Favorite Foods … State by State

I saw a wonderful article in Buzzfeed, listing a typical dish for each of the 31 Mexican states… 32 after counting Mexico City, which is a separate federal district. I know many of the dishes, and have written about some on this website, but I clearly still have a lot to discover. The photos are from the Buzzfeed article.

Here are some examples:

Mexico City – Tacos al Pastor

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One of my favorite foods in the world. Marinated pork sliced from a vertical grill onto hot tortillas, served with a splash of guacamole, cilantro and onion. I especially love to have this at El Gordo in Tijuana and El Huequito in Mexico City.

Oaxaca – Mole Oaxaqueño

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Made with chile and chocolate, and up to 50 other ingredients, this is one of the richest, complex sauces anywhere. La Huasteca in Los Angeles is one of my go-to places for great moles.

Sonora – Chimichanga

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I was a bit surprised to learn that a chinchanga is a real thing. Basically a deep-fried burrito, I have only seen them in very Americanized restaurants in Arizona and California. I look forward to trying the rea thing next time I’m in Sonora.

Veracruz – Chilpachole de Jaiba

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This is a seafood stew that I have not had. I adore Jaibas, the small crabs that are such a delicacy in Veracruz, and I’ve had some of the best seafood of my life there, as well… I’m tempted to make a special trip just to try this wonderful dish.

Here is the link to the whole Buzzfeed article:  http://www.buzzfeed.com/bibibarud/32-estados-32-platillos?bffb&utm_term=4ldqpgp#.xcqmwYmdD

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3 Old School Los Angeles Mexican Restaurants

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As a Canadian who moved to Los Angeles many years ago, I was delighted to discover Mexican food, and I tried most of the established restaurants around the city. These were the places that introduced generations of Americans to this unique and fascinating cuisine. In recent years, however, I’ve been exploring some of the exciting regional cuisines of Mexico, as specialty restaurants have come on stream to serve a largely Mexican clientele.

It occurred to me that I needed to revisit some of the fine, enduring places where I learned about Mexican food in the first place.

El Coyote Cafe

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My friend Sid recently invited me to lunch at his long-standing favorite restaurant, El Coyote. Sid is not a young man, but he has been coming here since he was a kid. The waiters know him by name, and he has the menu memorized. El Coyote first opened in 1931, and is going strong.

I know I should have ordered something more elaborate, but the “Torta Mexican Style Sandwich” caught my eye. I have favorite tortas all over Los Angeles, and thought this would be a good test for El Coyote. What I got was a nice fresh roll, generously stuffed with grilled steak, red and green peppers, onion and melted white cheese. Sort of a Mexican Hoagie, the ingredients reminded me strongly of a dish called Alambre that I recently had in Mexico City… Definitely a success. Sid had the fajitas salad. Not strictly Mexican, perhaps, but it was large, and looked delicious.

El Cholo Spanish Cafe

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Everyone I know has a memory of El Cholo. “I used to go there with my grandparents” is a common memory. Others go misty-eyed thinking about the green corn tamales. I’ve had the green corn tamales, and I get it. Founded in 1922, El Cholo has been around almost forever.

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I went to El Cholo (the original location on Western Avenue) for lunch a couple of weeks ago with my friend Leili. She ordered the Carnitas, a dish that first appeared on the menu in 1989, and it was a huge plate of beautifully cooked pork, served with pickled onions and sliced orange. I had the Chile Con Carne (introduced in 1923) which was a rich, dark beef stew. It was delicious, but I had the distinct feeling the chef was holding back on the spices for the benefit of those who aren’t familiar with Mexican flavors.

Don Antonio’s

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Don Antonio’s is a youngster compared with the other 2 restaurants, opening in 1981, but the founders’ history goes back a lot further with other restaurants around L.A. I went with a woman friend who observed that the last time she ate here was the night when her husband moved out of the house, some years ago. She ordered the Chicken Enchiladas, and declared that they are still the best comfort food she could possibly imagine. I had the Chile Verde, a dish I haven’t had in perhaps 25 years. The flavors were rich and meaty, and the portions generous.

The main attraction at Don Antonio’s seemed to be the Fajitas. The room gradually became hazy from the smoke generated by the sizzling dishes coming out of the kitchen every few minutes. Maybe next time.

Conclusion?

These were 3 very good restaurants, serving Mexican food to Americans the same way they have for many years. They do what they do extremely well, and deserve their long run of success.

Here are the websites:

El Coyote Cafe   http://elcoyotecafe.com/

El Cholo Spanish Cafe   http://elcholo.com/menus

Don Antonio’s   http://www.donantoniosla.com/restaurant

José Augustín – Arma Blanca

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Dionisio is a talented chef who runs a popular restaurant named after the woman who left him at the altar, and broke his heart 6 years previously. She had withheld a rather important detail from their relationship. She was a member of a radical communist group, and had to leave the country when a political assassination went wrong on the eve of the wedding.

The book takes place in Mexico City in 1968. That year was hugely important in Mexico, and its impact on the country still has repercussions today. 1968 was the year in which the student movement gained traction, and commanded newspaper headlines for months. Their proposed social reforms were gathering more and more popular support at the same time the government was intent on quelling any possible social unrest before the Summer Olympics drew world-wide attention. The culmination was a massacre at a huge demonstration, in which hundreds of demonstrators and innocent bystanders were allegedly shot by government forces, and the event was covered up for years. The architect of the massacre was allegedly a man who later became president of the country.

Dionisio has mostly recovered from the abrupt end of his relationship with Carmen, but naming his restaurant after her is a pretty good sign that there are some lingering feelings. He has no strong political convictions, but like many intelligent people, he is willing to listen to reasonable arguments for social change. When he learns that Carmen is now married to one of the ideological architects of the student movement, a writer who made a huge impression on Dionisio in his college days, he is flooded with conflicting emotions. The emotions are heightened when he learns that Carmen and her husband have returned to Mexico City, but that government forces are hunting for them.

The emotions are further heightened when Carmen and her fugitive husband appear on Dionisio’s doorstep, asking him for refuge.

The book features a fascinating cast of thoroughly-drawn characters, including “El Trancas,” Dionisio’s best friend and senior member of the federal police force, and Lucrecia, a young woman with an uncanny ability to tap into the emotions of the times, and to translate them into her own personal experience. The book captures the excitement of 1968, and the growing hope for much-needed social change. The chapters are named after song titles from the time. As the hope and optimism of the nation builds, so does the hope and optimism of the main characters.

But just as the hopes of the nation are brought to a sudden, violent end in October, 1968, so are the hopes of Dionisio and the people who are closest to him.

I was fortunate to read this book early in my discovery of Mexican literature, and it had a huge impact on me. Several years later, its impact is just as strong as before.

Sobrinos, Mexico City – That Perfect Restaurant

I sometimes fantasize about the Perfect Restaurant. The one you can go to at any time of the day, find something you really want to eat, and enjoy it in a pleasant indoor or outdoor atmosphere.

Like many people, I go to a variety of restaurants, and have favorite dishes at each place. One of the reasons is that no single restaurant covers a wide enough range of dishes to keep me interested, and even fewer have more than a handful of dishes that are really, really good.

But Sobrinos, in Colonia Roma, Mexico City, may be the Perfect Restaurant.

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I’ve been going to Sobrinos since 2009, when I had Thanksgiving dinner there. Grilled octopus with black beans wasn’t a terribly traditional Thanksgiving meal, but it was absolutely delicious, and I’m Canadian, so it didn’t feel like a betrayal.

I’ve been back several times since, and have been delighted every time by the comfortable room, the nice outdoor patio, and the friendly service.

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The menu is widely varied, and daily specials add to the variety. At any time, I can have any one of sevaral meat dishes, seafood specialties, or just quick snacks. A particular favorite for a light meal is the duck confit Torta Ahogada… the traditional (well, except for the duck part) Guadalajara “drowned sandwich” served on a crispy baguette and smothered in spicy red sauce.

Breakfast is a meal that usually requires specialization, but Sobrinos handles it with their usual skill and professionalism. On my most recent visit, I stopped for their “hotcakes” several times… They even put figs on my pancakes!

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Sobrinos is open from 8:00 AM to 12:00 midnight, and will take care of you, no matter what your mood may be at any hour.

Address: Av Álvaro Obregón 110, Roma Norte, Cuauhtémoc, 06700 Ciudad de México, D.F., Mexico
Phone: +52 55 5264 7466

The Chinese-Mexican Cuisine Born Of U.S. Prejudice

I just had to lift this article from NPR… I’m heading for the border to try this great sounding cuisine as soon as I can:

From NPR… including the photos –

If you ask people in the city of Mexicali, Mexico, about their most notable regional cuisine, they won’t say street tacos or mole. They’ll say Chinese food. There are as many as 200 Chinese restaurants in the city.

North of the border, in California’s rural Imperial County, the population is mostly Latino, but Chinese restaurants are packed. There are dishes in this region you won’t find anywhere else, and the history behind them goes back more than 130 years.

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The Salcedo family sits in a coveted booth at the Fortune Garden restaurant in the city of El Centro, north of the border. The mother and three adult sisters are almost drooling, waiting for their food to show up. They come from Yuma, Ariz.— over an hour away — twice a month just to eat here.

A huge side order arrives, light-yellow deep-fried chilis, a dish I’ve never seen. Then a salt-and-pepper fish, which the Salcedos describe as “Baja style,” with lots of bell peppers, chilis and onions. But have you ever heard of Baja-style dishes in a Chinese restaurant?

Mayra Salcedo explains, “It’s like a fusion, Mexican ingredients with the Chinese. It’s very different than if you go to any other Chinese restaurant, Americanized Chinese restaurant.”

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“When they order, they don’t say barbecue pork,” says Fortune Garden co-owner Jenissa Zhou. “They say carnitas — carnitas coloradas.” That’s “red pork” in Spanish.

Zhou came to the U.S. from southern China. Her husband, Carlos, is from Mexicali, where he worked in Chinese restaurants. It took her a while to get used to her customers’ taste buds.

“You can see, every table, they have lemon and hot sauce,” Zhou says. “In Chinese food, we don’t eat lemon.”

Those fried yellow chilis on almost every table, chiles asados, are served in a lemon sauce with lots of salt — kind of a margarita flavor. If you believe the rumors, some chefs marinate pork in tequila.

It’s not just on the plate where cultures combine. In the Fortune Garden kitchen, the cooks speak to each other in Cantonese. The waiters speak Spanish and English.

“The restaurants you see now are remnants of the Chinese population that used to fill the U.S.-Mexico borderlands in Mexicali and in Baja California,” explains Robert Chao Romero, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He teaches in both the Chicano and Asian-American studies departments and wrote the book The Chinese in Mexico.

And just why were the Chinese there? Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Spurred by anti-Chinese laborer sentiment among American workers, the 1882 law banned immigrants from China from entering the U.S. Tens of thousands went to Cuba, South America and Mexico instead. Many settled along the U.S.-Mexico border, becoming grocers, merchants and restaurant owners. Others managed to cross illegally and make lives in the U.S., including in Imperial County.

“The Chinese invented undocumented immigration from Mexico,” says Romero. He says they were smuggled in with the help of guides hired to lead them across the border. “Smuggling with false papers, on boats and trains — the infrastructure for that was all invented by the Chinese.”

Today’s Border Patrol grew out of the Mounted Guard of Chinese Inspectors, created to keep Chinese immigrants from entering the U.S. At the same time, the Mexican government welcomed Chinese immigrants to go to the sparsely populated border region, to work on farms and in mines and canals.

The Chinese-Mexican cuisine this history begot is even more prominent on the Mexican side of the border, as I learn while taking a drive over the border with George Lim. He lives in the U.S. but commutes every day to Mexicali. Lim helps run one of the city’s oldest: El Dragon.

Why cross the border every day to run a restaurant? Lim explains that Mexicali’s population is nearly 1 million, which dwarfs the rural population on the California side of the border.

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“Just doing the math, you’re going to have a lot more customers here in Mexico,” he explains. “And I hate to say it, but people in Mexico are more sophisticated than in Imperial about Chinese food.”

That sophistication may come from decades of people eating Mexican-influenced Chinese food here. Once, it was a necessity: Chinese cooks used Mexican ingredients like chilis, jicama and certain cuts of meat, because that was what was available. Now it’s part of a culinary legacy.

There’s a new dish at El Dragon: arrachera beef, served with asparagus and black bean sauce. Lim says that’s the best meat for tacos, a clear Mexican influence: “Asparagus could be both Chinese and Mexican, but the sauce, the black bean, that’s Chinese.”

I try out a kind of Mexican-Chinese-American hybrid: an egg roll with shrimp, cilantro and cream cheese that seems like it shouldn’t be good, but is. And at El Dragon, they put avocado in the fried rice.

Lim says people still come from China to work in Mexicali restaurants, and sometimes these cooks move up north, to work in Chinese kitchens in Imperial County.

“One of the goals is to go to the U.S., have a better life for you and for your kids, give them a better education, better opportunity, maybe earning dollars instead of pesos,” he says.

The same reasons, in other words, that drew their ancestors here from southern China 130 years ago.

This story first ran on KQED’s The California Report. Vickie Ly helped with reporting and translation. The series “California Foodways” is supported in part by Cal Humanities. Lisa Morehouse, an independent journalist, produced this story during a fellowship at Hedgebrook, a residency for female writers.

Lotería Grill – Tamal de Rajas

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Despite its location on the Santa Monica Promenade in Los Angeles, Lotería Grill is a serious restaurant. The menu is limited, but always excellent, and it’s a pleasant, comfortable place to spend time with friends or just grab a quick lunch, as I did today.

A creature of habit, I usually go for something involving their rich, spicy Morita salsa, but today was different. The holidays are traditionally the season for tamales, a dish that requires a lot of effort in addition to the love that always goes into them. How could I resist?

I had a choice, and went for the Tamal de “Rajas con Queso Panela y Salsa Verde.” One of my very few complaints about tamales is that they are often dry, but this was perfectly moist, without sacrificing the satisfying chewiness of the corn base. The rajas (nopal cactus) blended their okra-like flavor with the tomatillo sauce and poblano chiles perfectly, and it was quite possibly the best tamal I’ve ever eaten.

Here’s the website: http://loteriagrill.com/santa-monica

La Casita Mexicana – Chiles en Nogada

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You know you’re in a serious Mexican restaurant when you see Chiles en Nogada on the menu… and La Casita Mexicana is most certainly a serious Mexican restaurant.

Many cuisines include stuffed peppers on their play-list, but this is by far the most interesting I have ever encountered. It is a poblana pepper, stuffed with a wonderful mixture of ground meats, fruits and spices, smothered in a walnut cream sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds.

The dish has its roots in the historic Puebla region of Mexico, and intentionally includes the red, green and white of the Mexican flag. A seasonal dish, Chiles en Nogada is typically served in September, so we just made it in time this year.

Chiles en Nogada isn’t the most common dish, certainly not in Southern California, but I’ve learned to always order it when I have the opportunity. And I’ve never been disappointed… well, yes, I once had it served in peppers that were painfully spicy, but even then, it was better than missing out.

That said, I think the version I had last night at La Casita Mexicana is the best I’ve had. The balance of sweet and savory flavors overlaid on the earthy green chile and the rich, nutty cream sauce was just perfect… and the occasional burst of pomegranate was a lovely surprise every time.

Here’s the website: http://casitamex.com/