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November 30, 2006

Talk of the Table heading

Is that an Authentic Super Burrito?


Mexican cooking on the North Coast: What can you say about a region so ethnically clueless that it pronounces the name of its northernmost county "Dell Nort"? Our expectations arriving 20 years ago were low, and we found little to change our minds. Still, in two decades, things have changed, not least the size of the Latino population.

This will be an overview of Humboldt County's Mexican food, and I'll have to start with some basics before getting specific. I don't like "to be continued" any more than you do, but a larger perspective is needed: Mexican-American food is a complicated matter.

Despite similarity in names and ingredients, "Mexican-American" isn't really very "Mexican." As a rich nation, we've tended to adopt only foreign dishes considered "feasts" in their native lands (Chinese cuisine, for example; that's not how most Chinese eat.) But the national cuisine of Mexico is the world's greatest peasant food, rivaled perhaps only by Italy and India. And though there are huge class differences within Mexico, there is a theme that transcends class, from peasant to millionaire.

I can't be objective about Mexican-American food. I grew up in Tucson, and my earliest memories were of the pure luxury, in the food-rationed days of World War II, of eating refritos and sopa de arroz and tamales and tacos dorados, all of which thrived on cheap ingredients, particularly lard.

In the early '50s, "El Charro," a downtown Tucson restaurant, sold "burros" for a dollar. This was simply a 20-inch super-thin flour tortilla stuffed with frijoles fried with onions and lard (refritos means "well-fried," not "re-fried"), with a huge proportion of lard and onion to bean. Heaven. No "burrito" since has come close.

It's easy to surrender to the contemporary prejudice against this flavorful cooking fat, because it's so politically incorrect as to not be locally available -- to this day, my wife and I render our own lard, beef suet and chicken schmaltz. (You can buy Armour lard at Safeway, then sort of hide it under the vegetables. But then you get the bonus of BHT and other preservatives.)

Even at its best, what we call "Mexican food" is a pale imitation of the real thing. The actual food of Mexico is infinitely more complex. What we call "Mexican food" is, in fact, mostly "cowboy food" ("ranchero" or "Norteño") and bar snacks ("tapas"). These are not to be disdained; they simply aren't the whole story.

Some of the best tapas in Mexico are street food, sold roadside along with pieces of sugar cane and a zillion sugary pastries. One of our memorable food experiences was courtesy of a Nogales urchin, 9 or 10 years of age. He had a tiny hot charcoal brazier on a tripod stand, and when we ordered two tacos, he pulled two thin slices of marinated fatty pork out of a bag, put them on the grill until they sizzled and charred, then heated two tiny quarter-inch-thick hand-patted corn tortillas, added the meat and a dash of a fiery salsa from an unsavory-looking bottle. It was indescribably delicious. Maybe the best taco I've ever had.

There is a rustic charm to "Ranchero," and it has taken root in the U.S., in the process developing its own regionalisms -- Santa Fe is a charming quirky example. (Then there is Texas, with an exciting ethnic mix of food, music, language ... the recent death of Freddy Fender was cause for statewide grieving.) But this is not Mexican food, even when it is prepared by nationals. Too much is lost in translation.

For example, here is a menu from Hacienda de los Morales, an upper-class restaurant in Polanco, the well-to-do district on the north side of Mexico City:

Giant shrimp with cuitlacoche (corn fungus), "village" abalone with chilpotle, pompano baked in a salt crust, enchiladas with three sauces (pipián rojo, pipián verde and mole poblano), duck enchilada served with mango and pasilla sauce, Veracruz roasted pork loin basted with lime juice and white wine, flank steak Norteña (grilled, as for Texas fajitas), Sinaloa crocodile in pistachio crust, goat wrapped in banana leaves and barbecued with sour orange juice.

Even though the food is upscale, the national influence is present, with regional delicacies such as cuitlacoche, crocodile, prawns, chiles (never just "chile," always one of the multitude of specific ones -- fresh, dried, or smoked), plus specific cooking methods using ingredients like banana leaves and Seville oranges.

If most of Mexico does not eat so lavishly, much of it eats no less well. A list of homey dishes available at medium-to-modest establishments might include:

Molcajete: a Mexican lava-stone mortar, filled with sizzling strips of arrachera (flank steak), grilled nopalitos (cactus strips), onion, chorizo and melted queso añejo (crumbly aged white cheese).

Pasita: raisin liqueur served in a small, slender glass containing a toothpick-impaled raisin and cube of quesillo de oaxaca (salty fresh white cheese).

Hongos Estilo Querétaro: large orange wild mushrooms in a tomatillo sauce.

Relleno de Guavino: fish and shrimp sausage.

Ayocotes con Carne Querétaro: purple beans fried with spareribs, spices, guajillo and negro chiles.

Chile en nogada: poblano stuffed with fruit, batter-fried, and covered with a sweet sauce made of fresh, just-picked walnuts and cream.

Frijoles negros yucatecos: black bean paste with epazote (a pungent herb).

The list is endless.

I don't do this simply to make you drool, but to illustrate the rich variety of Mexican regional cooking.

For those who wish to pursue this cuisine at home, the indomitable Diana Kennedy has not only preserved original recipes, but written several books that allow Americans to try them. Start with her "bible," The Art of Mexican Cooking. My personal favorite is Recipes from the Regional Cooks of Mexico, but it can be daunting for beginners. (For an eye-opening journey into the hundreds of varieties of chiles, visit

In summation, what we call "Mexican food" has very little in common with real Mexican food. Remember the little restaurant that saw my family through the years of W.W. II rationing? It probably was the same in all the border states. And after the war, it caught on. Then, bit by bit, something calling itself "Mexican food" began offering a cheap and delicious alternative to "regular" restaurant food. This was even more the case when mainstream restaurants began cutting down on labor costs, and using industrial foods -- gallon cans of vegetables, sauces and frozen prepared foods.

Alas, my transcendent romance with the bean burro in 1956 did not last. Take our time machine just 50 years forward, and we see everywhere such absurdities as "The Super Burrito," which one writer has described as "a No. 2 Combination Plate inside a flour tortilla." This is bad enough. Now deep-fry it. A "chimichanga!" (Amazingly, there's an argument over who invented this travesty.)

Thus a critique of Mexican food in Humboldt County must start with the fact that there has never been true Mexican food in the U.S. Mexican-American is a wholly different thing. It has taken on a life of its own. And we are richer for it.

So we approach local restaurants not by "authentic" (no one is authentic) standards, but in the context of American Food -- of which "Mexican Food" has become a branch. Unfortunately, that often means can-sauced enchiladas, tacos, tamales, quesadillas, enchiladas, with tasteless rice and beans with plenty of cheap jack cheese melted over them -- but no lard, the true ancestor of Mexican-American food. Ironic, if it were not so painful.

And because cornmeal masa is incredibly difficult to shape into a hand-patted tortilla, we've abdicated that too. The last hand-patted corn tortilla I had was in Venice, Calif., 22 years ago. It's unfortunate, but the economics are solid: No one can afford the skilled labor those tortillas would cost, as long as we keep Mexican food cheap. For whatever reason, local foodies seem unwilling to put down the extra couple of bucks for good, simple food. Any Mexican restaurant that tries to buck that reality is doomed.

So the question is, what are our options?

And actually, they aren't all bad.

Next time: a look at some of the best Mexican restaurants in Humboldt.


Sangrita accompaniment for good tequila

As tequilas have become smoother and more like other fine sipping spirits, the lime-and-salt accompaniment is less appropriate. A traditional Mexican accompaniment is Sangrita.

12 oz. can tomato juice

6 oz. can frozen orange juice, defrosted, but not diluted

juice of 2 limes

generous splash pepper sauce

Mix and chill. It should be thick.

Drink from separate small glasses as a chaser.

your Talk of the Table comments, recipes and ideas to Bob Doran.


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