Mexican food of a decent quality has finally arrived in Australia – that’s not to say that it is anywhere near the quality of real Mexican food – or for that matter American Mexican food, but it is a step up from the homemade Old El Paso Burrito kits that for so long was the only Mexican experience that Australian families could have.
Now there are various degrees of Mexican food, from Mad Mex to El Poco’s, flooding into Sydney. I for one am glad; something was needed to break up the Italian V Thai food deadlock that we have been in for ages. Yet every time I do try to enjoy a nice enchilada I am disappointed – left waiting for that moment of satisfaction, or that perfect bite. I am not saying I don’t enjoy it, but that it never meets the expectations that I have so heftily built for Mexican food.
As I sit here and eat my Friday Burrito (Tex Mex Steak with extra Sour Cream and the Medium Sauce) I am pondering what makes this burrito yet another one in the unsatisfying list. What made all of those great Mexican Food moments so much better? Was it the food itself or was it the level of hunger or the level of expectation, was it the location, or the people I was with?
Taco Salad – Oregon, USA
My first couple of days in America and I was staying with a friend who I had met while she was living in Australia for university, she had complained constantly throughout her three years here about the lack Mexican Food. I had already tried an American Cheeseburger and been disappointed (it just didn’t live up to the hype), the famous American breakfast (not a fan of the fatty, crispy bacon covered in maple syrup) and hadn’t been blown away by the deep-fried overload of the famous Donut. It is reasonable to say that I didn’t have very high expectations for my first taste of American Mexican food. The restaurant – Mucho Gusto – didn’t look that extra ordinary… in fact I made a mental note not to eat anything that even briefly touched the table top.
My friend spent ten minutes trying to explain how the whole system worked and how to order – in the end to make life easier for myself I told her to order me whatever she was having – but with extra cheese! Carefully, but with a speed that can only be gained with constant repetition, the attendant pulled together my Taco Salad, at every stage she asked me to choose between several options, and then had a good laugh at my flabbergasted expression. After scrambling with the mono coloured money and filling up my giant coke (not even I, a coke-a-cola expert, could have finished the whole thing) we sat up on some high benches to eat.
Carefully I filled up a fork with a little of everything – Chicken, Salsa, Beans, Taco, Rice, Cheese, Sour Cream, Guacamole, More Cheese, Corn, a Different Salsa, Lettuce – and placed it in my mouth. My friend sat opposite me, not eating but watching my face. That first bite was one of those perfect bites – where if the whole meal could taste like that you would never stop eating. I finished off the Taco Salad before my friend was even halfway through.
Tortilla Soup – Tijuana, Mexico
While living in San Diego I did the traditional hop across the border to Tijuana for the day. My friends and I spent the day wandering around the market and looking at stores, I spent ten minutes helping a mate bargain down a hammock – he was about to pay the asking price! Remembering all of the horror stories that I had been told, I carefully avoid the alleyways and the police.
Around four we decide margaritas were needed and probably some food, we walked down the high street looking at all of the restaurants and bars which were only just opening up in preparation of the night-time trade. At the end of the main street was a giant tent with the words “Tequila Festival” written across it – what could be better? – only one small problem, it’s closed between 2 and 6pm. Instead we end up in a roof top restaurant that is beautifully covered in Mosaic tiles. Still sweating from the heat we order margaritas with relish – one of my friends has a freak out about whether the ice in the margarita will give her Tijuana Belly (similar to Bali Belly), another friend offers her a stomach settler that he bought off someone in the previously mentioned alleyways.
Roof top Restaurant Tijuana
The menu is vast, and being new to Mexican food, very confusing. My Canadian friend and I decided to split an enchilada and, being daring, order whatever the waiter recommends – he recommended the Tortilla Soup – which caused a raised eyebrow, how can you have a tortilla in a soup?
The enchilada came out first, we ploughed into it, demolishing half in moments, but I can honestly say that I don’t remember any of it – I could have been eating cardboard for all I know. Then he bought out the giant bowl of Tortilla Soup – it was massive and hot! With trepidation we dipped in our spoons, at the bottom there was some melted cheese, I dug some out and slurped it down. Naturally the boiling hot cheese burnt my mouth, but not enough to hide the amazing taste. It was astonishing how so many levels of flavours could be contained in a single mouthful. My friend and I made startled and delighted eye contact before diving in again – disregarding my burnt tongue I practically lapped at the bowl. Sadly we were unable to finish it due to previously gorging on the Enchilada. To this day I am scared to try another Tortilla Soup as I know nothing will ever be as delicious as that one – why taint the memory.
Enchilada – Siam Reap, Cambodia
Now I know what you are thinking – why would I choose to eat Mexican food when I am surrounded by amazing south-east Asian cuisine, well as anyone who has been on the road for a while can attest, you get to a point where you crave something, anything, that is like the food that you get at home, and although Mexican isn’t very common in Australia the whole mixing, cheese, carbs, lettuce and spicy meat is – just through other genres. It was these arguments that lead me and my travelling companion to the giant Mexican restaurant in the centre of Siam Reap.
Throughout South East Asia there are loads of western food knock offs – ever had a pizza where the base is made out of bread dough, the tomato paste is ketchup, and the cheese is Krafts Plastic Singles – you would be right in sticking the amazing local cuisine.
Sitting down at a table we were a little nervous, but then the owner who was the only one working at that time of day (3pm in the afternoon) came out to serve us, he was Californian – no doubt about it – I can’t tell most American accents apart but I can always tell when someone is from California, they always seem more relaxed or “Chill” than everyone else. As he took our orders he told us about how his parents owned a Mexican restaurant back in California and how after College he did a trip through South East Asia and fell in love with Siam Reap… and just stayed… opening up his own Mexican restaurant. Our prospects looked up!
We sat there on the watching the street and sipping our Tiger beers, tourists who walked by gave us filthy looks and muttered about eating western food – we in turn looked down our noses at them, they obviously hadn’t been travelling as long or as rough as us. The owner was cooking our meal personally – he literally had no staff on for another few hours.
When finally my enchilada and taco came out they looked amazing – exactly like a photo in a cook book. The sauce coating the enchilada was still bubbling slightly and the dish was too hot for me to touch. One glance showed that it was real cheese – a rare delicacy. While I waited for it to cool down I picked up the taco – every item was the perfect portion, neither too much lettuce nor too much chicken, the salsa didn’t drip down my arm and the shell didn’t break away. It was gone in 30 seconds… max! The Enchilada was similarly amazing – but it was the sauce that blew away my tastes buds. As I was literally using my fingers to wipe down the last drips of sauce left in the bowl the owner came over to chat – he was a friendly guy. Apparently the sauce wasn’t very authentic American Mexican because he had to substitute some of the herbs and spices to what was local – this was in fact Cambodian Mexican and it was brilliant.
California Burrito – 2am, San Diego, USA
This is the most amazing thing in the world at 2am – any other time, it’s just horrid. I have wondered what makes this particular burrito more amazing at 2am, I don’t believe as many do that this is only good after a few drinks, as I have eaten one completely sober at 2am and still found it amazing. Maybe it is the cooks that work the late shift, or maybe it is the darkness that emphasises the taste buds, or it could be that the ingredients have matured to a perfect taste by this time.
I think for you to really appreciate the California Burrito I have to describe it: first off there is the tortilla which, as I remember it, was always slightly sweaty, it had the same feeling of when you put your hands into wet Ski Cloves. On top of that is the Carne Asada (or something that is pretending to be steak)– which if you eat it before 2am smells like feet, however by 2am it has stagnated to a lovely braised beef which falls apart with each bite and is so nicely spiced that you lick the juices off your fingers with relish. Then there is the usual guacamole, salsa and cheese followed by the piece-de-résistance: French fires. These golden fingered jewels are a great replacement for the usual beans and rice, the combination of the mushy potato and the crispy outer shell add a whole other dimension to the burrito.
However what you need to top off this heart attack in a tortilla is the Hot Sauce – and nothing but the Super-Hot Sauce will suffice. Each globby mouthful is then burned away leaving the palette fresh and eagerly expecting the next bite.
I can honestly say that there is nothing more satisfying than a 2am California Burrito.
In reviewing these moments of Mexican food glory I am still stumped as to how to have repeat satisfaction and instead have come to the conclusion that I will play the odds – the more I eat Mexican Food the higher the chances of finding another perfect bite.