” he said as he recounted his attempts at creating a power washing company that never took flight. He tried to start a restaurant once before but he’s very happy that nothing came of it because he knows now that he wasn’t ready. The closest he got was a landscaping business that failed because he would show up late – or not at all – to jobs due to his frequent hangovers. “I got fired from a lot of lawns,” he admits. Which, hey, if anyone knows about being too hungover to finish a job it’s certainly me.

I asked where the food truck fit in amongst that graveyard of business ideas and Gabe recalled talking to the guy who ran a Sonoran-style hot dog cart back in Yuma. For those of you who don’t know what a Sonoran dog is, let me first say that I’m embarrassed by you and that you should immediately go get one after you’re done reading this article. Because it’s a hot dog that’s wrapped in bacon and topped with onion, tomato, beans and Jalapeño. And it’ll be one of the most delicious things you’ll ever eat. If you’re in Tucson all you have to do is drive around the poorer areas and look for a Mexican guy with a cart sitting off the side of the road. They’re pretty much everywhere. You don’t even have to speak Spanish. Just say “hot dog” and put up some fingers so they know how many you’re gonna want. Make sure you bring cash because most of them don’t take credit cards but, like, not a lot of cash because you don’t wanna make yourself a target in those neighborhoods. You’ll be fine though. Just don’t go out there super late and lock your doors really fast when you get back in the car.

Anyhoozle, Gabe would go visit his favorite hot dog vendor after playing gigs around town. And one day the guy told him that sometimes he sold up to 700 hot dogs in one weekend. Gabe’s jaw practically hit the floor and the thought of having a food truck of some sort never entirely left his mind after that. About seven years and a move across the state to Tucson later he got himself what he described as “a shitty little cart” that was practically held together by Band-Aids. At the time it was just another attempt to quit working for other people.

Photo by The Classy Alcoholic

The Blacktop Grill’s maiden voyage was in 2014 on the University of Arizona campus. And because he’s always had what he describes as “a hustler’s spirit” Gabe tends to find creative ways to do what he needs to do. He asked me if I knew the church that was right near one of the entryways to the college and I told him that I didn’t because I am a filthy degenerate. But apparently there was a particular church that, even though it was on campus, was considered private property and not affiliated with the university. So instead of asking the school for any kind of permit to set up the food truck he just had to get clearance from the church. So he’d make a donation and got to hang out slinging dogs all day. It was actually a great idea except for the fact that sales were shit back then.

“My first day I sold one hot dog,” he told me. “Then only two the next day.”

I was a bit surprised. I thought he would’ve crushed the game with a food truck that was easily accessible to drunk, stoned college students. I asked why sales were so bad and whether he thought it was due to racism. He said he realized pretty quickly that it was because college students were broke. I understood that seeing as how a hot dog would’ve definitely been a luxury for me during my poorest college years. But when I reminded him that the U of A has a lot of kids from rich families attending on mommy and daddy’s dime I triggered a memory of a guy he called his “favorite customer.”

He described a 19 year old kid who would drive up to the food truck in a $100,000 Porsche. He would park in a no-parking zone because of course he did. And whenever he showed up he would order twenty bucks worth of food, which was a huge sale for Gabe at the time. I’m guessing that kid grew up to be a senator somewhere voting for, like, anti-LGBT legislation and shit right now.

Whether it was due to racism or lack of funds (but probably racism) the hot dog sales at the university just weren’t cutting it. But instead of getting discouraged Gabe started to pound the pavement and continued trying to make connections. And thanks to a bit of that natural luck that seems to follow him around he hooked up with the place that would help him grow to the successful restaurant owner he is today: Dragoon Brewing Company.

Photo by The Foodie Bitch

THE BOOM

I still remember the first time I met Gabe several years ago at Tap & Bottle. It was at the downtown location because back then that was the only T&B location that existed. I was with my buddy David who was the assistant brewer for Borderlands Brewing Co. at the time. I had just recently started my blog and David insisted that I meet this “really cool guy” who set up his food truck at Borderlands occasionally. I was quite happy to introduce myself to a fellow brown man at a place that sold craft beer. He didn’t have much time to chat but I told him that I was trying to support local breweries and other small businesses. We followed each other on Instagram and he got back to work. I didn’t try his food that night, either because I had already eaten or because that was back before I was fat.

I’m not sure how much time passed before I actually tried a hot dog from The Blacktop Grill but I remember it was while having a drink at Borderlands one night. The thought of a dog and a beer sounded great. Hell, a lot of my dinners back then were a couple of 40s and a bunch of gas station hot dogs. (Holy shit y’all, I think I just realized how I got fat.) So I was a bit surprised when I saw the menu. It was short and simple with nothing more than hot dogs and quesadillas. But one of the dogs was described as having a sriracha honey coleslaw topping. I don’t know about you but I still don’t understand what we as a society did to deserve sriracha. And of course I was blown away by this dude’s southwestern-style gourmet dog.

I kept seeing this guy with his weird (in a good way) hot dogs at different breweries around town and I became another one of his regular customers. He seemed to have built a really good relationship with people in the craft beer industry. And it all started when he heard from someone that a new brewery called Dragoon was looking for food trucks.

Gabe introduced himself to the Dragoon team early on in their existence and says they welcomed him with open arms. Shortly after that there came a wave of other beer-centered businesses that he connected with. He started getting more work through word of mouth but insists that it wasn’t even the quality of the food that got him on the breweries’ good sides. He says it was just the fact that he showed up when he said he was going to. While other food truck vendors were flaking out he was the guy who never failed to be there.

It seems kind of weird at first but it’s very much like Gabe to take pride in telling me that there were several times that he stood out in the rain for hours outside of a business just to sell one hot dog. Because apart from making a sale it was also just as important for him to be the kind of guy that others could count on. That’s something that still holds true to this day. If he commits to being somewhere he will be there.

With that attitude it didn’t take long for The Blacktop Grill to start developing a loyal customer base. And it didn’t hurt that he moved to Tucson and started taking out the truck just as the city began to boom. The number of breweries and craft beer bars exploded. The streetcar was built and became fully operational. A whole bunch of new businesses opened up downtown and it was no longer the scary shithole it used to be. Gabe says the positive responses to his food started off small but never stopped. After several years of grinding he heard people telling him that Blacktop was their favorite food truck. And even through it all he still says that it started pretty much by accident.

When I asked why he focused on hot dogs and quesadillas only he said it was because he couldn’t do much more than that in his little cart. When he stuck to those two items it gave him the opportunity to try different styles of each. He experimented like crazy.

“We tried it all. You name it we tried it. I even tried a PB&J hot dog,” he told me, causing me to almost gag reflexively because peanut butter and jelly are really gross together and I don’t know how some of y’all grew up eating that bullshit.

I felt a little better about it when I asked if he actually attempted to sell that garbage to people and he said no. His experimental dogs were done at home and he tried to have a sense of quality control before he put anything on the menu. He made sure I knew that he takes everything he does seriously, even if it’s just a hot dog.

He credits Tucson’s breweries for giving him a platform and allowing him to reach a wider customer base. “It was a great relationship. They pumped me with beer and I pumped them with food.”  And his constant drive toward creativity allowed him to offer a menu that was different enough to stand out from the crowd. Gabe was never going to be just one other Mexican guy with a hot dog cart in a town full of them.

Not being one to rest on his laurels, he spent those years improving his recipes and expanding his menu as much as he could. It wasn’t a huge expansion given that he still had a very small workspace. But I remember the day that his dogs appeared to suddenly become twice as big as before and he told me that he made it a point to find a heftier weenie after he got some feedback from customers telling him that, while his dogs were delicious, there was more bun than actual dog. And then there was the release of El Elotero. A hot dog topped with roasted corn and cotija cheese that was better than any other hot dog I’ve had in Tucson. And I’ve had some amazing ones given that I’m always trying every Sonoran dog cart I can find because I’m not afraid of those parts of town because I always kinda wanna die. El Elotero has yet to be beat to this day as far as I’m concerned.

Photo by The Classy Alcoholic

And throughout it all Gabe still made time for his music. There were several times that he spent the first part of the night serving food at a brewery and the rest of it playing gigs around town with Los Streetlight Curb Players.

“Everything I do I love,” he said to me. “It’s not work.” And I know that on paper that sounds like total trite bullshit. And if I heard anyone else say that to me I’d roll my eyes and think, yeah whatever asshole, to myself but when you’re sitting in front of Gabe Ceniceros and hearing those words come out of his mouth you have no doubt that he means everything he says. You believe it because he truly believes it and I can’t help but admit that his optimism is pretty goddamn contagious.

Eventually he linked up with the UberEats app and was the first food truck in town to do so. I remember how excited I got several years ago on a weekend when I was on the couch either too hungover or already too drunk to go out to eat. I opened the app and saw Blacktop could be delivered to me while Gabe was serving outside of a brewery downtown. It was a new approach for him that seemed like it was paying off. He got an order sent to his tablet at the truck, had a driver come over to pick up the food, and he could continue to serve the customers in person. But of course he didn’t know just how crucial this delivery service would become in the year 2020 when everything changed.

THE RONA

I ran into Gabe in February of 2020 at Caps & Corks and was a bit surprised to see him. He and the truck weren’t out as often as they used to be and I hardly saw him at his usual downtown brewery haunts for what felt like months. I was a bit worried that he was pulling away from it all so I asked why he had been such a stranger lately. That’s when he told me that he’d been spending a lot of time working on opening a Blacktop brick and mortar location and asked me to keep it to myself for the time being. And I didn’t tell a soul but now I want to make sure y’all know that I knew about his restaurant long before most of you did. So I got my usual Elotero order and walked away excited and optimistic about what the future would bring for Gabe and for all of us. 2020 was gonna be our year alright!

Well. We needn’t rehash everything that happened just a few months later. Cut to some time in April after several weeks of me spending as much money as I could supporting local breweries and restaurants picking up to-go orders during the lockdown and encouraging others to do the same. I saw on Instagram that Gabe was still serving food out of his truck somewhere on the northwest side of town. I called in an order and drove out to whatever the address was. I honestly had no idea where I was going but by the end of the trip I realized I was at Gabe’s actual home and that he had the truck set up in front of his yard. It was so nice to see a familiar face after all that time in isolation. And the first thing I asked was if he ever signed anything for his brick and mortar location. Luckily he said he was able to put a pause on the whole deal before anything became official. The timing was nearly disastrous for him.

Photo by The Foodie Bitch

A year later I was sitting with him on the patio of that restaurant that almost never came to be, asking him what business was like during those lockdown months he spent serving from home. He said that sales slowed down, of course, but that he was still able to make a living. His neighbors, passersby, and even Fedex delivery drivers would stop by on their way through the neighborhood to check out what kind of food he was serving. And he also credited the delivery apps for keeping things afloat for him.

Since those apps started being used like crazy during the Rona times we’ve now learned that they all gouge businesses and leave restaurants with a very tiny portion of the profits. So I asked how he was able to keep making a living when those apps where taking such huge percentages for themselves. His face lit up and he answered, “Because I make quesadillas, bro!”

The lack of significant overhead for the food truck allowed Gabe to pay the bills when so many other businesses were clinging on for dear life. He admits that it wouldn’t have been as easy if he were selling barbecue or anything that was much more expensive than cheese, tortillas and weenies. And as we know there have been several places that didn’t make it. We lost too many local restaurants and bars last year in Tucson. But through it all it seemed like The Blacktop Grill was destined to succeed. And I want to make it clear that when I say Gabe has made it all this way with a certain amount of luck I don’t want that to diminish the hard work he’s put in. Obviously it wasn’t only luck that got him to where he is now. The man spent years struggling every day to make a name for himself. He’s clearly earned every ounce of his success with a mixture of hustle and foresight. But goddamn, there’s no denying this guy’s also a lucky sonofabitch in so many ways.

When the chance came to revisit the idea of the restaurant he was able to get a great deal on a lot due to the nature of doing business during the pandemic. And while he describes signing a contract for his own place as “nerve-wracking” he always fell back on his typical optimism. Even though he saw the same stories we all did about small businesses closing down he still knew he had to try and make a go of it. That vision of growth and opportunity that he saw in Tucson way back in 2008 was coming to fruition for him during one of the worst periods for the entire goddamn planet. But he’s never been a man to walk away from a challenge and he wasn’t going to start now.

“Everything worked in our favor,” he told me. “It’s like it was meant to be. We keep things simple and that’s our business model. We don’t need a lot to succeed.”

SUNSHINE

When I sat down for my interview with Gabe I decided that I wanted, more than anything, to paint a picture of the man in front of me. And I knew I would spend only a minimal amount of time in this profile talking about how good his food was. Because, seriously, there’s not a lot to say there. The food is really fucking good and you absolutely must try it. But that’s not the part of the story I wanted to tell. I wanted you to know what it feels like to talk to this dude. Because a cynical prick like me would typically roll my eyes at an eternal optimist like him. But Gabe has the power of sincerity and humility at his back and it’s enough to win over even an asshole like me.

He’s had his fair share of detractors. He told me about the people who used to try to bring him down by telling him that he was ridiculous for thinking he could make a living with his music or with a food truck. He was called “weenie man” by people making fun of him. But he didn’t let that slow him down. Because he believed in himself and in what he was doing. And finally achieving his dream of owning his own business and being his own boss proves he was right to do so.

So after this longass profile I’ll leave you with one last thing. It’s how I always remember Gabe and how I think I can distill him down to a single moment and a single sentence. I was at Borderlands Brewing Co. on a weekday night and he was out in their beer garden serving food. It was pretty dead in the bar so I went out to put in my hot dog order. Because he wasn’t very busy I took advantage and had a long conversation with him. I can’t remember the exact details of what I shared but I do know I was feeling a bit frustrated with the craft beer scene and my place in it.

Gabe understood exactly what I was saying because he was also building something for himself within the same industry. He talked about how people can default to constantly complaining about their situation in life and turn to tearing others down. He told me that he doesn’t spend too much time stressing about that and how he never saw other food trucks in town as competition. He went on about how he just saw an opportunity for people to learn from and support one another. And that’s when he said that one sentence that will always stick with me. He said the words that will always define Gabe Ceniceros in my mind. He said something that still makes me smile as I write this.

He said:

“There’s enough sunshine for everybody.”

Photo by The Foodie Bitch