Here's a question that seems pertinent in Houston, of all multiethnic, multilingual cities: When you're dining in a Hispanic restaurant where the staff speaks little to no English and you, as a product of being raised in a multilingual city, speak Spanish, what do you do? Do you (a) speak English to them anyway -- with lots of pointing and gesturing to place your order -- or do you (b) bust out with the español and have an easy, seamless meal?
It would seem like the easy answer here is (b). But I've found over the years that isn't always the case. An excellent example of why speaking Spanish won't always behoove you happened to me yesterday at Taqueria Lo Mejor de Mexico, a quaint little place just off Fondren and Westpark.
My Spanish is far from perfect. But I can order food (and insult people). It's kind of a necessity here in Houston: "Dos tacos de chicharron, para llevar, por favor." Or even "Me da un churro con cajeta." Simple stuff. I'm not translating string theory or Kirkegaard. Yet at roughly half the places where I order in Spanish, I'm stared at for a good ten seconds as if I just spontaneously combusted.
The same thing happened yesterday at Taqueria Lo Mejor de Mexico.
I walked in the front door of the place around lunchtime. It was quiet inside and no other tables were occupied. Thinking I'd walked into a closed restaurant by mistake, I asked the lone waitress -- in English -- "I'm so sorry, are you closed?" She shook her head slightly, looking confused.
"Mande?" she responded.
I tried again in Spanish. "Esta abierto?"
"Ah, si!" she responded, and grabbed a menu. She looked even more confused now, but at least she understood what I was asking.
I tried once more to speak English to her when she took my drink order. "What drinks do you have?" I asked.
She just stood and stared at me once again, blankly. I tried a different tactic: "Tiene aguas frescas?" And once again, confusion reigned on her face.
"Si..." she answered hesitantly. "Tenemos jamaica, horchata, tamarindo..."
"Jamaica, por favor." She nodded and walked off to the kitchen.
Our conversation continued in this fashion. Each time I spoke Spanish to her, she eyed me with a curious combination of confusion and slight hostility. But speaking English got me nowhere. And I was hungry.
When it came time to order my food, I ordered a huarache and two chicarron tacos. "Tortillas de harina o de maiz?" she asked me, the perfunctory question anytime someone orders tacos. "De maiz, por favor. Con cilantro y cebollo." As a personal preference, I don't like tacos served gabacho-style, with lettuce and tomatoes and cheese mucking up the taste of the meat. I just want cilantro and onions, a hot corn tortilla and to be left to my carnal enjoyment of the thing.
She looked at me strangely. This was getting really old, really fast. "Solamente cilantro y cebollo? Y tortillas de maiz?" she questioned, as if to a child. Yes. Yes. I was starting to develop a complex about my tacos and my Spanish, and definitely starting to feel as if I wasn't wanted here.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Ten minutes later, she delivered my tacos with a rather patronizing look. They were on flour tortillas. With lettuce and tomatoes on them. And without cilantro or onions. I wanted to get up and leave. Instead, I ate them quickly -- along with the huarache, which was actually delicious -- paid my bill and left.
So here's the question, folks: What do you do in a situation like this? Do you continue to speak English, even though you're clearly the only person in the equation who understands what you're saying? Or do you speak Spanish, even if the person to whom you're speaking it doesn't at all appreciate your effort and clearly sees you as a silly white person trying to eat Mexican food?
My third option, as practiced yesterday, was simply to note Taqueria Lo Mejor de Mexico as a place where they could do without my patronage -- to chalk it up as another joint with poor service, just the same as if the waitress had spoken English but brought my steak out medium instead of rare, because I clearly don't know what I'm requesting.
Frustrating, to be sure, but it won't stop me from speaking Spanish in the future. And I certainly won't be stopped from ordering my steak blue.