Mexican Food For Real
I just finished reading Ally Wong’s excerpt from her new novel, that has a chapter on how to judge a good Asian restaurant. Everything she said made a lot of sense, and I started thinking about how you pick a good authentic Mexican restaurant, because there is a Mexican restaurant on every corner, every place you go. Since I’m a big believer in ordering Mexican food in a restaurant that I wouldn’t cook at home because it’s too hard or takes too much time, I thought I’d draw on my many, many years of eating in Mexican food restaurants, and jot down some things that you should look for before you go inside and order.
- Check out the décor
Too many sombreros and pinatas hanging from the ceiling? The walls covered with men in white with big sombreros sleeping against cacti? Are the servers wearing “Mexican” costumes? If you’re hit in the face with all of the above at the entrance, you’ve probably found a place that specializes in exaggerated stereotypes and isn’t very authentic as far as the food served. They’ve spent a lot of money trying to create what they feel is the proper ambiance and probably ignored the most important thing, the food.
- Everybody is speaking English
Most authentic Mexican restaurants are family-run. If the staff including the servers all are speaking to each other only in English, that’s not a good sign. Even if this is not politically correct; look over the clientele. If they are all white or mostly white, that’s probably a sign that the food isn’t authentic. The best advertisement for a restaurant is when the seats are taken by people who probably are the most familiar with the type of food served there.
- If there is a flat screen television and it is not tuned to soccer
Soccer is the national game in Latin American countries. If the television is tuned to golf or tennis, that shows a lack of familiarity with the customs of the would-be customers or that the usual customers don’t eat Mexican food and don’t know about its authenticity. Probably better to pass it up.
- Too many fruit flavored margaritas
Traditional margaritas were derived in the forties and they’re made from tequila, lime juice and triple sac. They weren’t made from cantaloupe, blueberries or mangos. Nothing says, “hipster hangout,” like too many fruity flavors advertised in big print to catch the attention of a certain group of people.
- Standard American sodas
An authentic Mexican restaurant will have Mexican sodas like Jarritos, Mundel, etc. to accompany Mexican dishes. If the restaurant only serves Coke, Pepsi, and Dad’s Old-Fashioned Root Beer, the restaurant is probably not authentic and caters to the tastes of a crowd that doesn’t appreciate the difference.
- Food is served with flour tortillas
Corn tortillas are traditionally Mexican. White flour tortillas are only popular in northern Mexico, and among people who aren’t familiar with home-made traditional corn tortillas. Corn tortillas can be blue, red or yellow and are made from masa harina. Because they are made in this manner they age gluten free too. They should be freshly made and not from a package so they’re not hard and rubbery. If they are rubbery, they’re probably made somewhere else and purchased to sit until used.
- Bland one-flavor salsa
If you are served a very watery red salsa without much taste or seasoning, some type of bottled salsa, or New Orleans hot sauce. You are not in an authentic Mexican restaurant. Authentic restaurants use different types of salsa depending on the dish served. Beware of what looks like the stuff you would get to pour over nachos at the movies.
- Hard-shelled tacos with ground beef
A taco is properly made with soft corn tortillas, not the kind with a hard shell you buy at Ralphs, that is so popular with middle America. Tacos are topped with cilantro and onions, not cheese, lettuce and sour cream. Be really suspicious if cilantro is not served. It is one of the back bones of Mexican dishes. The taco meat should not crumble like hamburger meat. A taco should have chunks of roasted beef, pork, chicken, etc.
Be wary if the highlight of the menu is fajitas. Fajitas are not really of Mexican origin as far as authentic cuisine. They originated with the cowboys in the old west who were given scraps of meat to eat when the cows were butchered. They carried these scraps in their saddle bags and ate them as they traveled along. If the only dish the restaurant features is fajitas, they are not really familiar with Mexican cooking and the variety of foods they could serve.