“Rich, what’s a burro?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a large burrito?”
We decide to test our powers of deduction and stop at a comedor by the side of the winding road between Hermosillo and Agua Prieta. This will be our “last supper” in Mexico, and I want something special. I have a good feeling about this place: bright cardboard signs tacked to the hut-like exterior advertise burros, queso fresco, jerky, and salsa chiltepín . I don’t know what salsa chiltepín is, but any place that makes its own cheese has a leg up in my book.
Partially open to the air, the restaurant has a cheery feel. Saddle tack and horse shoes hang from the bamboo walls, oil cloth covers the tables, a gaudily gorgeous picture of San Judas de Tadeo presides over us, and a glass case is crammed with religious paraphernalia, old bits of ironwork, antlers, candlesticks, and glass jars filled with…something.
I’m peering into the case when the proprietor emerges from the smoky black hole of the kitchen. I spring back to the table: I’m starving and I don’t want to delay the ordering.
I’m not surprised to discover there’s no written menu. Our options are tacos de cabeza or burros de machaca. We are still not exactly sure what burros are, but we order three anyway, along with a slab of queso fresco.
While we wait for the arrival of the mysterious burros, I ask to use the bathroom and the proprietor ushers me out back, where I find a yard surrounded by a neat stick fence. The compound contains a pila, a wood stove, flowers potted in painted cans, a flowering tree, a clean cement bathroom, and a tidy corral where a horse and two burros munch on fresh hay. Hopefully not those burros…
Back at the table our burros have arrived. On each plate I am pleased to see a large flour tortilla loosely rolled around an ample quantity of spiced, shredded pork, or machaca. The homemade tortilla is lightly charred and chewy, and the whole meal has the pleasant smoky taste of food cooked over firewood.
Perhaps even more interesting is the selection of salsa: a plastic squirt bottle contains a red salsa, and a jar contains a lumpy green salsa–all well and good. But then there’s something I’ve never seen before: a round glass jar full of tiny balls that look like large red peppercorns. Another jar holds the same balls, but pickled. We are also offered a tiny wooden mortar and pestle, which I assume is for grinding the “peppercorns.”
I realize that the contents of the jars match the jars in the sale case, and of course I have to ask about it. As is so often the case in rural Mexico, the woman seems surprised at my question. As in, really, you are not familiar with one of the staples of my life? They do not serve chiltepín at Applebees? Whaa? What the hell is wrong with you gringos? Next thing I know you will tell me that you don’t know how to make a decent tortilla or put shoes on a horse. After recovering from the shock, she graciously explains that chiltepín are tiny wild chiles that grow in the sierra. Every year she harvests them for pickling and salsa, a painstaking process because they are so tiny.
The dried chiltepín do indeed taste a bit like pepper, only spicier and wilder. The pickled variety have a tang that contrasts nicely with the charred flavor of the homemade flour tortillas and the sweetness of the queso fresco.
Later I look up chiltepín in my indispensable copy of Diana Kennedy’s From My Mexican Kitchen: Techniques and Ingredients. I find the following:
“Chile Piquín o Chiltepín: There is as yet an uncounted number of minute chiles, domesticated from wild plans, found throughout Mexico. They can be round, like some in the northern areas, triangular, oval, or tubular. All have a shiny, smooth skin, mid- to blackish green in color ripening to brilliant red. They pack a lot of concentrated heat and their flavor varies slightly with soil and climatic conditions. Some plants produce fruits the year round while others are seasonal, and these chiles are used both fresh and dried.”
Two culinary mysteries solved in one day. Not bad.