Eating out Mexican

So….imagine you were born and raised in Italy and you travel to the US. Someone invites you out for pizza and when you look at the menu, you notice the Cheeseburger Pizza. Crust, cheese sauce, ground beef and even pickles on top. Depending on how traditional was your upbringing, you might have a moment. Or A Moment.

Food reinventing can be a beautiful thing and there are amazing dishes out there as a result. I’m not a big fan of the crunchy taco, but I love Okinawan Taco Rice. A Mexican hot dog from one of the stands in my hometown, with its carrot slaw, bacon and other yummies is heavenly. Eating at a Mexican restaurant outside of Mexico, is always an experience. Sometimes the experience is exciting, when I find a little gem of a place. And sometimes…..well, let’s just keep it at interesting.

Bear in mind that I grew up in the Northeast part of the country. Think about where you grew up and then about the differences between your surroundings and the other side of your country. Some things might be extremely different. The same applies to Mexico, from its cuisine, to colors, music, speech, etc.

Based on this, it’s very hard to pinpoint what exactly is authentic and what is not.
Am I a chef? Nope.
Am I an authority on Mexican culture? Nope.
Am I an authority on Mexican cuisine? Ha! Nope.
Will I ever eat at places like Taco Bell, Taco John’s, Chipotle, Taco King, etc? Yep. They have food.
Do I fume, hate, b*tch, and otherwise stomp around when I find a non-authentic restaurant? Nope. Mostly, I find them amusing. If the food is good, I’ll continue eating there, I just don’t think of them as “authentic”.

So, why would I venture writing about something I’m not – nor will I ever be – an expert on?
I can only say that when you grow up with something, then someone else makes a mess out of it….it does make you a bit nostalgic to say the least.

Anyway………things that make me smile/frown when visiting a Mexican restaurant outside of Mexico.

THE LOOK:

Once in a blue moon, I’ll catch the show “House Hunters International”. I like to learn about cultural differences, and the show is for the most part fun. I remember one in particular, where a lady buying a holiday home in Mexico kept turning down perfectly nice houses because they were not “Mexican enough”. She kept looking for the “real Mexican experience”.  She ended up buying a very garishly painted, overly decorated home for about a million dollars. As the credits rolled, she excitedly spoke about finally being to experience the “real Mexico”.

Don’t get me wrong, I love color. The day we finally settle down somewhere post-military, I’d love to have a colorful kitchen with talavera tile. And yes, Mexico is a place full of bright and vibrant colors. Paraphrasing a character from ‘Boondock Saints 2’….”I hail from a colorful people”. BUT there’s a big difference between color and visually assaulting someone.

I’ve walked into places that made me want to turn around and walk out. Add overly loud music and then people who seem to be confused about the difference between Mexico and Spain. Yes, we have a history together. No, we are not the same.

BURRITOS:

While there are ancestors to the burrito in Mexico,  the behemoth, overstuffed, burrito as the modern world knows them is an American invention.

I think it was 20 years ago that first time I had one. We were in Colorado and this thing landed on my plate. Neither I, nor other Mexican-born people who came along had a clue of what it was. I think the northwestern Mexican states hail the burrito as their  original creation.

So when I look at the menu at an “authentic” Mexican restaurant and burritos are not monopolizing most of the page….smiley face.

BEANS:

Beans are gooooood. And yes, we like refried beans. We also like them whole a lot. We like a variety of bean types. We like them in soups, over rice, on their own, with a sprinkling of pico de gallo and queso fresco……alright, now I’m hungry.
Whenever my only choice of beans at a restaurant are refried beans, greasily oozing over the plate……sad face.

SOUPS:

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Mmmmmmmmm…….soup. One of my favorite foods. And a favorite in Mexico too. A caldo is basically a heartier soup, and while winter and spring are prime caldo season, some of us will gladly eat a large bowl of it regardless of the temperature outside. Even during the worst part of summer, we’ll sit at the table in flip-flops, sleeveless tanks and shorts, slurping down a bowl and sweating like crazy. A restaurant that offers at least one kind of soup or caldo makes me very happy. Do a Google image search for “Mexican caldo”. You might get hungry.

CHEESE:

We like cheese a lot, and it’s present at all tables, from light snacking to main ingredients in our meals. Fresco, Panela, Oaxaca, Asadero, etc, etc. Receiving a plate of food that has American Cheddar cheese, earns a major sad face.

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For the most part, that’s about it. I’m not picky about salsas, nor things like tamales (in my mind, anything other than my late Abuelita’s banana leaf wrapped tamales is doomed to failure. It doesn’t matter if the restaurant has magnificent tamales. I’ve eaten them but…..they’re just not the same. Most Mexicans have someone in their family who makes the best tamales and nothing else will do).
I’m not a drinker, but a restaurant that understands that there are more beers in Mexico than Corona is nice. Same goes for regular beverages. Anyone who has a decent horchata or agua de jamaica (slightly sweetened, iced hibiscus tea) gets kudos. The day I find a restaurant outside of Mexico that serves Escuis de Hierro, I might fall in love. Guacamoles with lime in them are not my cup of tea, and it’s always a bonus if I can order in Spanish and be understood.

Funny story…when the Bear and I were still dating, we went to a Mexican restaurant in town. The food was pretty good, the staff was mostly Mexican and at some point, I must have said something in Spanish and the waitress heard me. From that point on, she spoke to me and me alone, ignoring the Bear – who doesn’t speak Spanish -. Everything from “how’s your meal?” to “would he like more water?”. Far from being annoyed, the Bear found it hilarious and has decided that any Mexican restaurant where he gets ignored so they can speak Spanish to me gets extra points. Halfway through our meal, one of the cooks walked out, snuck up to our table and after making sure no one could hear her said: “We got some of the good salsa in the back, would you like some?”. I’m not the greatest spicy eater in the world, so I thanked her but declined and told her the food was great. After she left and I translated to the Bear, he busted out laughing. We went back to that place a few times before we changed duty stations.

So there you have it….going to a Mexican restaurant.

Have a great week!

 

 

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The dipped tortilla

The Mighty Enchilada.

You’ve seen them in most Mexican restaurant menus. You probably have eaten them. You might wonder if there’s more to them than just putting a spicy sauce on a tortilla.

There is 😀

You see, the enchilada is both a dish….and one of many variations on a method.

The prefix “en-” in Spanish means “in”.
Take the word enchilada: en + chilada. ‘En’ meaning ‘in’ and ‘chilada’ derived from ‘chile’, basically a sauce made with chilies. So an enchilada, is a tortilla dipped in a chile sauce.

Other dishes using this method:
– Entomatada : Tortilla in a tomato sauce.
– Enfrijolada : Tortilla in a bean sauce.
– Enmolada : Tortilla in a mole sauce.
– Enpipianada : Tortilla in a pipian sauce.
– etc…etc….

While the enchilada is the more popular version abroad, the most common form of these in Mexico is the Entomatada, and along with Sopa Aguada (which will appear later in this blog), a meal that appears at least once a week in most households. It’s also one of my favorite comfort foods. 

But before we start….there’s one very important thing: Regardless of which type of sauce you dip your tortillas in, DO NOT, under any circumstances, use a flour tortilla. Just don’t. It’s not trendy. Corn tortillas are a must. Why?? They just are. Sorry if I sound snippy, but……yeah. Use a flour tortilla and you’ll get stared at by every single Mexican in the room.

Don’t say I failed to warn you……. 😉


ENTOMATADAS

The bits and pieces (see Notes below). 

  • Corn tortillas.
  • Tomato sauce.
  • Oil.
  • Crumbled cheese.
  • Optional: beans, finely chopped onion, shredded lettuce/cabbage, crema (or sour cream), avocado, salsa, etc.

How to

  1. Warm up the sauce.
  2. Heat up about 1/2-1 inch of oil in a pan. Stick the edge of a tortilla to test for temperature. If it sizzles, you’re good to go.
  3. Fry the tortillas one at a time for a few seconds on each side. You’re aiming for a nice, soft, pliable tortilla. Flip them carefully. Drain them on paper towels.
  4. Dip each tortilla quickly in the sauce to coat and stack/fold/roll them onto a dish or plate.
  5. Once all rolled, pour a little more sauce over the top and sprinkle with the cheese.
  6. Garnish and serve.

  
Notes

  • DON’T use a flour tortilla. Sorry, had to repeat it.
  • Stuffing your entomatadas (or any other type of dipped tortilla) is entirely optional. We usually don’t.
  • Plain tomato sauce works. In Mexico, Knorr has a product called ‘Caldillo’ sold in cartons that we use all the time. It’s basically tomato sauce with a bit of salt, parsley, onion and just a dash of garlic. I’ve yet to find the same thing in the US, so I just improvise with a large can of tomato sauce and spices.
  • Regardless of what kind of sauce you use for your tortillas, make sure they are on the watery side. A thick sauce will make your entomadas all pastey. This goes double if you use a bean sauce, as it thickens considerably as it cools down. I’ve seen bean variations, where people roll up the fried tortillas without dipping them in the sauce, then the sauce is spooned on top.
  • Crumbled queso fresco is the most used cheese for these. The closest cheese in taste found in the US would be feta. If you can’t find either, a shredded mozzarella or monterrey jack will do.
  • Why fry the tortillas? Two reasons: it makes them pliable and the thin coating of oil keeps them from getting crazy soggy after dipped in the sauce.
  • You can use tongs to flip the tortillas, just be aware that as they soften, they might easily break. I use a two hand approach: a  hamburger turner to lift them off the oil in one hand and the next tortilla in the other to sandwich the fried one against the turner. I let the tortilla drip as much as possible, then transfer to paper towels. When the last tortilla is in, I use the turner plus the back of a soup spoon.
  • Can’t be bothered with frying and rolling each tortilla by hand? Stack your tortillas and slice them into 1-2 inch pieces. Fry them in batches a little longer than you’d fry the singles. You’re looking for snack tortilla chip consistency. Let them drip over paper towels. Heat up your sauce in a pot. Add a handful of the tortilla chips, mix around and use a slotted spoon to fish them out and onto a dish. Repeat until you have them all coated. If needed, add more sauce on top, sprinkle with cheese and voila! You have Chilaquiles.

Caldo de Pollo

Do you remember that scene from “Kung Fu Panda” where the Goose says that they’re “noodle people. Broth runs in our veins”?

Growing up, we weren’t noodle people, but broth did indeed run through our veins. We…are Soup People. 

If you type “Caldo de pollo” in a search engine, you will get many variations on this dish.  It’s a popular comfort food, and as such, there are as many ways of making this as there are people who love eating it. The one I’m sharing here is the one I grew up with and there are not enough words to describe how much I love a bowl of Caldo. I make it when it’s cold, when its snowy, when any of us is feeling sick. It’s a permanent addition to our menu planning. 

I apologize for the lack of measurements in this recipe, but the amounts really depend on what you want to put in your bowl. Usually, I chop everything up and put it on the table, then let everybody mix their own and ladle on the broth. Also, after the initial bowl, I leave the pot of broth on a low simmer so it stays nice and hot for those who want seconds. 

I would recommend using a soup bowl that is slightly larger than the average.

  
THE BITS AND PIECES

  • Chicken broth (homemade, store-bought, your choice. Sometimes you’re in a rush). 
  • Cooked rice (white or brown, your pick).
  • Cooked chicken, shredded (a rotisserie chicken will do on busy nights). 

All of the following are optional garnishes. Mix and match to your heart’s content:

  • Tomato, finely diced.
  • Onions, finely chopped. 
  • Cilantro, chopped.
  • Lime juice.
  • Avocado. 
  • Chile piquín or diced chiles. 
  • Salsa. 

HOW TO

  1. Bring broth up to a boil.
  2. In a large soup bowl, add about two scoops of rice.
  3. Add shredded chicken, plus your garnishes.
  4. Pour hot broth on top of the whole thing.
  5. Season to taste.
  6. ENJOY!!

NOTES

  • Because the garnish ingredients are cooler, your broth should be really hot, almost boiling when you pour it on top. Be careful with that first spoonful!
  • I have a friend who is allergic to chicken. This soup will work with turkey too (holiday leftovers! Yay!).