Mexico City Tex-Mex

Never mind the TV soccer game -- diners get their best kicks from the tasty food.
Troy Fields

Tlacoyos turn out to be fried pielike ovals of masa dough filled with beans and then baked. There are three of them on the plate, covered with salsa verde, sour cream, chopped lettuce and sliced radishes, with a sprinkling of Mexican cheese on top. They're so good, my dining companion refuses to share. I raid her plate with a knife and fork while she's not looking.

The waitress tried to describe the tlacoyos and some of the other unusual items on the menu at Las Llardas, a new Mexican restaurant on Fulton. But she didn't speak any English, and in the end we just had to order them to see what they were.

Pambazos, a hot sandwich filled with mashed potato and sausage and then smothered in gravy, is tasty but very heavy for a summer meal. And panuchos turn out to be Mexico City's name for gorditas. In the Mexican capital they use the name gordita for a larger version of the same thing, we are told.

The owner of La Llardas is from Mexico City, and so are the vast majority of its customers. There is a mural painted on one wall of the restaurant depicting the Plaza Reforma in the center of that city. In the painting, Volkswagen taxicabs whiz around the traffic circle while a guy holding a plastic bag full of alcohol emits plumes of fire from his mouth.

Las llardas means "the yards" and refers to the tall English yard-long ale glasses that were a craze in the United States back in the 1970s. Drinking a yard of ale is evidently a popular fad in Mexico City at the moment, and Las Llardas has brought the trend to the barrio of Houston. During happy hour, you can get a yard of Bud Light for $2 and a half-yard for a buck.

The right side of the restaurant is dominated by a bar and a big-screen television set, which is constantly tuned to a soccer game. Jerseys from various soccer teams in Houston and Mexico City hang from the rafters. In keeping with the beer-drinking and soccer-watching atmosphere, much of the menu at La Llardas is Mexico City pub grub like tortas (sandwiches) and tacos with lots of Tex-Mex throw in for good measure.

I stopped by one night to drink a half a yard and try the tortas. Two of us split a hearty torta cubana. The sandwich was made with roasted pork, ham and cheese stacked on a large roll and heated on the grill. It wasn't quite as good as a traditional Cuban sandwich made in a sandwich press, but it wasn't bad.

We also split a torta chilanga, which included ham, a pounded cutlet of breaded and fried beef, and some thin slices of hot dog on a big roll, garnished with avocado and mayonnaise. It was pretty good, except that the ham was an end slice with lots of inedible ligament. Chilanga, or chilango, is slang for a resident of Mexico City, and although it carries insulting connotations of superiority and arrogance, Mexico City residents wear the insult like a badge of honor.

On another visit, I sampled some of the $5 lunch specials. My friend got flautas deshebradas, crunchy, deep-fried tortilla flutes stuffed with shredded beef in spicy sauce. The filling was good, but unfortunately there wasn't much of it. I got tacos stuffed with cochinita pibil, a Yucatecan roasted pork dish. We both liked the tacos more; the pork was extremely tender and dressed with a vinegary chile sauce.

While we were there, I read an article in Paper City by John Mariani titled "True Mex." It was a dangerous thing to read at lunch: I was laughing so hard I almost passed iced tea through my nose.

According to Mariani, most Americans don't know what Mexican food is all about -- especially us Texans. He faults Tex-Mex restaurants for serving Americanized stuff like burritos, chimichangas and refried beans. The East, on the other hand, has the best Mexican food in the country, Mariani says.

What a funny guy. Based on my recent experiences, the average Mexican eatery in Manhattan is owned and operated by Koreans and the food is horrific. It's not that there aren't any Mexicans in New York, there is a huge population of them now. But they're all too busy running the pizzerias and coffee shops to cook the Mexican food. So what the hell is he talking about?

In his article, Mariani quotes cooking authority Patricia Quintana in Mexico City. She explains why upscale versions of Mexican regional cuisine like hers are better than Tex-Mex.

"Tex-Mex food is a regional cookery too, but the territory had few resources at the time the Americans began to adapt the peasant foods of the region, so it's all fairly simplistic," says Quintana. Texas had fewer resources than Mexico? When was this exactly? And what does she mean by peasant food? Who were the peasants?  

Maybe she's referring to the tens of thousands of refugees who fled Mexico during the early 1900s. A full 10 percent of that country's population came here to escape the financial collapse that followed the Mexican Revolution. To get by, Mexican immigrants sold tamales from carts in the streets in the 1920s. By the 1930s, they and their American-born children opened early Tex-Mex restaurants such as Felix and Molina's. Is this what she means by Americans adapting peasant foods?

The subtext here is pretty plain. Patricia Quintana and John Mariani are elitists with little use for what they call "peasant food." According to her Web site, "The author of Mexico's Feasts of Life celebrates the haute cuisine of Mexico, eschewing tacos and burritos for regional cuisines that rival the delicate flavors found in European cuisines." Quintana's restaurant in Mexican City serves dishes like cured salmon (despite the fact that Mexico doesn't have any salmon) and lots of pasta. (There are Italians in Mexico, so pasta is Mexican, she says.) Quintana and Mariani are free to promote this dubious Mexican haute cuisine. But asserting that it's "true Mex" is laughable.

There is nothing new about the preference for Europeanized food among rich people in Mexico City. According to historian Jeffrey Pilcher, Mexican president Porfiro Diaz backed efforts to stamp out the indigenous corn-based cuisine of Mexico 100 years ago, on the grounds it was unsanitary. When Diaz hosted banquets commemorating the centennial of Mexican independence in 1910, they were catered by Sylvain Daumont, a fashionable French restaurant in Mexico City. Not a single Mexican dish was served at these state dinners. The idea that Europeanized food is superior to tacos and enchiladas is kept alive by Mexican wannabe aristocrats like Patricia Quintana.

John Mariani, an author of food books and contributor to such publications as Esquire, is a different story. He makes money selling articles about restaurants where rich Anglos eat. And according to the owner of one restaurant mentioned in his article, Mariani called in advance to tell the restaurant he was coming and made sure he could eat for free. Which tells you a lot about how he selects which restaurants to write about.

In his article "True Mex" he tells us that a Philadelphia restaurant called Zocalo "has never strayed far from its mission to educate Americans on the diversity of regional Mexican food." Then he describes chef Jackie Pestka's imaginative pan-seared duck breast in orange-chile sauce with broccoli rabe and pumpkin polenta. This is Mexican food? Who does he think he's kidding?

It's time that somebody called Mariani's Mexican bluff.

"One need not be chauvinistic to assert that New York has more interesting Mexican restaurants than most cities along the Rio Grande," opined Mariani's Virtual Gourmet newsletter. "At least they tend to be more authentically 'Mexican,' as opposed to Tex-Mex which is what dominates most eateries in this country."

Let's turn his logic around for a minute. Most of the Italian food in the United States bears little or no resemblance to "authentic Italian food." So how about we call Mariani's mother's cooking "Yank-Ital" food from now on so nobody confuses it with real Italian food?

And while we're at it, let's lay the blame for such bastardized "Yank-Ital" crap as Pizza Hut's Stuffed Crust Pizza and frozen Red Baron Pepperoni Pouches where they belong, on the front door of Mariani and his Italian-American friends. It makes as much sense as denigrating Mexican-Americans for Tex-Mex.

Meanwhile, back in Houston, you can eat Tex-Mex or Mexico City "peasant food" and drink cheap beer at Las Llardas with a bar full of chilangos any night of the week. Or you can go to El Hidalguense on Long Point and eat dishes from Hidalgo and listen to Huatecan music. In fact, you can find a dizzying array of regional Mexican specialties at hundreds of restaurants, bakeries, meat markets, oyster bars, taquerias and taco trucks. And you can sit beside natives of every corner of Mexico while you eat that food.

But you might be surprised by what some of those "real Mexicans" have to say. The last time I went to Las Llardas, my waiter was a guy named Marco who was born in Mexico City. Since its clientele is mostly from Mexico City, I asked him why the menu included Tex-Mex stuff like nachos and fajitas. I was a little shocked when he told me it was because chilangos love the stuff.

"Which do you like better, the Mexico City food on the menu or the Tex-Mex?" I asked him.  

"I like the Tex-Mex," he confessed.

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