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Why can’t we just leave Mexican alone

May 23rd, 2013 4 Comments

Empellon tacos

It’s a very common misconception that Mexican food is “heavy” and “unhealthy.”  As someone who has lived in Mexico, I can tell you, nothing could be further from the truth.  While some regions in Mexico make rich sauces like mole, the majority of the food is as farm-to-table as our coveted Northern California cuisine.  They slaughter the cows at the local ranch, catch the fish on the coast, harvest the veggies from the farm, and grill it up to order.  In fact, it’s so fresh, some people won’t even eat the veggies in Mexico and instead reach for anything processed.

So let’s be clear:  Mexican food is healthy.  Tex Mex is not.  Most of what you see and eat is Tex Mex: fried and covered in queso and tortilla chips.  Tacos are what you believe them to be, but the meat should be lean, the tortillas hand-made, and herbs the topping in leu of sauce.  That’s what the taco above appears to be, but the taste was all wrong.

I’m on this rant after this taco, amongst many others we ordered at Empellion Cocina, an East Village restaurant that has been deemed authentic and voted one of New York’s best.  So, I just can’t see this all go down anymore.

In this case of ex-pastry chef Alex Stupak’s cuisine, I think Pete Wells said it best in his NYT review:

“Mr. Stupak’s cooking at Empellón Cocina resembles the food of Mexico the way a dream resembles life. Everything looks familiar, except that the light seems to be coming from a different direction, and did that river always run right through the bedroom?”

In other words, Stupak puts a “modern” twist on Mexican food like so many others have done in the past.  I would respect that, if the food tasted good.  You won’t catch a real New Yorker eating in a Rosa Mexicana chain restaurant, but no one can deny the food is inventive and usually delivers.  Both Otto (who will soon open what will be the city’s finest taco shop) and I were completely disappointed with the four varieties of tacos we tried at Empellon.  Top that off with a tiny shot of $30 sangrita and you won’t catch Otto or I in there again.

Otto Cedeno of Otto's tacos

This little mishap reminds me that the Mexican food in LA sucks too.  How that’s possible, I will never understand, but it’s the truth.  At least in Houston, people fully embrace the term Tex Mex and treat it like local cuisine.  Pretty much any mainstream joint in Texas will offer chips, salsa, and guac on the menu because we love the combo so much.

Here’s the rub for me.  Authentic Mexican food is not always an easy food to prepare and so it should be served without a lot of extra fan fair. In its “simplicity,”  the cuisine shines and is far from being heavy or overwhelming.  As you can see, I’m not the only one who feels this way.  Mark Bittman offers insight in this interview.

via TheMijaChronicles.com

Mark Bittman Interview via TheMijaChronicles.com

 

So, go ahead! Chow down on Tex Mex; love it for all its richness.  Devour inventive enchiladas and suck down frozen margaritas without shame.  But let’s respect the Mexicans and not attribute that delicious mess to them.  To each their own taco, ya know.

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  • Pamela

    So — as a Tex Mex expert… where would you suggest in NYC?

    Thanks.

    • I love La Esquina and Dos Caminos in Soho.

      There is also a new taco place just a little south east of Union Square on 12th and university.
      I DO NOT like La Palapa on St. Mark’s.

      Honestly…I just don’t eat Mexican in NYC or LA.

      So…we’re all in for a treat when Otto’s Tacos opens in NYC!

  • Aisling O’Sullivan

    I’m moving out of my apartment this week and really wanted to cook a nice meal before I do and it clicked with me this morning that I could do tacos. I have a pack of wraps so I’ll probably just make the shells from those instead of buying. Do you know or know where I could find good, healthy recipes, either vegetarian or with meat?