¡ Mejor provecho ! by Curmudgeon
Yesterday, J and I joined a Glendale native for lunch at a Mexican restaurant she and her family frequented in the 60’s. Mexican food in U.S. restaurants in the 60’s. Ahhhh, I remember those days and those foodstuffs. Was it really the objective to prepare fresh food in such a way as to mimic the taste and texture of canned and frozen? Or did they start with canned and frozen, simply adding a fresh radish rose before walking it to the table? And how could I have expected yesterday to discover that Ernie Jr.'s Taco House is still committed to that decades old objective? The experience gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own personal history with Mexican food, from the earliest days in which I hated it, through the years of indifference, to my current stance of passion.
I was first exposed to Mexican food at a laundromat in Ruston, Louisiana in the late 50’s, early 60’s. My parents were renting a tiny house (The Little Green House) from my paternal grandmother. They had neither funds nor space for washer and dryer, so we would haul laundry 20 miles to Ruston. And there, a tamale vendor would come by with his cart. Inextricably associated in my memory are: excruciating North Louisiana midsummer heat and humidity, compounded by heat and steam from the washers and dryers, the acrid and stomach-souring smell of chlorine bleach, and the cumin- and chili–laced flavor of tamales with their soupçon of lye from the corn meal masa. So much to hate. For years, I could not shake the associations, whenever I picked up a hint of any one of the aforementioned ingredients in the frozen Mexican TV dinners that my mother would occasionally serve in an effort to enforce gustatory diversity.
The years of indifference extended from high school through college. I never sought out Mexican food on my own, but would accompany friends to Mexican restaurants. In Ruston, that was El Pollino (which we persisted in calling “el puh-LEE-noze,” our years of Spanish language study notwithstanding). And in Tulsa, that was Casa Bonita. My friends raved about the sopaipillas, but my favorite aspect of dining there was getting to raise the little Mexican flag on the table as a signal to the servers that we required some attention.
How did I come to love Mexican food so passionately? That leg of the journey began in Visalia, California, where I lived from 1981 to 1983. I have no recollection of what it was that took me north of the tracks one fateful day, neither of what prompted me to approach Taquería La Mexicana in the first place. I found myself studying a posted menu of taco and burrito options that included tongue, brains, and jowls; that included as well preparation methods I had never heard of, such as adobado and al pastor. I don’t remember what I ordered, something relatively familiar, I imagine. But I do remember my delight as I watched them assemble a burrito, using fresh, fresh ingredients, mounding rice and beans alongside the meat, before rolling it all up. And I remember rapture at it’s freshness, savor, and complexity. I returned again and again.
On September 18, 1982, my friend Gloria invited me to accompany her to a Mexican wedding. The dinner afterwards was held at the Portuguese Center For Culture And Recreation. As we sat and watched the caterers putting out all the food on the buffet, Gloria exclaimed, “There’s the chicken in the chocolate sauce!” This gringo was a little confused. I could see that the sauce was chocolate-colored (by what means I could not imagine), but I also knew that it was not Gloria’s way to speak poetically. “Chocolate?” I asked. And that’s how I was introduced to mole poblano.
Those were a couple of incidences that served to open me to further exploration of authentic Mexican foods. When I returned to Shreveport in 1984 and started waiting tables, the busboys were invariably from Mexico. After I befriended them, they introduced me to the restaurant in Mexico they themselves frequented (Trejo's Mexican Restaurant) and advised me of dishes the kitchen would prepare for them that were not listed on the menu. And when I moved to the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles in 1991, I was fortunate to live ½ block away from Sunset Boulevard and a couple of terrific Mexican restaurants that J and I still frequent (namely, El Conquistador and Tacos Delta). Our absolute favorite, however, is La Serenata De Garibaldi in Boyle Heights, a restaurant that specializes in fresh fish preparations, including one sauce, the base of which is huitlacoche: a black, squishy, seasonal corn fungus. Come to think of it, huitlacoche should be in season right now. What better way to cleanse our palates from our Ernie Jr.’s experience yesterday than for J and me to make the trek to Serenata tonight for some fungus.over 6 years ago