In Praise of Inauthentic Food

image by Evan Swigart

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’ 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.



9 Responses to “In Praise of Inauthentic Food”

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  1. -El Codo- says:

    Churpa, I must confess as well. I would rather consume (I dare not care it eating) a restaurant chain “Burrito” than I would a “Corn Dog” or a “Chili Sides”. Burrito before Chili con Carne, or Whopper-in-the-box. I remember stopping with a friend on the way to the Richmond San Rafael bridge at a Mexican lunch wagon truck. “They’ve got the best burritos here” my friend kept chirping. So he ordered his burrito and I had to ask the young man (in Spanish) if he could make a thinner result. He asked me “Where did you have your last burrito?” I replied “Villa Ahumada, Chihuahua”.

    His face glowed pink. “I am from Villa Ahumada” he confided. “Can you wait until I fix you something?” I nodded. My friend knitted his eyebrows and asked “What’s up?” I replied. “We’ll have to wait and see”. His burrito was the size of a Hungarian stuffed cabbage, oozing rice and lots of other stuff.

    “Aqui lo tiene” the vendor announced. Five burritos the diameter of a really fat Havana puro. Two had shredded beef and three had birria. “Special for customers who want real Mexico” the man explained.

    “Hey! What the hell?” my friend complained.

    Continuing onward on the approach to the bridge, I quipped “Yeah, not bad burritos at all”. He threw me a look that could kill.

  2. churpa says:

    I still have fond memories of one of those thin burritos that I got at a gas station stand on a lonely Chihuahua highway when I was a kid. I was so surprised to be eating a burrito in Mexico!

  3. doowad says:

    I lived in Mexico for 10 years and my wife and daughter are Tapatías, though we have been in the States for 12 years now. And you can see that in our tortilla choices for quesadillas: two corn for the wife, one corn and one flour for the daughter and three flour for me. We do all prefer Mexican cheese though, however Mozzarella works as a sub for manchego because it is easier to find.

    • Churpa says:

      Jalisco is one of my favorite states for food. (The Cuca I mentioned in the article lives down on the coast, near Melaque.) Don’t get me wrong–I definitely understand your appreciation for Mexican cheese…When it comes to cheese, I like it all. (Except, perhaps, American, though I’m not sure that even qualifies…)

      • -El Codo- says:

        Queso Requesón, the real home made article is very hard to find but it’s worth every frustrating false lead to try and find some. Some cheese like Parmesan is imported from South America. Indeed Lala® tub butter is a product of Uruguay and is every bit as superb as any European butter — indeed, Lala® tub mantequilla used to be imported from Belgium.

        A Mennonite slipped me a half kilo of aged queso chihuahua at the Ojo Caliente hot springs balneario several years ago. “Tiene tres años” he explained. It would have rock and rolled with any ultra premium aged deli cheddar cheese in the states.

  4. Don Cuevas says:

    Although I can appreciate (some) authentic Mexican food, in the end, I don’t worry whether it’s traditional/authentic or not. What counts is that it tastes good and satisfies.

    Don Cuevas

    • churpa says:

      Agreed! I actually appreciate most authentic Mexican food, if done well. However, that doesn’t mean that variations and new ingredients should be avoided. There’s a place in this world for both types of cuisine. (And in my stomach!)

  5. Don Cuevas says:

    About Manchego cheese: an Español would sneer at Mexican Manchego becuase it’s a bland, melting cheese, while the original article in Spain is a hard, sharp sheep’s milk cheese of considerable character.

    So much for “authentic”. ¡Ja!

    Don Cuevas

  6. Don Cuevas says:

    From an email to a friend:
    “We drove back to Morelia (from Zinapécuaro) and had lunch at the locally very popular Almuerzos Doña Chilo, in the town of Fco. Villa. They were kind to give us tasting samples of various dishes available that day, but many of them were either not to our taste; eg, too much salt, or far too picante to even consider tasting. In the latter category was a dish of chiles guajillos stewed in tomato sauce with queso fresco sprinkled on it. We just stared at this sample, imagining the havoc it would wreak on my bowels. I felt SO gringo.

    So we decided on the third try to get some costillas de puerco en salsa verde which was passably good and not very picante. I was disappointed in the place but I realize now that it’s for local tastes and not for tourists. So much for authentic, comida tradicional. I see a blog post coming out of this dining experience.”

    Don Cuevas