When I was growing up, going out to eat usually meant going out for Mexican food. Probably a lot of that had to do with the fact that that was what was available, but it also just tasted wonderful. And it was hot. I really got those cartoon pictures of people eating something hot and having steam shoot out their ears. I could feel it, even if no one could actually see the steam. The yolk of a fried egg on top of the enchiladas tempered the heat a bit, and so did the honey squeezed into the interior of a sopaipilla, but it was the flavor of that chile, red or green, that made going out for Mexican food such a treat.
When my husband graduated from UNM, and we moved to Arizona, I was puzzled that I couldn’t seem to find real Mexican food anywhere. Enchiladas were rolled, for one thing, and the chile played a mere supporting role, almost a walk-on. Flavors were more complex, ingredients more varied. Sopaipillas, if you could find them at all, were served as dessert with a scoop of Ice cream.
When we moved on to California, it was the same thing. Chile rellenos were fat poblano chiles, mild as a bell pepper, black olives were on everything, and they even put fish in the tacos! I was truly perplexed, not to mention a bit frustrated. After all, both Arizona and California were border states, too. Why, oh why, was I able to only find real Mexican food back home?
My epiphany came one Saturday afternoon while having lunch in a tiny store-front restaurant in a strip mall in Santa Cruz, California. My albondigas soup was delicious, chock full of vegetables with a meatball or two floating around. The owner/cook was chatting in Spanish to a customer at the cash register. The folks at the next table were speaking Spanish, too. In fact, as I noticed it, almost everyone else in the restaurant were Spanish speakers enjoying their lunch, totally oblivious to the fact that they weren’t getting the real deal. And—I blush to admit—it occurred to me for the first time that maybe it was I who didn’t have the faintest idea of what real Mexican food was.
What I did know about, and love, was New Mexican food—a cuisine indigenous to itself and reaching deep into the history of the state. The altitude is high, the soil is rocky, and water is generally scarce. But corn grew there for countless centuries, and beans, and squash, and, as far as I’m concerned, the best chile you can find anywhere. Early Spanish settlers added their techniques to the foods grown for centuries in the Pueblos along the Rio Grande, and created a cuisine not found anywhere else. Ah, but it is so worth the trip.
What about you? Is there a dish or a type of food that spells home to you?