It used to be very rare that I would get a craving for Mexican food. Nights out at the bars and clubs, when others wanted to hit up King Taco (On Cypress in East LA- or the one in Pasadena), I was more partial to grabbing a burger or one of those hot dogs wrapped in bacon from the street vendor at the corner. When meeting with a group of friends and trying to decide what to do for dinner I rarely supported the option of going out for Mexican. That’s not to say I didn’t like Mexican food; I frequently got a delicious burrito from Boca Del Rio or tacos from Mexico Taco in La Habra. The whole family would get together for certain birthdays or holidays at the El Cholo or El Torito Grill. I was never disappointed. Enchiladas, tamales at Christmas, carne asada… it’s all good. I think the reason I never wanted to go out of my way to get is because it was always around growing up.
My dad used to make bean burritos for me to take to lunch when I was a kid. (Just a little side note- I know that burritos aren’t exactly Mexican food but more like tex-mex, but that’s a topic for another post). Staying with grandma in the evenings she was always making chile rellenos or albondigas or chilaquiles (which remarkably has no chile) or something to that effect. So it was all readily available and, if not that, there were plenty of wonderful Mexican restaurants all over the place.
Then I left Los Angeles.
San Francisco, for all its wonderful cuisine and gastronomic tantalization really has second rate Mexican food. You can find some a palatable burrito here and there but they truly are few and far between. This was confusing to me as San Francisco has the Mission District which is a hub of Latin-Americans. In my naiveté I presumed that would mean there are lots of Mexicans. There are many but what I came to find out is that there is an even greater concentration of peoples from El Salvador. This really puts a damper on the Mexican food for me because it never tastes quite right. Don’t get me wrong, if you want a good pupusa this is the place to go but as for their Mexican food… Well, it’s like kissing your stepsister. It’s better than nothing but it certainly is not ideal.
Then I left San Francisco.
New York also has a wealth of restaurants of every possible cuisine from Ethiopian to Thai to Scottish to Argentine… unfortunately their Mexican food is absolutely bland and tired. Every place I’ve gone has been a disappointment. I’ve only been here a year and tried just a handful of places but each one has given me less of a reason to try another. There is supposed to be a wonderful street vendor in SoHo called Calexico but I’ve yet to get to it. I’ve been told that there are a couple of great places out in the Bronx or in Brooklyn but that’s a trek and I don’t see myself heading out that way for what may just amount to be a Taco Bell is disguise. When it comes to my food, absence does make the heart grow fonder. Now, every time I get back to LA I hit up my favorite Mexican food places. If I’m headed through downtown I may even make a stop at Olvera Street to the place at the end where you can still find the ladies making the tortillas by hand. Standing in line as a child, my brother and I would always head up the steps that looked over the kitchen where we could peer over and watch their hands clap-clap-clap as they formed the tortillas.
My experience with Mexican food in America is limited to California and New York. I’ve been through Arizona and New Mexico (that’s right, there’s a New Mexico!) but I don’t remember my reaction to their Mexican food well enough to comment on it. I’m sure it’s great though. It seems to me the closer you get to the border the more likely you are to find something delicioso y sabroso. Next week I’ll get into some specifics about how crazy Mexican food can get, like eating tongue and brains, roasting up a goat head or the process of making carnitas from scratch. Good times.