May 1st is Labor Day in Mexico. There was a big parade in downtown Matamoros and a lot of people were out in the streets. After a touring the taco stands of Plaza Allende and taking a lot of pictures, I sat down at a table at my favorite Matamoros restaurant, Los Norteños, which is located between Calle 8 and 9 near the Mercado.
Founded in 1950, Los Norteños looks like it hasn’t changed much since it opened. There’s about a dozen dark wood tables in the downstairs dining room patrolled by four mustachioed waiters in jackets and ties. The manager is a white-haired guy named Ignacio who everybody calls “Nacho.” He stands up front near the door at an old-fashioned wooden cashier stand that looks like a pulpit except for the big glass jars full of candy. There is a separate room that houses the mesquite grill where the cabritos roast, and you can see them from the street.
I ordered the riñonada portion of the cabrito, which included ribs, some tender loin meat and the kidney. First you get a bowl of bean soup and some tortilla chips. Then you get a huge stack of hot tortillas in a wicker basket, and a plate with lettuce, tomato and raw onions. Then there’s a bowl of hellishly hot pico de gallo with big hunks of raw serrano in it and another bowl of a milder cooked salsa. When you finish the soup, they bring your plate of cabrito.
I made each taco slowly and carefully. I started with a layer of loin meat and some thin kidney slices which I showered with salt. Then I added raw onion and a little lettuce and squeezed a lime wedge over it. I topped this with some pico de gallo, being careful not to load the tortilla beyond its rolling point. They were magnificent tacos. The whole spread cost around $12. Our taxi driver told us that average Mexicans couldn’t afford those kinds of prices.
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If baby goat on a stick is not your idea of festive Mexican food, you are not alone. The kids in Mexico aren’t very interested in cabrito either. At the most popular snack bar in the Mercado, a place called Popeye’s on Calle 9, I saw teen-agers lined up four deep to buy snacks and the fruit drinks called aguas frescas. The most popular food order was molten yellow cheese ladled over round tortilla chips. A basket of nacho chips covered with bright yellow processed cheese went for 13 pesos, or around $1.30.
Mexican kids aren’t interested in that country’s traditional foods, a restaurant owner told me. They want to eat the stuff they see on television--which is why Applebees, Chili’s, and Carl’s Jr. are among the fastest-growing restaurant chains in Mexico.
It kind of makes you wonder: If cabrito is turning into a tourist dish, and the kids are more interested in fast food nachos, what’s the authentic Mexican food of the future going to look like? – Robb Walsh