05 January, 2009

Mexican food, I thought I knew you

Everyone who knows me knows that I love Mexican food. This probably stems from the fact that my mom ate a lot of Mexican food when she was pregnant with me. The first solid foods I ever ate were rice and beans from Taco Cabana. When I first moved to Boston I realized that nobody in New England knows shit about Mexican food. Belgium was even worse, although there I had Katy to commiserate with. She and I would occasionally get into arguments over how similar Tex-Mex is to real Mexican food. Kevin usually started these just to see us fight and laugh about it (thanks a lot dude). Much to my chagrin, after a week in Mexico I must admit that Tex-Mex is not as close to Mexican food as I would have liked to believe.

The main difference was how meat-heavy all the meals were. In Texas you can always order cheese enchiladas or a quesadilla if nothing else. Few restaurants we went to had anything vegetarian except for salads. The first two days in Mexico I ate nothing but salads which was pretty disappointing. A fish restaurant we ate at in La Paz served us chips and queso. I took a bite of the queso and noticed a really unusual flavor. After my cousin tried it she identified that flavor as tuna. In the queso. I ate chips with lime while everyone else ate the the fish queso and waited for my salad to arrive.

Before going to Morroco I considered the possibility of trying some of the meat dishes there. I was worried about missing out on some of the culture by sticking to my vegetarian diet. Ultimately I decided not to, partially because I didn't want to risk getting sick there. I faced this same dilemma in Mexico. Some of the meals that people around me were eating were things I might never get the opportunity to try again. So for the first time in more than 4 years I willingly tried meat. My first foray into animals was ceviche at the fish restaurant in La Paz. I had never heard of it and at the time I thought it was a rare Mexican delicacy. I later realized it was a pretty common dish even in the US and felt like an idiot. I tried only a very small bite and it tasted the way I remember fish tasting. I disliked the consistency and feel of it in my mouth instantly. I also tried a very small bite of squid at a fish restaurant in Cabo and an even smaller bite of bone marrow at a different restaurant there. The squid was less fishy tasting and the consistency didn't creep me out as much. The bone marrow tasted and felt like the fat from a steak and really creeped me out.

I feel weird now that I've willfully eaten meat. I'm sure some people would say I'm no longer a vegetarian or that I can no longer say I've been one for 4 years. I still consider myself a vegetarian though and I don't plan on eating meat again. I don't know if trying a few small bites of local dishes really means I experienced the culture more but I don't think I regret it. Because I don't know any places in Boston, or even Texas that sell Mexican style bone marrow.

Of all the restaurants we ate at two are worth mentioning. We asked our boat driver (is that what you call the guy who steers the boat?) where he likes to eat in La Paz. We wanted to try a real local place rather than the touristy crap we had been eating at. He gave us directions to La Fonda which was a small, family owned restaurant with only 6 or 7 tables. We were the only gringos there which was a good sign. I had hoped that maybe the lack of vegetarian options was only at the tourist spots but this place had nothing on the menu I could order. The waiter spoke a decent amount of English and he said said he could make cheese enchiladas for me. Truth be told, my meal was nothing special. They had some of the best tomatillo salsa I've had though and I think we went through 4 or 5 plates of chips before the food arrived. What really stood out for me was the guacamole. I love guacamole and pride myself on my guac skills and I can say that this was the best I have ever tried. Everyone loved their food at this place and when we finally got the bill it came out to $54USD. There were 7 of us who had ordered 9 meals, an appetizer and drinks all around and it was only $54. My uncle thought they must have made a mistake but we added it up ourselves and asked and the total was correct. Definitely a real local place.

The other restaurant worth mentioning was also called La Fonda, although it had no connection to the other restaurant. This La Fonda was not a small, local joint. We had stuck to asking people where they go to eat rather than "where should we go to eat?" to avoid the tourist spots but everyone directed us to the usual big restaurants on the beach. After several lousy suggestions from the hotel staff in Cabo we asked where we should go for really legit Mexican food. La Fonda was filled with wealthy looking gringos when we arrived but our first impressions were way off. We started off with drinks and the bone marrow appetizer. My cousin Oren and I both got a drink that was essentially a Mexican bloody mary. It was made with spicy tomato juice, tequila and beer. I know, it doesn't sound that great and I was skeptical at first but it was very good. We passed those around the table for everyone to try but nobody else liked it. There were quite a few vegetarian options on the menu and I ordered something I had never heard of and unfortunately I don't remember the name. It consisted of of a very thick and lightly fried corn tortilla topped with requeson, some kind of pepper, lettuce and guacamole. My mom's meal came with a side of black beans which were hands down the best black beans I've ever had. We all left the restaurant incredibly full and satisfied.

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