Something that was touched on in Frontera is how Americans view and consume “Mexican” food. We all know that what you can get at Taco Bell is nowhere close to what Mexican food is. But can we answer why? In my common assignment, I channel my inner Anthony Bourdain and I travel to the border to discover what is truly authentic Mexican food.
There are two stops on my trip, and first up is Del Rio, a tiny Texas city that’s right on the border. Before I entered Chinto’s Mexican Restaurant, I noticed the busy parking lot; a good sign. I also noticed a mix of Texan and Mexican license plates; an even better sign. To be honest, you’re going to be hard pressed to find a Mexican restaurant that is 100% authentically Mexican in Texas. Most are what is called “Tex-Mex,” a fusion of Mexican and Southwestern food with American influences. The first thing I noticed as I walked in was the wall of sombreros and lucha libre masks. Oh, boy. That’s not a good sign. This simplistic cartoonization view of Mexican culture and identity does not bode well for Chinto’s “Mexican” Restaurant.
I scoured the menu and saw mix of Mexican food and Americanized Mexican food, like nachos and fajitas. You won’t find nachos listed on any menu south of the border. It wasn’t looking good. I let it slide and ordered the Enchiladas. What I got couldn’t have surprised me more. It was beautiful. Warm homemade tortillas, juicy chicken dipped in savory chile sauce, and sprinked with queso fresco. No yellow cheese or a drop of red chili sauce in sight. This is where it’s at. Truly Mexican. While the décor and half the menu screamed “Americanized,” the food had that soul people talk about. Here, within spitting distance of the border, the food is likely to be Mexican or Mexican influenced. In a way, Southwest culture has become Mexican culture and vice versa. The border isn’t the only thing that they share. In fact, it doesn’t divide them so much as it binds them together.
Spot number two on my journey took me to Mexico, an hour south of Del Rio. Piedras Negras. This time, instead of looking for a restaurant, I’m on the hunt for fast food. No, I’m not talking about Qdoba or Del Taco. I’m talking about real fast food. Food you find on the streets. No tablecloths, no waiters, and no glassware. It’s as simple as it gets. And my search did not last long. I spied a vendor on the side of the street, and before I could even see what he was making, I could smell and hear it. The sizzle and aroma of cooking steak grew stronger as I approached, and to my delight, I had found what I came here for: traditional, Mexican tacos made from simple, good ingredients. “Uno, por favor.” The vendor chopped up the steak, put it in a freshly made corn tortilla and topped it onions, cilantro and salsa verde. This modest morsel is what fast food in America lacks. It’s simple, fresh, made right in front of you, and ridiculously accessible at fifty cents a pop.
I didn’t come to Mexico for one measly taco though. My hunger was not satiated and I combed the streets in search of more food. I soon spied another stand, but this one was selling sandwiches or tortas. I asked myself what could be different about a sandwich made in Mexico to a sandwich made in America? In northern Mexico tortas are commonly called lonches, a corruption of the word lunch due to Pierdras Negras’ vicinity to America, and they can vary by meat, salsa, and cheese. So I asked for a lonche with carnitas. He fried up some pork, smashed an avocado, spread it on locally made bread, and added sliced onion, tomato, and chiles. Honestly, the sandwich didn’t knock my socks off, and if we’re speaking truthfully, besides sourcing the local ingredients, there wasn’t that much difference between what the vendor made and what I could make back home. But that’s not the point. The very essence of the lonche would be lost in America. Simply put, it just wouldn’t be a lonche. It would just be a sandwich. As far as authenticity, the location in which food is made can be just as important as the food itself. So in that respect, that sandwich was the best lonche I had ever had.
Satisfied with the street food in Piedras Negras, I ventured to one of its famous restaurants to settle something that had been bothering me. I needed to find out the truth about nachos. So I went to the Moderno. I stated earlier that you wouldn’t find nachos on a menu in Mexico. That’s not entirely true. You’ll find them in the Moderno, the birthplace of nachos in 1943. Word spread and nachos soon became astoundingly popular in America, but failed to gain any ground in Mexico, it’s birth place. So, if prepared correctly, are nachos really an authentic Mexican food? It sounds like heresy when I think about it. How can something so ingrained in American culture be authentically Mexican? That’s a question that I have to ponder on my way home.
So, was my trip to Del Rio and Piedras Negras a success? Did I find what I was looking for? Yes and no. I was looking for what made Mexican food authentic, but my travels between the border revealed that there is no one thing that makes something authentic. I had enchiladas at a Tex-Mex restaurant that by all means should not have been authentic, but totally were. I had real tacos that would put fast food joints up north to shame. There’s the curious case of the lonche where authenticity is based on location. And then there’s nachos, which throws the rules out the window by possibly being both authentically Mexican and culturally American at the same time. And then there’s this bombshell: Who am I to judge whether something is authentically Mexican or not? There’s not a drop of Mexican blood in me, so how can I truly be sure whether I’m right in my statements? Is authenticity fact or opinion? Where is the border between authentic and inauthentic and when is it crossed? There are so many questions that I just can’t answer thanks to tacos and nachos. One thing is for sure though. I’m never eating at Taco Bell.