Mexican versus Tex Mex

Originally posted September 2010.

I really enjoy Tex Mex style cooking. Oozy, cheesy, spicy goodness topped with salsa and sour cream – when you need a nice filling, greasy fix – sometimes there is nothing better. What I truly LOVE, is real Mexican style cuisine. Fresh, tasty tacos wrapped in hand-made masa corn or flour tortillas, with chopped cilantro and homemade fresh guacamole, salsa verde and tinto to add some nice heat. Recently I had the opportunity to experience both of these types of food within a short period of time, and felt the need to compare and contrast these seemingly similar styles of cooking to share with you.

Firstly I will share my disappointing encounter with a Tex Mex dish at the Halifax establishment Mexico Lindo just last evening. Having fond memories of this hole-in-the-wall type restaurant located in Fairview, from when I lived close by during university, I was expecting the same greatness in the way of super spicy salsa and authentic style Mexican food that I had fading memories of from years ago. I am not quite sure if these images were completely constructed by my subconscious during a crazy Mexican food craving, or if my foodie knowledge was just so limited four or five years ago that I thought this was actually like something you would be served in Mexico. To my extreme misfortune, the food that myself and my counterpart were served last night at Mexico Lindo was not only very un-Mexican, it was barely Tex Mex in any decent form.

You will notice the quality of the crunchy tortilla chips in the basket as those that look like they came from a giant bag purchased at a bulk food store. They tasted border-line stale and were served with a mild Mexican-style salsa that was much, much blander than I remembered and lacking the heat that I was sure was not a figment of my imagination from years ago. We also gave into the upsell of guacamole at the table and, both being huge guacamole enthusiasts, were crestfallen at the mild, unseasoned creaminess of the guacamole-style dip we were served. We suspected it had been cut with sour cream.

After asking if the establishment had indeed finally acquired a license to serve alcohol (something I did accurately recall them lacking during my previous visit) I was told, no they still have not, and I decided to order an Agua Fresca. This is a refreshing beverage made (in this instance) with watermelon and cantaloupe.

For the main course I chose one of their combination plates, the Fiesta Plate, consisting of a burrito, quesadilla, rice and beans. I opted for the vegetarian variation of this selection. What I was served was a flour tortilla stuffed with refried beans, diced fresh tomato, chopped iceburg lettuce, and cheese…folded over and baked in the oven (quesadilla). This was accompanied by another flour tortilla, stuffed with green peppers, jalapeno peppers (that I believe came from a can), tomatoes, onions and cheese folded into a burrito, baked in the oven and topped with chopped iceburg lettuce and a dollop of sour cream. There was some sort of red sauce poured minimally on top of these, however it had literally no flavour whatsoever so I could not determine exactly if it was supposed to be a salsa tinto or not. The beans were very smooth and creamy yet lacking any seasoning and the rice, oh… the rice. The rice, to me, tasted like something of the instant variety, fried with some corn niblets and some sort of mild tomato sauce to give it some color (yet no flavour or heat). My dinner date having chosen a plate with a chicken burrito did note that the meat tasted like it was boiled with absolutely no seasoning and simply stuffed into the burrito before being baked.

Alas, we quickly asked for our bill and left extremely disappointed.

Now to regale you with a love story from last weekend, which I spent visiting a friend in Toronto. Friday day was spent roaming the streets in Kensington: snapping photos, checking out brightly coloured fresh produce on the sidewalks, browsing through unique shops, drinking coffee from delightful little independent spots, and of course… scoping out a Mexican restaurant to eat lunch at. We decided quickly upon arriving in the area that it would without question, simply HAVE to be tacos for lunch. It seemed there were Mexican joint, after taco stand, after burrito restaurant that greeted us upon our arrival. We even contemplated a mid-afternoon intoxication on margaritas to accompany this taco feed. We were living in a Canadian-Mexican dreamworld!

Once we could ignore the craving no more, we settled in on the patio of our carefully selected taco stand: El Trompo Taco Stand and Cactus Bar. We promptly ordered two lime margaritas on the rocks and tried to blur the edges of the insufferably muggy day in the “unique” environmental atmosphere of Canada’s largest city. The sun was beating down and the dirty, boiling hot smog was slowly leaking into my open pores, and I needed something icy, cold and tart… and packed with tequila. These traditionally served margaritas did the trick in no time. I was delighted to take in the taco offering on the menu, along with several other Mexican dishes, in their traditional Spanish names, and to have a real live, lovely Mexican lady serving us. My hopes were climbing higher and higher.

The guacamole we ordered as an appetizer, served with tortilla chips, in that moment was the best I had ever tasted. Granted it could have been the tequila talking, however, looking back I can definitely with a clear mind, place it in the top three. It was obviously homemade, fresh, chunky with onions and tomatoes, complimented well with cilantro and other seasonings which are beyond my Mexican cooking knowledge, and had a tiny kick (which I love in guac). The tortilla chips tasted like 100% corn and were crispy and perfect.

The tacos are served in orders of five, are small, and meant to be eaten with your hands. I suspect these were flour tortillas, and although I prefer masa corn tortillas, I was not disappointed in the least with my dish. Sauteed mushrooms, onions and cheese were the simple ingredients in my chosen tacos, topped with fresh chopped coriander, and served with a wedge of lime. I added some guacamole inside and topped with the salsa verde and tinto that was supplied as a mainstay on the table tops, as well as put that lime to use as a delicious acidic finish. Perfection. My lovely lunch date enjoyed the spicy pulled chicken tacos (pictured below) which, to me, looked extensively seasoned, rubbed, probably marinated and then braised to become very spicy and extremely tender. Hers as you can see, topped with freshly chopped onion and coriander. This is how you do Mexican.

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