An old friend who was raised in Mexico told me about the day his dad came to him after they had lived in the states for many years. “Octavio” he said, “Tonight we are going out to dinner to a Mexican restaurant. The food will not be Mexican, but it will be delicious.”
So off Octavio went with his family years ago in the San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles to get some “Mexican” food. When he told me the story, Octavio told me his dad was 100% correct. The food was wonderful, but it was not Mexican.
Gustavo Arellano, in his excellent book “Tacos USA, How Mexican Food Conquered America” would argue with the assessment that it was not Mexican. He celebrates all the variations of Mexican food, from mission style burritos to the famous combination plate laden with rice, beans and fried tacos as he explains in this great interview.
All of this came back to me recently after a couple of experiences here in Las Vegas. One was a visit to Wahoo’s Tacos where the food was indeed delicious, but Mexican? Not a chance. A burrito with lettuce? Cajun beans? Seriously, simply serving food centered around tortillas and Modelo Negro beer doesn’t get you into the pantheon of quality Mexican Restaurants now spreading around the country.
The other was a conversation I had with a woman from Sinaloa who is in school here in Las Vegas. I asked here where she goes for really good, traditional Mexican food in our valley. Without missing a beat, she asked if I meant besides her abuela’s [grandmothers] house? When I said of course, she said there was none here.
With that experience close at hand, as a public service, I’d like to offer five clues you’ll see if your local taco shack is more Taco Bell than what we’ll find south of the border, down Mexico way…
1. If the beans on that combo plate you ordered are covered in triangles of yellow cheese or the grated four cheese blend you can get at your corner market, you won’t find it south of the border. I have never seen a Mexican variety of yellow cheese. Cheese in Mexico is usually white and if it is served on beans, tends to the crumbly queso fresco type.
2. If your tacos come with any of the following, ground beef, lettuce, tomato slices, grated cheese, yellow wax paper or even turkey, you are not in Mexico. Tacos come with onions and cilantro in Mexico. They are also made with steak and all the other parts of the cow or pig, but never have I seen a taco filled with ground beef.
3. If you can order shrimp, chicken, steak or any other type of fajitas, you won’t be finding that plate in too many taco stands or restaurants in Mexico. Sorry folks, as wonderful as fajitas can be, I’ve never seen fajitas in Mexico. I’m sure they are served somewhere in that great country, but this is a dish popularized by the Orange County restaurant chain El Torito in the 1980’s.
4. When you ask for salsa and the spiciest option you get is Amor or Tapatio bottled sauce, you certainly are not ordering your food in Guadalajara. In Mexico, we love our chiles. Habañeros, jalapeños, serranos and chiles de agua, we love them all, and expect to experience these tastes in, and on our food. Unfortunately, the American palette is not ready for this type of experience so we mostly get a tomato blend spiced up with a little bit of pepper.
5. Finally, when you walk in the door, if the first thing that greets you is a wall of sombreros or a chile in a beach chair, you can bet you’re gonna get a lot of that yellow cheese covered stuff. The derivative here is that if you see folks getting drunk wearing mariachi hats and dancing like loons, you are more likely in Papas-n-Beer or On the Border than a traditional Mexican restaurant.
So there you have it. Five ways to know you are not in a traditional Mexican restaurant, at least as I’ve experienced it in my 20 years in Mexico.
But, if you want the real thing and don’t have your own personal abuelita to make it up, let me know and I’ll show you some great food in My Mexico.