Although Mexican food doesn’t possess the worldly prestige of French cuisine, its bright, vibrant, and layered flavors mark it as an epicurean culture worthy of more critical attention, and is certainly a cuisine worth salivating over.
Growing up in southern California, my love for Mexican food began at a young age. Some form of it appeared on my family’s dining room table at least once a week. Tamales, enchiladas, tacos, fajitas, guacamole, or chiles rellenos frequented our midweek family dinners. I think this is common practice in many southern California homes, whether it’s a homemade meal or from one of many local take-out joints. Mexican food has its home with families close the border. Due to my early exposure and appreciation, when my mother decided to move our family for the summer to San Miguel de Allende, in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico, my palate had little trouble adjusting.
The restaurants in San Miguel were delicious. Many of them specialized in only one specific dish, like a shop that served up two items in their cramped, four table dining space—enchiladas con mole rojo or verde. Both dishes arrived dripping with thick sauce spiced perfectly with either pungent tomatillo or rich, earthy chocolate. Establishments like this lined the cobblestone streets around the jardín, or central garden, where locals enjoyed unusual ice creams like helado de camarones (shrimp ice cream) in the balmy summer evenings.
Despite the delicious cuisine that was found in local restaurants, my most memorable meals were inside our brightly painted home with Josefina as the cook. Josefina was the housekeeper who worked for the family whom we rented our house from. Every day she went to the local Mercado and shopped for fresh meats, vegetables, and tropical fruits. When she didn’t make tortillas herself she would buy them from the tortilla factory down the block—a small storefront where women from many generations sat forming tortillas by hand and cooking them right in front of you. The smell of warm maize would waft down the block in the mornings, rousing us from our beds to buy some. A warm, fresh tortilla with a drag of sweet cream mantaquilla is about as good as breakfast can get. But even a breakfast as special as this is an afterthought to Josefina’s lunches. They were always extravagant, leisurely affairs where the food took center stage. Nearly every meal began with her famous chicken soup, a Mexican specialty, with homemade broth and abundant lime, epazote, cilantro, parsley, and roasted poblano peppers. The flavors haunt me to this day. And then there was her guacamole made with the most buttery, flavorful avocados. A spoonful of this green goodness, wrapped in a fresh tortilla and dragged along the bottom of a nearly empty bowl of chicken soup, sopping up the fragrant broth is an experience like none other.
The Mexican food tradition prides itself on fresh ingredients and family recipes. It may not have the credentials of the Cordon Bleu, but when it comes down to food they’ve got my vote.
The closest thing to the real deal in NYC: Café El Portal more on them to come!