Speaking In Tongues
By Catherine Coburn
Thursday, May 4, 2000
It wasn''t too long ago that the gringo assessment of Mexican cuisine could be characterized by the kind of bland canned beans, flaccid squeeze-packet salsas and soggy tortillas that got passed from drive-thru windows into hands whose accompanying palates didn''t know any better.
Take a look around now. Mexican restaurants that seat 200 or more, and taquerias that boast only a booth or two, abound in every part of Monterey County. In the last couple of decades, it''s become possible to satisfy your fajita jones without driving more than a few blocks out of the way in any direction.
The question is, will that be you exclaiming "Aiy, Chihuahua!" at the fajita you find driving down Del Monte? Or is your fajita going to come in a mango-tomatillo reduction sauce garnished with a brunoise of tri-colored peppers and wearing an edible calendula? The answer is yes--and yes again. The real answer is that authentic regional Mexican food is around for the asking, but increasingly, so is new wave California-style Mexican eats. Holding to the tried and true is one thing, but the same fusion force that brings us Euro-Asian and Pan-Pacific cooking styles fails to recognize other cultural boundaries.
You have only to look at the boilerplate of the original Mexican cuisine--the vegetarian triad of beans, squash and corn--and then consider what forces were set in motion when Christopher Columbus docked his boatload of pigs, goats and sheep on the shores of the Bahamas (he thought he''d arrived in India). When Cortes came through the neighborhood on his way to the New World 30 or so years later, the burgeoning numbers of four-legged provisions he found would come in pretty handy for feeding his hungry conquistadors bound for Mexico on the lookout for gold.
The inevitable was sure to happen; indigenous Indian and mestizo foodways got stirred together with those of the Moorish-inspired Spaniards, churning out a menu that would make global impact. The exchange was one that would introduce Europe and North America to tomatoes, corn, squash, pumpkins, amaranth and a great variety of beans, along with exotic fruits like papaya, pineapple, guava and avocado. Not to mention the other gifts, intrinsic to Mexico--chocolate, vanilla and chiles. The results were felt all over the world: just try to imagine India without its curries, Switzerland without its chocolate and Americans without Thanksgiving dinner.
It would be almost 300 years before Mexico would shake off the Spanish aristocracy, but in the meantime, chickens, eggs, cheese and beef were at least part of the upside that the natives would come to adopt and enjoy. Interestingly, the Catholic church played no small role in the development of the new cuisine. As churches and convents began to lay down their roots, the nuns would come to be credited with coming up with one of the cornerstone Mexican sauces--mole--as they played around in the kitchen with some of the local ingredients.
The political unrest that followed Mexico''s independence from Spain would continue to shape its cuisine. More classical European influence made its mark when Napoleon sent European chefs, along with the troops under Emperor Maximillian''s three-year reign, introducing cooking styles that can still be witnessed in today''s relatively stable political environment. The resulting amalgam produced the distinctly creative cuisine that can go toe-to-toe in complexity with any of the other major cuisines of the world.
To some extent, the cooking staples of Mexico are shared all over the country. The tacos, enchiladas and salsas that typify the cuisine are standard fare in each region--the Mayan world of the Yucatan Peninsula; the Isthmus of Tehuantepec where you''ll find Tabasco, Oaxaca and Veracruz; the Crossroads of Mexico and states of Hidalgo, Puebla and Moreles; the Pacific Coast with Guerrero, Western Michoacan, Western Jalisco and Sinaloa; the Colonial Tablelands of Zacatecas, Eastern Jalisco and Eastern Michoacan; and the Frontier of Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua and Durango. But it''s the regional, local ingredients and sometimes whimsical flourishes that define each area''s style, so that the taco you consume in the Yucatan may not taste anything like the one you buy from a street vendor in Mexico City.
While there''s no holding back the continuum of evolution as any cuisine transmigrates across the borders, there is still no lack of MoCo Mexican eateries that make the claim of 100 percent authenticity, swearing absolute loyalty to the way mama made it back home.
One of Mexico''s largest states, Durango, stretches out along the interior of the Sierra Madre Oriental and the Occidental mountain ranges that jut up between the coastlines of the Gulf of California to the west and the Gulf of Mexico to the east, becoming part of the huge cattle and dairy country that extends north all the way to Texas. This is the land that Lucy Pizarro, owner of Salinas'' Chapala Restaurant, called home. "Every state has its own way of cooking," she says, "and for me and my restaurant, it''s the same way that my mom used to cook. Lots of people are confused and think that Mexican food is just tacos--there''s a lot more to it than that!" Pizarro describes the lengthy process involved in creating the chile verde that Chapala is known for. "It starts with toasting the chiles and the tomatoes and then peeling off the skins. It''s a lot of work, but I can taste the difference; I know if I''m eating chiles that have come from a can."
Whether you call it toasting or roasting, in this case Pizarro uses pasilla chiles over the direct heat of the grill. The flame not only blisters the skins, but lends the unique flavor. The black flecks that appear in the finished product produce the inimitable charred taste that makes a lovely sauce, blended with the tomatoes and chunks of seared pork and given a long braise. "We also use lots of garlic," she adds, "as well as fresh cilantro." The required accompaniment is, of course, fresh handmade corn or flour tamales. "We make them fresh, every day," says Pizarro.
"With Mexican cooking, where there are tomatoes, there''s garlic," underscores Rudy Torres, proprietor of Monterey''s El Palomar. "What you''ll also find in every traditional Mexican household is the fresh, handmade tortillas, just as we do at my restaurant every day. At my mom''s house in San Jose, you go in her kitchen and you''ll always find them, there in the same drawer, every day. Right next to the pot of frijoles de la olla that is always on the stove. My friends used to love it when they came over, because there was always something ready to eat!"
Although Torres'' family comes from Michoacan, frijoles de la olla is the pot of whole pinto beans that is always on the stove, no matter what part of Mexico you might find yourself in. The traditional way they''re served is whole and in their cooking juices; refried beans are more commonly found in commercial settings. Here Torres'' menu departs from tradition, utilizing peruano beans in favor of the ubiquitous pinto beans, and yielding a whiter appearance and softer texture, requiring the addition of only a small amount of oil for the refried beans that accompany most plates.
Since the western border of Michoacan stretches along the Gulf of California--part of some 6,000 miles of Mexican shoreline--El Palomar''s menu takes advantage of the abundant supply of local fresh fish. The specials board at El Palomar always features the fresh catch of the day, and Torres isn''t afraid to have some fun, mixing up flavors. "One of our most popular specials is the teriyaki-glazed halibut, served in a pool of very traditional ranchera sauce, made from tomatillos, onions and garlic," he says. The dish''s popularity has made it a regular featured item.
On Chapala''s menu, it''s the ceviche--a raw fish cocktail that cooks naturally in the acid of lime juice--that Lucy Pizarro always sells out of. In Mexico, every state has its favorite version; a variety of fresh, cubed white fish and scallops are part of the usual blend, mixed with a piquant mixture of fresh tomatoes, chiles serranos, onion and lime. Shrimp cocktails are also in demand, made with prawns that have been quickly blanched, in a red sauce containing finely diced avocado, tomato, onions and cucumber.
At Guttierrez y Rico in Salinas, seafood is the big sell, done in the style of the seacoast town of Puerta Vallarta. Enchiladas come stuffed with fish, shrimp and crab, and seafood combination plates get a mixture of shrimp, octopus, crab and squid, all cooked together in a blend of mild chiles and bell peppers.
A visit to Guttierrez y Rico feels almost like a visit south of the border. The eatery''s claim of authenticity seems borne out by the number of Mexican families that have come here to dine for the last 25 years. Take into account the 2,500 pounds of pork butt the restaurant requires every week, and that will give you some idea of the popularity of the carnitas on the menu. Super-rich carnitas--pork butt that is deep fried in lard and then shredded and served with spicy salsa fresca--is popular throughout Mexico and especially in Jalisco. Another well-loved specialty is chicharron, a thrifty dish that utilizes all the fat from the hog. The sheets of fat next to the skin are scored in a diamond pattern and after getting hung up to dry for a day, are twice-cooked in boiling pots of lard, becoming crackly chicharron. Cut into chunks and softened in a sauce of chiles, garlic, tomato and cilantro, it becomes a dish that is often served for brunch all over Mexico.
Other dishes on the Guttierez y Rico menu loom foreign to most gringo palates, like lengua in ranchera sauce. After a long braise in the stew pot , beef tongue becomes amazingly tender. Here it''s sliced and served in ranchera sauce, made from tomatillos, tomatoes, chiles and garlic. A dish common to the northern and more arid parts of the central states, birria (goat) is marinated in a mixture of chiles and spices, roasted in the oven and shredded.
At La Villa Taqueria in Seaside, Rosa Sanchez does another style of birria, this one utilizing tri-tip, a cut of beef not well known outside of Central California. "I use tri-tip because it''s nice and tender," she explains. Chunks of beef gently braise under an enticing layer of fresh chiles, tomatoes, onions and garlic. The pork al pastor is done much the same way, after first barbecuing the meat.
Masa is the one constant foodstuff found in the archives of Mexican cuisine. A mixture of dried corn, butter or lard, and water (or sometimes meat juices), when it''s patted out in rounds and grilled it becomes known around Acapulco as picadas or picaditas. Along the central coast of Mexico in Nayarit, where Sanchez is from, they''re called gorditas. At La Villa Taqueria, the gorditas are griddled, filled with beans, smoky hot salsa, chunks of pork, manchego (a Mexican cheese similar to Parmesan), and nopales, the cooked paddles or joints of the nopal cactus. The finished dish is known as suegra. "In Spanish it means ''mother-in-law''," Sanchez translates, "because they''re fat and spicy!"
Of course, all over Mexico as well as Monterey County, the other widespread use for masa is in the creation of tamales. At La Villa, the masa is spread in a thin layer onto dried corn husks that have been moistened in water, filled with shredded pork and set over simmering water to gently steam. At the Whole Enchilada in Moss Landing, chef/partner Luis Solano enjoys mixing up many of the regional cooking styles found all over Mexico to arrive at something that suits his own aesthetic tastes. Such is the case with tamales. "A customer suggested doing a tamal filled with mahi mahi. This is something that you wouldn''t find in traditional Mexican cuisine, but I said ''Why not?'' Then I served it with a Vera Cruz-style red sauce--something else you wouldn''t find traditionally done, because in Mexico tamales are eaten out of hand. Not on a plate with sauces.
"In Sinaloa, you find a prawn tamal that uses the fresh whole shrimp, with the antennae sticking out of the end," he continues. "I did my own version, with a filling of shelled shrimp, and instead of mixing dried shrimp in the masa, I mixed in green mole, to add moisture." Solano goes on to explain that traditionally, tamales are served with atole, a beverage that''s a mixture of cornmeal, milk and flavorings like chocolate or guava. At Whole Enchilada, Solano has begun his own traditions, and serves his version of Sinaloan shrimp tamales steamed in banana leaves, a specialty of the Yucatan, with an accompanying cilantro-lime cream sauce. He also admits that his mother, who was a cooking instructor, could be counted on to object loudly to some of his innovative practices. But then, Solano also opened up the first Italian restaurant to come to Puerto Vallarta.
After traveling through the Yucatan Peninsula, Julio Ramirez came to the conclusion that he''d found a style of cooking that was begging to be brought north, given a few necessary adaptations. "The rice that is grown in the Yucatan isn''t of very high quality, and is several different colors," he explains. "What I did was to mix brown and white rice together to imitate the style of the Yucatan, and increase the nutritional value." It was the healthy aspect of the area that particularly impressed Ramirez, a concept he capitalized on in what has become Turtle Bay Taqueria, in Seaside and Monterey.
Meat and fish take their flavor from recados, marinades that are big on flavor without adding fat, and which typically include achiote paste, parsley, cilantro or citrus juices. After marination, the meat or fish is grilled and served either in a bowl along with rice and black beans (a Yucatan staple), or wrapped in a tortilla. The tortillas are also grilled, adding another layer of flavor. Turtle Bay serves each bowl garnished with Mexican-style cole slaw, with a dollop of cilantro pesto, a zesty accompaniment that is thickened with ground cashews, in much the same way that the various Mexican mole sauces are thickened with nuts and seeds.
There''s another regional style of Mexican cooking that Michael Butson, owner of Michael''s Grill and Taqueria in Pacific Grove calls "border style." Raised in San Diego, where taquerias dot every street corner, Butson feels that a certain amount of fusion from each side of the border is inevitable. "It only makes sense to take the ingredients that we''re used to and combine them with the influences that come across the border, and vice versa." He says the Oaxacan red chile sauce made from chiles de arbol and gaujillos is as close to the real thing as you''re going to get, "because the guys in my kitchen are from Oaxaca." He also concedes it''s probably too hot for most people here. That''s why the rest of his menu takes its inspiration from south of the border, with lightened-up dishes that use local ingredients.
Taking advantage of the multiplicity of styles of Mexican cuisine throughout Monterey County is the best way to arrive at a truly bilingual palate that both recognizes authenticity and appreciates a new wave.