I knew that when I saw the fly doing the breaststroke in the salsa bar salsa, I should’ve walked out.
But no. I paid for my purchase at that divey Mexican restaurant and took home my large bowl of take-out cocido a.k.a. caldo de res (Mexican beef soup). Not too much later I relearned that the cast-iron stomach of my youth was a faded memory.
Such are the travails of eating out in a gastronomically iffy town.
And save for the possibility of a better health department food safety score and higher prices — there’s not that much difference hereabouts between chancing one’s taste buds at a dive or at a white linen tablecloth establishment.
A dining-out desert.
So pay no attention to the local paper’s restaurant boosterism. On Sunday, it fantasized of “turning Phoenix into a dining destination.”
“The Arizona Republic” noted how the state had produced 9 James Beard Culinary Award winners. Too bad the last one was 6 years ago and of the rest, 3 have left the state presumably for greener pastures. All the same, columnist Jennifer McClellan still wanted to know “what it will take to make the valley a dining destination.” But that one’s easy. How about more than a few restaurants serving really good food?
Suffice it to say that metro Phoenix is not making any list of America’s Top Restaurants in 25 Cities/Regions | Zagat Blog or of “The 100 Best U.S. Restaurants” – Forbes.
And while the area did at least escape the foodie ignominy of a complete shutout on one list of 101 of the country’s best restaurants, it only scraped by with the area’s predictably tried-and-true hipster pizzeria coming in at No. 77.
Eat to relive.
Whether or not he knew he was quoting Moliere is beside the point because he really got it wrong. Like Ratatouille’s food critic, Anton Ego, some of us eat to relive — to recapture with hopeful astonishment the best of what we remember.
In my case, it’s the caldo de res that hungers my memory. More specifically, it’s the beef soup my beloved late mother used to make and what I once publicly declared that if like a condemned man I was asked and if there was karmic rightness in the world — it would be my last meal on this earth.
The Holy Grail.
I have my own grail quest. Earlier this year on repeated trips to Los Angeles, I again took up my search albeit incidental to those visits. When time permitted, I haunted the places of my misspent and well spent juvenescence visiting both new and old Mexican restaurants in the barrios of my adolescence. One place I hadn’t visited since high school and while I had remembered their cocido as passably good — it wasn’t.
I have a few rules about ethnic dining, especially for Mexican food. I think my rules are more comprehensive than the one rule posited by traveling journalist Dave Seminara who asks, “Why Do I Continue To Patronize Crap ‘Mexican’ Restaurants Around the World?”
It’s an excellent question. And one I’ve often pondered myself — especially locally.
Seminara thinks he’s come up with a good yardstick to avoid lousy Mexican restaurants in the future, “If you’re looking for good Mexican food, take a look around. Are there any Mexican people within a 100-mile radius? No? Well then, why they hell are you eating in a “Mexican” restaurant?”
Not a bad rule — even though it’s eviscerated here because Arizona sits on the border with Mexico in close proximity to about 112 million Mexicans.
Nevertheless, here are my sawbuck’s worth of rules, which all things being equal ought to be nothing more than mere blinding glimpses of obviousness:
1. Don’t eat at a Mexican restaurant if you don’t see any Mexicans eating there;
2. Don’t eat at a Mexican restaurant if you don’t see any Mexican cooks or servers;
3. Don’t eat at a Mexican restaurant if the menu doesn’t serve braised or roasted pork called Carnitas. I consider the dish a litmus test of authenticity. (And Note: Carnitas are a pork dish — notwithstanding the Godforsaken place in Phoenix that offers up what I’d never seen anywhere else — “Chicken Carnitas.”)
4. Don’t eat at a Mexican restaurant if they look at you cross-eyed when you ask for the light non-alcoholic refreshments called aguas frescas (fresh waters). (And the carbonized fountain drink versions don’t count). The usual aguas frescas are made of rice barley (Horchata) hibiscus tea (Jamaica); or tamarind (Tamarindo).
5. Don’t eat at a Mexican restaurant if the first thing (and often the only good thing) mentioned is not the food — but the margaritas.
6. Don’t eat at a Mexican restaurant if the salsa looks and tastes like tomato sauce with cilantro buds and the chips come out of an industrial-sized barrel. (High marks to restaurants and taquerias with fresh salsa bars like the ones featuring fresh radishes, grilled onions and jalapeno peppers and jalapeños and zanahorias (carrots) en escabeche (pickled) like at Tucson’s tasty El Guero Canelo or at the humble strip mall eatery, Don Pancho’s in Avondale.)
7. Don’t eat at a Mexican restaurant if they don’t serve the strange — you know, the stuff that horrifies ‘white bread’ Meximerican restaurant patrons — like mojarra frita (whole fried fish) or menudo or pozole or lengua tacos or sesos, buche, tripas — que? (Think uni sushi as they run out the door like their hair’s on fire).
8. Don’t eat at a Mexican restaurant that asks how you want your carne asada cooked.
9. Don’t eat at a Mexican restaurant buffet.
10. And if you want authentic Mexican food, stay away from restaurants that cover all their entrées with yellow cheese goop and red enchilada sauce — or hustle the dish that proves Americans will eat anything if it’s deep fried — the Tex-Mex Chimichanga.
The 10 Worst Mexican Restaurants in Phoenix.
A year ago when a local alternative newspaper dared to name the “Top 10 Worst Mexican Restaurants in Metro Phoenix, I thought, “Why stop at 10?”
I almost posted on the subject and not because I quibbled with than that some of the names were off-putting.choices. Having previously made the mistake of eating at half of the top 10 Worst Mexican restaurants on her list, I knew she was on-the-mark. I’d only avoided the other 5 by luck and for no other reason
And I wasn’t going to quibble with O’Neil’s No. 1 Choice, although I’d have argued that a lot more local Mexican eateries could have easily supplanted or at least shared the dubious honor.
So last month when some of the local yokels gnashed their collective incisors over how Arizona was unfairly slighted for failing to make Zagat’s picks of the best Mexican restaurants in 20 cities in USA Today — what was there left to say? When your Southwest city doesn’t otherwise make the general list of America’s top foodie destinations, why is this latest omission a surprise?
Photo Credits: “Caldo de res,” by Julian Duenas, at Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported;”Infinity Road,” by Omar Larabi at Flickr via Creative Commons-license requiring attribution;”Eating Man,” by Jacob Jordaens, at Wikimedia Commons Web Gallery of Art, public domain; “Aguas Frescas” by ManekiNeko at the wikipedia project, Wikipedia Commons, public domain;“Hernandoz Hideaway,” by jericl cat at Flickr via Creative Commons-license requiring attribution; “We is eating tacos” by hapinachu via Creative Commons-licensed content requiring attribution and share alike distribution at Flickr; “Pozole,” by Meutia Chaerani / Indradi Soemardjan http://www.indrani.net at Wikipedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license; “deep fried ridiculousness…” by Ryan at Flickr via Creative Commons-license requiring attribution; “mexican food,” by Sharon Mckellar at Flickr via Creative Commons attribution-no derivs 2.0 generic license.