So… What did you eat in Mexico City?

My friends know I’m always on the lookout for great food, so one of their first questions when I return from a trip is “What did you eat?” Here are some highlights from my recent Mexico City trip.

Chiles en Nogada – Cafe Tacuba, Centro

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Hotcakes – Sobrinos, Colonia Roma

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Pozole – Casa de Toño, Zona Rosa

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Tacos al Pastor “Especial” – El Huequito, Centro

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Grilled Octopus – Los Danzantes, Coyoacán

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Fideo Seco – Bowie, Colonia Roma

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Barbacoa – El Hidalguense, Colomia Roma

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Birria Jalisqueña – Tacos Frontera, Colonia Roma

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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

Ruben’s Tacos – Torta Cubana

West Los Angeles has its fair share of taco trucks, and 3 of them routinely stop along Santa Monica Boulevard between Bundy and Barrington. I tend to go to El Paladar Oaxaqueño, partly because it’s really, really good, and partly because it’s on the right side of the road for me when I’m going home from Santa Monica. Tonight, I decided to cross the road and try Ruben’s Tacos, a bright red and green truck with flashing lights that you just can’t miss.

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I was going to go for the huarache, but just in the nick of time, spotted a picture of an outlandish-looking sandwich called the torta cubana. I have a weakness for tortas cubanas.

Whenever the Mexicans want to create an absolutely insane sandwich, for some reason I have never learned, they blame it on the Cubans. I’ve had many in my time, and each one seems just a little crazier than the last.

The Torta Cubana at Ruben’s takes the cake… and cake is just about the only thing they didn’t throw into the mix. I wasn’t surprised by the breaded beef cutlet, the “pastor” marinated pork, the sliced ham, refried beans, avocado, tomato, grilled hot dog or fried egg. I was surprised, though by the mayonnaise, pickle and yes… pineapple.

I felt like the enormously obese customer in the Monty Python sketch who orders everything on the menu, then explodes at the end.

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It was a great sandwich, and I know I’ll be returning to do it again… just as soon as I stop feeling guilty about this one.

The truck parks on Santa Monica Boulevard at Westgate. It seems to be there every evening.

YXTA – Gringas al Pastor

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I’ve passed by YXTA a number of times, but never had the opportunity to try it. I was curious, though, for two reasons. First, how in heck do you pronounce YXTA? Well, you do pronounce the X, so it sounds like “eeks-ta.” Second, what is an attractive, upscale-looking restaurant doing in that dreary stretch of downtown Los Angeles, surrounded by warehouses, distributors and factories? The answer to that is now a moot point, because YXTA is worth a trip, no matter where it’s located.

I was invited to a preview of AltaMed’s annual fund-raiser East L.A. Meets Napa, and we made a stop at YXTA for their wonderful tacos, and a sampling of Trujillo wines. The US vs Belgium World Cup game was playing on the TVs as we arrived, which fit perfectly with the casual restaurant/bar atmosphere, and added to the fun mood of the outing. Needless to say, we didn’t stay long enough to see the disappointing outcome of the game.

I’ve seen Gringas on menus in Mexico, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen them this side of the border. As we all know, a gringa in Latin America is an American, or english-speaking woman. In food parlance, though, it is a special type of taco. Wikipedia says the name may come from the dark spots on the grilled tortilla that resemble the freckles on a gringa’s skin.

The gringas at YXTA were beautifully roasted marinated pork (pastor), served on a flour tortilla with lots of gooey melted cheese, onions, cilantro, chile de arbol salsa and avocado salsa. The treatment was sort of like a quesadilla, but it packed a flavor punch way beyond any quesadilla I’ve ever been served – and that includes the Olympic Mercado where all the street vendors appear on Saturdays, not that far from YXTA.

I’m looking forward to seeing what YXTA is serving at the July 18 East L.A. Meets Napa main event. I’ll be delighted if they go with the Gringas, but whatever they decide, I know I’ll be a happy guy.

Here’s the website: http://yxta.net/

Tacos – The Real Thing

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Some years ago, I was telling a friend about my passion for the wonderful tacos I was discovering all over Los Angeles. When he told me he didn’t like tacos because he didn’t like the hard, toasted tortillas they came on, I was mystified. I had never heard of a taco with a hard shell. Later, I learned that some of the old-school taco places in LA serve them that way, to appeal to unsophisticated American tastes. I guess they’re tasty enough in their own right, but they are NOT the real thing.

Dave Miller recently did a piece on tacos in his great blog: Dave Miller’s Mexico. Here is his list of 5 ways you can tell if your taco isn’t really Mexican:

(The photos are from my favorite taquería in Tijuana, Tacos El Gordo… They are most definitely the real thing.)

1. If the beans on that combo plate you ordered are covered in triangles of yellow cheese or the grated four cheese blend you can get at your corner market, you won’t find it south of the border. I have never seen a Mexican variety of yellow cheese. Cheese in Mexico is usually white and if it is served on beans, tends to the crumbly queso fresco type.

2. If your tacos come with any of the following, ground beef, lettuce, tomato slices, grated cheese, yellow wax paper or even turkey, you are not in Mexico. Tacos come with onions and cilantro in Mexico. They are also made with steak and all the other parts of the cow or pig, but never have I seen a taco filled with ground beef.

3. If you can order shrimp, chicken, steak or any other type of fajitas, you won’t be finding that plate in too many taco stands or restaurants in Mexico. Sorry folks, as wonderful as fajitas can be, I’ve never seen fajitas in Mexico. I’m sure they are served somewhere in that great country, but this is a dish popularized by the Orange County restaurant chain El Torito in the 1980’s.

4. When you ask for salsa and the spiciest option you get is Amor or Tapatio bottled sauce, you certainly are not ordering your food in Guadalajara. In Mexico, we love our chiles. Habañeros, jalapeños, serranos and chiles de agua, we love them all, and expect to experience these tastes in, and on our food. Unfortunately, the American palette is not ready for this type of experience so we mostly get a tomato blend spiced up with a little bit of pepper.

5. Finally, when you walk in the door, if the first thing that greets you is a wall of sombreros or a chile in a beach chair, you can bet you’re gonna get a lot of that yellow cheese covered stuff. The derivative here is that if you see folks getting drunk wearing mariachi hats and dancing like loons, you are more likely in Papas-n-Beer or On the Border than a traditional Mexican restaurant.

Here’s a link to Dave’s blog: http://davemillersmexico.wordpress.com/2013/09/25/faux-mexican-five-ways-to-know-your-combo-plate-may-be-wonderful-but-not-available-in-mexico/

Taquería Michel – Hermosillo – Tacos al Pastor

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I arrived in downtown Hermosillo in the evening, and the hotel staff weren’t very helpful when it came to restaurant recommendations. I struck out on my own in a nice residential area, and found a lovely park, one of many in Hermosillo, where the local families were eating. I reluctantly passed up a popular hotdog stand in favor of tacos at Taquería Michel.

Every place has its own versions of this popular dish. It’s always spicy marinated pork cooked like shawerma on a vertical grill, often with a piece of pineapple on top. But the variations go from there. At Taquería Michel, the tasty meat was sliced generously onto thick tortillas, and I even got slices of the warm, juicy pineapple. There was a self-service bar with a wide range of embellishments, but I try to stay away from unpeeled vegetables like tomato and lettuce when I’m traveling, so I just went for a couple of dollops of hot chile salsa. The spicy flavors, washed down with an orange Fanta soft drink were a perfect light meal on a hot night.