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Run for the border

In search of real Mexican food

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Taco Bell, the venerable Mexican ... er, Mexican-American ... OK, completely American foodstuff deliverer recently opened some locations in Mother Mexico for the first time in some 15 years.

Some folk -- namely, mainland Mexicans -- call it an affront, an insult, and indigestion waiting to happen.

The Bell, of course, call themselves "something else," which, you gotta give 'em credit, is pretty much truth in advertising. That said, probably three quarters of America considers Taco Bell Mexican food. The other 25 percent -- the Hispanics -- know better*.

(* Yes, I realize there are some foodies out there, too. Hold your letters).

Incidentally, the Mexican 'Bell serves chili-cheese-creamed french fries -- probably the most authentic thing on its menu -- at its Monterrey location, with more gringo-ized gustatory goodies set to come. Indeed, some of the restaurant's stateside "Mexican" offerings -- see hard-shell tacos -- have had to be renamed south of the border: for instance, tacos have now become the Frankenstein-ian "tacostadas." The company is also figuring out what to do about its burritos, gorditas and chalupas, which, while named the same, bear very little resemblance to their Mexican counterparts.

Real taqueria-style Mexican food is a lot different than the Americanized version of the same. What most people think of as authentic Mexican food, of course, isn't. There are no "Mexican pizzas" in Mexico, of course, nor MexiMelts. There are things like cabeza burritos (made of head meat, mostly cheek), lengua (tongue), and sesos (beef brains). There are dishes made with longaniza, a wonderfully peppery sausage. It's not Taco Bell, and it's also not that M.O.R. Americanized crap dished out at all those so-called "authentic" restaurant chains offering gargantuan portions of overly-cheesed goop atop steering wheel-sized plates.

Real taquerias serve food that is way lighter on the stomach than most folks would think. Good traditional Mexican food is just as often cool on the stomach as it is fiery hot (see the use of onions, cilantro, and nopales or cactus). And they mostly serve corn tortillas, these places, unless of course you're a gabacho.

That's what non-gringos call a gringo, incidentally.

As I was writing this, and musing on the ever-tenuous topic of "authenticity," I decided a little on-the-paper's-dime research was in order. After a quick trip to the old cajero automático -- the ATM; lots of taquerias don't take the plastic -- we proceeded inside a local's favorite and were met with a large, handwritten menu ... written in Spanish, that is.

Fortunately, while I'm not very fluent in Spanish, I do speak a pretty good strain of what I call restaurant Spanish. To boot, the lady (wo)manning the grill provided us with a partially translated version.

We ordered the tacos ($7 for an order of four), two with asada (grilled steak), one with chicken (pollo), and one with the longaniza. We also nabbed an asada torta ($6) and two ground pork-and-beef sopes ($2 each).

The tacos were made with soft, thick corn tortillas. We got two served Mexican style (onions and cilantro) and two American style (lettuce, cheese, etc.). The asada was of a better cut than you sometimes get, and very tender and well-seasoned (a little cayenne and garlic salt, if I'm not mistaken). The chicken was finely shredded, and plentiful. Our favorite, however, was the longaniza. It's at the same time slightly sweet but also boasting a pleasant, dull burn which lingers on the palate after you take a bite.

The torta -- a co-worker aptly described it as something of a Mexican cheesesteak -- was downright sublime. It's also something like a Cuban sandwich. Its construction varies across Mexico, but they all start with fresh, Latin-style soft rolls. Add to that onions, asada, cilantro, a couple slices of cheese (American, incidentally), avocado, lettuce, tomato and a moderate spread of mayonnaise. It's a meal in and of itself, and a damn good one at that. (It's even better with a spoonful of tomatillo salsa.)

The sopes are perhaps best described as something like a tostada, except served on a soft tortilla, and topped with goat cheese crumbles (yes, goat cheese is not only for Greek and Mediterranean folks). The pork/beef mixture was rather fiery, but the cheese and ample lettuce, not to mention the refried beans, help to keep things at a manageable level.

We'd discovered the tucked-away taqueria simply by driving past it one day and noticing a lot of cars -- and pickups and work vans -- out front. While not the kind of thing you want to do all the time -- sooner or later you're going to be disappointed -- dropping in on a place based on a gut feeling (pun intended) can provide unexpected, multiple pleasures. There's the food, of course, but there's also the pat-your-own-back knowledge that you've found a cool new place.

To be honest, I didn't have a single bad word to say about the meal. Perhaps more interestingly, the whole feast cost considerably less than making your average, three-person "run for the border."

And that's a bargain in any language.

Timothy C. Davis is an associate editor with Gravy, the official newsletter of the Southern Foodways Alliance. His food writing has appeared in Gastronomica, Saveur, The Christian Science Monitor, and the food Web site www.egullet.com, among other publications.

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