Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Taco Blasphemies

This article by Mark Bittman in the NYT encapsules as neatly as a taco, everything that Americans don't understand about Mexican food. Mr. Bittman's intentions are firmly in the right place, but it's his reductive understanding of the taco and its derivates that is simplistic and misguiding.
To wit:
Just about anything can be called a taco, which essentially means “sandwich.” You take a tortilla and you put some stuff in it and you eat it; that’s a taco. (If you roll the tortilla, it’s a burrito, which appears to have been created in the American Southwest; if you layer food on top of it, it’s an enchilada; if you crisp it up and use it as a kind of plate, it’s a tostada; if you cut it into pieces and bake or fry it, it’s a chip; and so on.)

Taco does not by any stretch of the imagination mean sandwich, just as sushi does not mean sandwich. A taco is a taco. Period.
"If you roll the tortilla it's a burrito": WRONG. There are many tacos that are rolled and fried that are not burritos. It is a burrito when the tortilla is made of flour, it is the size (and blandness) of Wyoming and it has everything but the kitchen sink in it, without rhyme or reason. A burrito is like an edible cannon. I won't get near one.
The authentic Mexican burrito is actually a normal sized flour tortilla, fit for human consumption, folded like a quesadilla and stuffed with ham and melting cheese, or shredded chicken and cheese. That is a true burrito. What you call a burrito here is an abomination. Don't get me started on the wraps.
It's not an enchilada if you just layer stuff on top of it. That is like saying that a bagel is a pizza if you put tomato sauce on it.
Or that a pizza is a pasta if you just cut up the dough. Every single kind of Mexican antojito based on corn meal has its own unique, and usually complex preparation. That is why it is so hard to find good Mexican food here, because Americans like shortcuts, and Mexican food is labor intensive.
FYI: Enchiladas are usually corn tortillas that have been sauteed quickly in oil to soften them, are filled with cheese or chicken, then smothered with either mole, tomatillo sauce or red sauce (of which there are a thousand recipes with different chilies, etc), then sometimes baked in the oven with melting cheese on top, creme fraiche, never sour cream, crumbled cheese and slices of onion. That's an enchilada.
I felt I had to defend the honor of the fantastic dish I owe my nom de plume to.

I don't think anybody should attempt to make their own carnitas at home unless they are Diana Kennedy or were born in the state of Michoacan. Carnitas are the non plus ultra of pork concoctions. It's pork braised in milk for hours. Carnitas are why I think God told the Jews not to ate pork, because He wanted it all for Himself. Whatever you end up with as a result, it is not going to be decent carnitas, I assure you. Don't even try it.

The article has many other misconceptions, such as that turkey taco is probably the most traditional, because "the native Americans of what is now Mexico" raised turkeys. Are those the Mayans, the Aztecs, the Toltecs? In any case, turkey tacos may have been big 600 years ago but I've never seen a turkey taco in person, and if it exists, it is probably the leftovers after Christmas Eve.
However, everything can be filling for a taco, from beef to brains, eye, cheek, tongue, innards, cauliflower, kale, turkey, etc. There are many different kinds of tacos: dorados, sudados, al pastor, al carbón, de canasta...

Here are some other gross misconceptions about Mexican food:

• Shredded lettuce on everything. WRONG.
For crunch, use chopped onion and chopped cilantro.
Shredded lettuce typically goes on tostadas and on top of pozole.
Shredded cabbage in my view is even worse. Unless you are talking about food from the Yucatan.

• Sour cream on everything. WRONG.
Mexican cream is more akin to creme fraiche than to sour cream and it is used sparingly in some dishes, not all. Almost never on tacos, but yes on stuff that has refried beans on it, like sopes, or certain tostadas.

• Cumin powder in everything. WRONG.
Most Mexican food here reminds me of the Middle East because of the indiscriminate and inauthentic use of cumin powder in the preparation of the fillings, like beef and chicken. Mexican food uses many different spices and cumin sparingly in perhaps some dishes.

Oh, I could go on and on...

• The other day I went to Mercadito. It was appalling. Now it is customary to charge 15 bucks or more for 3 tiny tacos. I paid 10 bucks for a terrible tuna ceviche. Any ceviche in any market in Mexico is better. But what really annoyed me is that if you are charging that for tacos, it would behoove you to put some quartered limes on the table, some colorful salsas for people to add to their tacos. You ask for a lime and they bring you a wedge the kind they put into a vodka tonic, and the salsa comes in a tiny plastic container the size of a thimble. How tacky and how petty.

So my point is, even though the situation for Mexican food has improved in NY, you don't get the sophistication, the complexity, the nuance, the subtlety nor the generosity of spirit of Mexican food. When people ask me what Mexican restaurants I go to in NY my answer is: I don't go for Mexican food in NY.

I have good things to say about two places:
Dos Caminos in Soho has some good antojitos and they put some salsas on the table. Not everything works, but some of it is quite decent. They make amazing chocolate and peanut brittle ice cream.

The tacos at La Esquina can do the trick, although they are not quite there. Their tortilla soup, however, is quite fantastic.


  1. I've heard El Huipil in Red Hook has pretty authentic food from the state of Guerrero.

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