Editor’s note: If Steve were still with us, no doubt this list would be longer…much longer. As it was, we had to rely on our panel of bickering in-house experts: Carl Franz, El Codo, and me, Churpa. Lorena was not available for comment and will no doubt be horrified by the preponderance of meat dishes.
You may live in Portland or Seattle or New York, and your local Mexican joint may be a bistro that serves ‘authentic moles, farm to table.’ Or you may live in San Francisco or Los Angeles or Tucson where you are blessed with gritty little taquerias that serve up late night fare, greasy and simple, as it should be. But if so, you are in the minority. The vast majority of Americans and Canadians live in the hinterlands where Mexican food is served family style and buried in an avalanche of Sysco sour cream. You know the place—it’s called Mazatlan or Los Amigos, and it looks like a cross between the Alamo and a strip club. Bright green margaritas the size of your heard are served in glasses shaped like flying saucers. Food arrives on platters draped in greasy skeins of cheddar cheese. To most of the poor unfortunate souls withering in El Norte, this is Mexican food.
Here’s what’s missing:
Birria—The requisite grease that lubricates the Mexican fiesta: as indispensable as cerveza or banda. Elite birria is made with stewed goat, but beef is a frequent (and satisfactory) substitute. Although birria doesn’t look particularly appetizing, this greasy, delicately spiced stew is at once simple and complex, and once you get a taste for it, you’ll find that your tolerance for quinceañeras and bad brass bands will increase exponentially. (CR)
Elote—A boiled ear of corn, crammed onto a stick, and slathered with condiments. My favorite combo is the fixings: lime juice and mayo, dusted with cheese and chile powder. The corn in question bears little resemblance to sweet corn—the texture is chewy, the flavor is savory, and the experience is utterly satisfying. (CR)
Milanesa—If you like chicken-fried steak, milanesa is your holy grail. Gone is the ‘steak’ with the consistency of particle board—Mexicans make their milanesa with a pounded fillet of lean beef, breaded and fried to amber crispiness. Delicious in a traditional sandwich, or torta. (CR)
Quesadillas de Huitlacoche–Anyone with serious hunger a la mexicana owes their taste buds a visit to the Tepotzlan market. There are a number of sit-down food stalls there with a dizzying variety of quesdadillas. (The freshly made blue and yellow corn tortillas are of a quality that most tourists never encounter.) My personal favorite is a quesadilla de huitlachoche, just lightly blessed with a smear of fresh green chile salsa. (Be careful, the attractive salsas here are professional grade and can come back to haunt you if taken casually.) What is huitlacoche? I’m sorry you asked because the English translation, corn smut, is an unworthy term for this most delectable stuff. Huitlacoche transcends language. Just eat it! (CF)
Sopa de Mariscos—You haven’t lived life to its fullest till you’ve dug your heels into the sand floor of a palapa restaurant and enjoyed a vat of steaming seafood soup as you stare out at the azure waters of the Pacific. Never mind the tentacles—this spicy combination of shellfish, rockfish, octopus and whatever-else-the-nets-brought-in is an elixir of the gods, and not to be missed. (CR)
Chicharron—If I said you might enjoy chewing on a deep fried pig skin the size of a throw pillow, would you believe me? (CR)
Chilaquiles—Yet another example of how imposed thrift breeds creative excellence, this amazing breakfast dish was likely invented as a way to utilize stale tortillas. Not sold yet? Imagine fried corn tortillas nestled in salsa, topped with crumbled farm cheese, and drizzled with crema fresca. This hands-down favorite is more than the sum of its parts. (DE and CR)
Arracherra—A food that inspires devotion. Few culinary experiences compare favorably to this tender marinated beef. (DE and CR)
Pozole—Although pozole is easier to find stateside than any of the dishes listed above, it’s not quite as ubiquitous as hard shell tacos and weapons grade burritos. And finding good pozole is another question entirely. A rule of thumb: the further off the beaten path you are, the better the pozole. My favorite variety is served by Doña Chela in the village of El Rebalsito, on Jalisco’s coast. Ten pesos will buy you a gorgeous bowl of broth, chock full of chewy hominy and laced with crunchy cabbage. Choose between chicken or pork—either way, you win. (CR)
Pastel de Tres Leches–Mind-bogglingly rich cake that apologizes for Mexico‘s ubiquitous flan. (DE)
Pescado Tatemado—Nothing beats Mexican road food, and pescado tatemado, which is sold along the Pacific coastal highways, is particularly delectable. Smoked slowly over mangrove fires, this kippered mullet is unforgettable, particularly when eaten with fresh tortillas, lime juice, and a little salt. Andale! (CF)
Beans and Tortillas–Real tortillas are made from corn harvested in a nearby milpa. The kernels are soaked in lime water, then ground by hand on a stone slab with a stone rolling pin. Local water laced with lots of natural minerals is added, the tortillas are patted by hand into discs and then cooked on a clay platter over a smoky hardwood fire. Comparing the flavor of a real tortilla to that of a machine-made fake is like comparing the taste of canned corn to that of a freshly picked ear right out of the field. On a similar note, good beans are painstakingly selected by the cocinera; they simmer for hours in a clay pot, where they absorb hardwood smoke from the cooking fire. Trying to compare this unforgettable dish to a sticky mound of American re-fried beans is like trying to compare freshly baked farmhouse bread to……….to………Pan Bimbo! (DE)