All of this talk about authentic Mexican cuisine has got me thinking. I tried to resist the urge, but my guilty conscience is a heavy orno of birria. I have a confession to make. I like Americanized Mexican food.
Before you have an aneurism or delete ThePeople’sGuidetoMexico.com from your RSS feed, let me qualify that statement. When it comes to tacos, I’m just as much a stickler for authenticity as Jeff. I don’t consider a hard yellow shell oozing ground beef a taco at all. I’d rather eat tacos de cabeza, for God’s sake! I truly love authentic Mexican food: I’d trade the tip of my ring finger to be eating a bowl of Cuca’s chiles rellenos, and like my dad before me, I worship at the altar of that great stickler, Diana Kennedy.
Unlike many Americans and Canadians, I have no good excuse for loving burritos that ooze melted cheddar. Unlike many Americans and Canadians, I know what Mexican food is supposed to taste like. I’ve eaten my way up and down Mexico untold times. I was eating huachinango ala veracruzana before I could crawl. I was chewing chicharrón in the cuna. Mexico is a veritable culinary wonderland, and I dream of its taquerias and fondas as I slumber through rain-drenched northern nights.
Here’s the deal: I tend to view cheese-oriented Americanized Mexican food as a separate beast altogether. I’d call it Tex-Mex, but it goes further than that. For example, my friend Angie makes fantastic seafood enchiladas: Chewy, saturated in gooey cheese, and bursting with the fresh flavor of shrimp and crab. She uses flour tortillas and her enchiladas contain, of all things, cream cheese. These seafood bombs are not Tex-Mex, and certainly not authentic examples of Mexican cuisine either. They are, however, tremendously satisfying.
Outside of Texas and the bay area, most restaurants that serve Americanized (or Canadianized for that matter) Mexican food, do not do it well. You’ve all seen it: the crusty reddish re-fried beans, the drab sprinkle of pre-grated Sysco cheddar. No. When I think of inauthentic Mexican dishes that I love, I’m usually thinking of food from my friends’ kitchen, or, (and here my confession gets stickier) my own.
Yes. Despite my illustrious (ha) pedigree, I add jack cheese to my enchiladas. The truth is out there. I also tend to use sour cream instead of crema fresca. I have no excuse. I do live in the woods, hours from the nearest cosmopolitan center. But in this fabulous modern world of ours, even the grocery store in nearby Florence, Oregon, stocks cotija and crema. Hell, they probably stock it at the Me N U Market in tiny Mapleton. I buy jack for my enchiladas because I like melty cheese. It’s a compulsion, a weakness.
But please don’t get any lurid visions of canned enchilada sauce or ground beef filling. I would never go there. No, I make a proper salsa verde. I blister the skin on my chiles, I peel my tomatillos, I brandish my molcajete. And the chicken? I treat it right: poached and shredded just how you like it.
I swear something about this fusion of the inauthentic and the authentic really works. The tang and slight smokiness of the sauce contrasts with the creamy sourness of the cream and the salty goo of cheese to create the ultimate comfort food. But maybe it’s just me. After all, my own life has been such an amalgamation of Mexico and the U.S. that perhaps I can drum up an excuse for my bastardization of a classic. I can only hope that I turn out as good as my enchiladas.