Good Mexican Food

On Sunday, after church, a group of my parent’s friends suggested Don Pablos for lunch. I am usually a Mexican food snob and refuse to eat at such places, but this time I had no choice. Oh my, it was baaaaddddd. The only thing Latin element in this restaurant was us.

I realize that not everyone is Mexican. Few have even been to Mexico, beyond Tijuana or Cabo. There are those that don’t even know a Mexican or anyone that has been to Mexico. In California this is not necessarily true, but on my recent trip to Ohio this was the case. I realized education on what constitutes real Mexican food is needed. I feel it my civic duty to help.

I’m going to give you few guidelines to help you identify quality in a few staples of Mexican food – chips and salsa, rice and refried beans. If a restaurant can get these basic elements right, chances are the entrees aren’t going to be too bad.

The first sign of authenticity is the salsa and chips. If they serve you broken taco shells, like at Don Pablos, that’s a big red flag. Chips should be hand cut tortillas, deep fried. Not crumbly and stale. If you get crap chips, chances are the salsa is going to be glorified tomato sauce. Good salsa is a tricky blend of cilantro, onion, garlic, lemon, tomatoes and the pepper. It needs to have a zing. It may be completely blended or chunky, either is ok. What counts here is the flavor not the texture. I know a lot of gourmet salsas have black beans, corn, peaches, or mangos, but that’s not real Mexican salsa. Some of it is tasty, but not authentic.

I know, I know I have high expectations for Mexican food, especially in a city that only has 398 Mexicans out of 80,806 residents. Could be worse, in Australia I’ve heard that there are zero Mexican restaurants. That is just tragic. I may be a little bit biased, but good Mexican food can make your life better.

Ok, another sign of authenticity is found in the rice and beans. Rice should not be hard little kernels that crunch when you take a bite. It is not a dish meant to be served al dente. Good rice should be fluffy, light, and a medium red color. It can’t be too red, then the tomato is overwhelming. It shouldn’t be too pink, not enough flavor. Sometimes you’ll find vegetables in the rice, that’s ok. In Mexico, they use peas or green beans the most, never a medley of vegetables. Mexicans aren’t overly fond of vegetables, so anytime you see a lot of them in a dish its fusion food. Spanish rice should be a mix of flavors, subtle tomato, hint of onion and a touch of cumin. Now that’s a good meatball.

The tastiest refried beans take all day to make. I’m not deluding myself to think that a place like Don Pablos is going to simmer their beans over a low flame in a clay pot like my grandma. But it shouldn’t taste like a rusty aluminum can either. Refried beans should NEVER be runny. If they are watery they are bad, don’t taste it. If they are too blanched and white, then they’ve mixed in other kinds of beans or let them boil too long. They are going to be tasteless, don’t eat it. Refried beans are not meant to be bland. Again its about the blend of flavor from the bean, onion, oil and salt. It’s a simple recipe. You should also see a whole bean or two in the mixture, since they are to be mashed like potatoes.

Mexican cooking involves surprisingly few spices. The spice comes from the peppers and mix of natural flavors from the food. Anytime its over condimented it’s tex-mex. Like all American versions of the ethnic dishes it’s “enhanced” with cheese or sauce of some sort.

You’re going to have to put your gastrointestinal phobias aside and venture into authenticity. The best restaurants are usually the scariest looking ones. Keep in mind that texture, consistency and a blend of flavors is essential.

A good rule of thumb is that if its a chain its bad. There are some exceptions, like Super Mex or even El Pollo Loco is better than Don Pablos. And again the mid-west very different in terms of options for Mexican food. I mean they consider a restaurant called Chi-Chi’s (boobies) a place for quality food. I don’t think so.

Living here in LA certainly spoils you for traditional, authentic ethnic cuisine. In West LA there is a great little restaurant called Tia Juana’s. Serving handmade tortillas and traditional northern Mexican food it is very tasty. Their queso fundido is amazing with the hot tortillas… mouth is officially watering. Another added bonus is that even the waiters speak Spanish, it adds a little extra flava 🙂 Maybe that should be the rule of thumb, if none of the wait staff can speak Spanish chances are the food is bad. Good Mexican food isn’t costly either, most dishes at Tia Juana’s are under $15, can’t beat that with a stick.

What are your favorite Mexican restaurants? What’s your favorite Mexican dish?


Anonymous said…
Hey Marti,Jen here.

I have to vote for El Camino Real in Fullerbrushton. I drive up there at least once a week.

Due to the heat of the week, my fave dish this week is ceviche tostada.

smiles, jen ;o)

5:13 PM
Marti said…
Ooh El Camino Real (Rey-al) is the real deal 🙂 They have good beans and rice. I’m not overly fond of their salsa though, not enough zing. But definitely a good cheap eats place!
10:01 AM
Anonymous said…
Hola Marti…I can honestly say that having Mexican food in Mexico for the first time (Tijuana, Rosarito, etc dont really count) makes me say God Bless America! The food down there agreed is very fresh, however they have no regulations, no food coloring, no preservatives. So when I ordered a plain steak I expected something along the lines of at least a midpriced steakhouse. I got a grey piece of rough flesh that had no flavor. At the end of the week it was down to dry cereal, bread, and bottled water – IMPORTED water, and lost about 15 pounds. I would like to say it was isolated…but every place I visited (about 5) was the same. So needless to say I’m not a huge fan of Mexican food in Mexico.
On this side of the border however…there’s my favorite – El Tepeyac on Evergreen in Boyle Heights. The owned Manuel still walks around greeting everyone, and since he has no liquor license he gives out shots of Presidente since he can’t sell them. Then there’s Ordonez on Garfield in Montebello. Go there on a Sunday and they walk around the tables with pan dulce. Another tasty place is El Mercado in East LA. The menu items there have selections like campechana, buche, and barbacoa, hard to find on menus. Lastly there’s Casa Blanca in Hacienda seat yourself and order at the front, really good comfort food that tastes homemade. BTW, none of these places are chains..

I don’t consider myself a Mexican food snob, but I am always in search for food that reminds me of my childhood and gives me comfort. Good food made the old fashioned way, from scratch and with real ingredients..nothing low fat, real MANTECA, queso fresco, salsa quemada, take your pick all these places are like this…VIVA LA RAZA!

PS Anyone know of good places to get tamales? My favorites are Cinco Puntos and Juanitos in East LA.


2:45 PM
Jeremy said…
Cafe El Cholo. There’s about 5-6 of them in LA, one over in La Habra on Whittier Blvd. Best enchiladas ever.
4:15 PM
Jeremy said…
Oh, also, Casa Vega over in the Valley. They allegedly have the best margaritas in all of LA, pretty famous hangout where the celebs come down from Laurel Canyon and such. My going away party from the DN was there, quite nice, excellent food. Best refried beans in LA.
4:17 PM
Marti said…
Oh Jeremy … I used to love you but now I can’t. El Cholo has the WORST mexican food, if you want to call it that, on the planet. That’s not real, its fusion tex-mex. Everytime I try and eat there I end up leaving most of it on my plate. It’s SOOOO bad. Next time you’re in town I’ll take you to get some real mexican food. Mexico 1900 on La Mirada and Leffingwell is pretty authentic and very tasty.
4:18 PM
Marti said…
Ok Frank if you’re willing to show me the good eats in East LA i’m there ….
4:22 PM
Jeremy said…
LOL, our food critic called El Cholo “Gringomex.” The one in LH isn’t too good, the one in downtown LA near Wilshire is great, it’s near the Wiltern. It’s weird, they’re a chain but the food is very different from place to place. The one in downtown LA is superb. Promise. I’m so white.
9:37 PM
Marti said…
I’ve been to the one in LA, its just trendy shi-shi-la-la food. It’s not real, its an illusion like all of LA. El Cholo food is as authentic mexican as silicon boobs are to real ones. If you’re happy with plastic/fake, go for it
9:49 PM
bcchavs said…
Well I must say that you comments on the finer issues of Mexican food is correct and insightful.
Since our time in Ohio, the choices for a mexican meal is limited and I prefer to eat it at home.
As far as the comment of the steak in that was served, that is too bad because I have had wonderful steaks in Mexico. They are not served as thick as in the States, the meat is put into a tortilla and has other items such as avacado and cilatro rolled into the taco. MMnnnLike most dished they are changed to suit the tastes of the people in the area. I spoke to someone the other day and she told me that she loves the tex mex food, my chin hit the floor. I am no longer invited out to the mexican food restaurants with my co-workers, they tell me I am too picky. I guess I am, but I know what it is supposed to be.


About Marti

After a year-long sabbatical in Southern California I am returning to Ohio to try and resume my life. Who knew you went home again to start living.

Posted on September 8, 2004, in Mi Familia and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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