Mexican food definitions

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Mexican food definitions

Postby Jenise » Wed Jul 26, 2006 4:36 pm

In today's NYTimes, an article about tacos by Mark Bittman attempts to explain Mexican food thusly: Just about anything can be called a taco, which essentially means “sandwich.” You take a tortilla and you put some stuff in it and you eat it; that’s a taco. (If you roll the tortilla, it’s a burrito, which appears to have been created in the American Southwest; if you layer food on top of it, it’s an enchilada; if you crisp it up and use it as a kind of plate, it’s a tostada; if you cut it into pieces and bake or fry it, it’s a chip; and so on.

To create an aura of cred, he then namedrops the front lines of Mexican food he's been to, like "taco trucks in Los Angeles". Well as someone who grew up in Los Angeles and knows those taco trucks very well, I have a problem with his definitions.

Note that none of what I'm about ot say applies to Tex-Mex cooking. Tex-Mex is another world unto itself that has some commonalities with the food I knew in the heavily Chicano east side of Los Angeles and a lot of differences. I am only talking about the Mexican food I grew up on, the Mexican food my Mexican friends ate, too, though of course their home cuisines were more expansive. About the only thing Mark and I agree on are the chips.

So let me set the record straight.

No, Mark, not just about anything can be called a taco. A taco is a corn tortilla folded in half and eaten vertically, with layers of stuffing, generally a meat at the bottom, vegetation above, then salsa. The tortilla is always corn, and it is either warmed and generally served two-ply or single and fried crisp. It is not a flour tortilla--if you want your taco made with a flour tortilla, go to Taco Bell and order a "soft taco". The meat filling might be fish, beef, carnitas (pork), chicken or tongue. When I was a child, a taco was always crisp. The soft corn versions were probably around, but they didn't exist in any of the many so-called 'better' Mexican restaurants I ever ate at as a kid. I had to start buying at taco trucks to find those. In recent years the push toward healthier eating means we see fewer fried tortilla shells and more of the Baja/Ensenada style of fish and other seafood fillings.

A burrito is not made by merely rolling the same tortilla you'd otherwise make a taco with, as he implies. A burrito is made with a large flour tortilla that is folded ('rolled' is an insufficient and misleading verb) around a filling made variously of meat, salad stuff, rice and or beans.

This one leaves me gasping it's so wrong: "if you layer food on top of it, it’s an enchilada". NO NO NO. An enchilada is a corn tortilla (again, type of tortilla is very important, they're not interchangeable) stuffed with (typically) your choice of beef, chicken or my favorite plain cheese and onion, rolled and then baked under a chile sauce.

Then the tostada: "if you crisp it up and use it as a kind of plate, it’s a tostada," he said. Well, yes and no. Again, tortilla's important and this will be corn, and it will be crisped and topped with layers of things starting with beans which are the glue to which everything else sticks. Meat is superfluous, though it's more common now than it was in my childhood to include it. It's basically an open-faced bean taco.

Are all East Coasters as unclear about what is proper Mexican-American food as Mark Bittman?
Last edited by Jenise on Thu Jul 27, 2006 1:22 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Mexican food definitions

Postby James Roscoe » Wed Jul 26, 2006 4:48 pm

Mexico's south right? They eat spicy food with tomatoes and onions and all of them want to come to America to mow my lawn. What's a taco?
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Re: Mexican food definitions

Postby Jenise » Wed Jul 26, 2006 4:59 pm

Okay, that's one.

:)
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Re: Mexican food definitions

Postby Gary Barlettano » Wed Jul 26, 2006 5:10 pm

I'm originally from New Jersey, went to college in Austin, TX, and now live in California. I can't disagree with any of your descriptions and I'm sure the owner of the roach coach which cruises my neighborhood would agree as well. However what passes for Mexican food here in the SF Bay Area is sometimes rather abstract, most of it being a Chicano-no.

I remember my first blissful experiences with Tex-Mex (19¢ bean burritos about the length of your arm) and how excited I was when I returned home on spring break to find a Mexican restaurant in Belleville, NJ. This was the early '70's. I ordered me up some tacos and gasped a gasp of horror ... taco shells with Sloppy Joe mix within.
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Re: Mexican food definitions

Postby Bob Ross » Wed Jul 26, 2006 5:27 pm

Thanks for a great exposition, Jenise. Very, very helpful.

Note what Wikipedia says: 'However, care should be taken when using the word taco outside of Mexico. The word can mean at least 22 different things depending on the country in which one is in.'

Don't know if "a taco can be almost anything" is number 22 or a new number 23, but Bittman bit off a bit more than he can chew -- I think.

Thanks again, Bob
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Re: Mexican food definitions

Postby James Roscoe » Wed Jul 26, 2006 5:36 pm

Jenise wrote:Okay, that's one.

:)

So what I meant to say was, "What's a Taco Bell?" I've been in a lot of fast food places in my day but I have never darkened the door of that establishment. I suppose if I could get over the fact that it's not really Mexican food, sort of like Pizza Hut isn't really pizza.
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Re: Mexican food definitions

Postby Jenise » Wed Jul 26, 2006 6:00 pm

Bob Ross wrote:Note what Wikipedia says: 'However, care should be taken when using the word taco outside of Mexico. The word can mean at least 22 different things depending on the country in which one is in.


Ha! Now we know where Mark got THAT idea. :)

And that may be correct in a global sense, though it's not the least bit true in Los Angeles and I have never known the word to be used in any other way than as I describe it. Whereas tortilla has many meanings: as most foodies would know, in Spain it's more of a fritatta made with potatoes and onions. In Holland, a 'tortilla' is a dish unto itself, a food you can buy in the pre-made fresh food section of a grocery store to take home and warm up: each one is a flour tortilla filled with cheese, olives, tomatoes and beans (I believe, I never ate one) smeared with a little tomato sauce on top decorated with a pinch of grated cheddar. But tacos? In Los Angeles and the southwest, it only means one thing.

And Mark didn't touch on flautas, chimichangas, taquitos (obviously that means 'little tacos', but it's a form unto it's own and made/served entirely differently than tacos) or any of the several other things that are commonly made out of tortillas.
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Re: Mexican food definitions

Postby Robin Garr » Wed Jul 26, 2006 6:23 pm

Jenise wrote:Are all East Coasters as unclear about proper Mexican-American food as Mark Bittman?


I first came to know Bittman as the short-lived wine columnist for <I>Cook's Illustrated</i> and thought his wine writing was lackluster indeed, and I'm afraid that attitude has colored my impression of his work as cookbook author and NY Times columnist: I am not impressed.

You're missing a major, major category of Mexican taco, though: The Puebla style taco, which dominates the menu in taquerias - I mean real, authentic, Spanish-speaking taquerias - east of the Mississippi: It's a stack of two small, soft, corn tortillas, warmed but not fried, served open-faced and topped with meat (any of a half-dozen varieties from barbacoa to carnitas to al pastor to lengua), chopped raw onion and cilantro. Fold it over to eat; salsa rosso or salsa verde optional.

These folks consider crunchy tacos gringo food, and I suspect they may be native to Southern California, or maybe Tijuana.
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Re: Mexican food definitions

Postby Gary Barlettano » Wed Jul 26, 2006 6:30 pm

Jenise wrote:And Mark didn't touch on flautas, chimichangas, taquitos (obviously that means 'little tacos', but it's a form unto it's own and made/served entirely differently than tacos) or any of the several other things that are commonly made out of tortillas.


¡You forgot the chilaquiles and fajitas!

And I love arguing with my friends of Basque descent about the finer differences between frittatas and tortillas.
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Re: Mexican food definitions

Postby John Tomasso » Wed Jul 26, 2006 7:08 pm

Robin Garr wrote: It's a stack of two small, soft, corn tortillas, warmed but not fried, served open-faced and topped with meat (any of a half-dozen varieties from barbacoa to carnitas to al pastor to lengua), chopped raw onion and cilantro.



Yes...yes....yes. And a squeeze of lime. Crisp, rigid tacos are the stuff of Mexican day in school cafeterias.
I couldn't care less if I ever ate another "hard" taco. The only kind I get are the kind you describe.
But you should know, when you say that they are warmed, not fried, exactly HOW they are warmed. Often , the tortillas are dipped in the hot lard in the fryer just long enough to soften them (and get them nice and greasy) but not long enough to get any crisping action going.

This thread has got me craving a taco right now.
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Re: Mexican food definitions

Postby Gary Barlettano » Wed Jul 26, 2006 7:24 pm

Robin Garr wrote:You're missing a major, major category of Mexican taco, though: The Puebla style taco, which dominates the menu in taquerias - I mean real, authentic, Spanish-speaking taquerias - east of the Mississippi: It's a stack of two small, soft, corn tortillas, warmed but not fried, served open-faced and topped with meat (any of a half-dozen varieties from barbacoa to carnitas to al pastor to lengua), chopped raw onion and cilantro. Fold it over to eat; salsa rosso or salsa verde optional.


El Grullense is a typical Mexican greasy spoon (and I mean that in a good way) on Pacheco Blvd. in Martinez, CA just south of SR-4. They've kind of spruced up the little mall there, so I don't know if the place has been yuppified in the interim. I do know the facade looks cleaner. In any event, that's where to get those soft corn tortillas with anything on them that an animal can provide. Brains, tongue, other less readily identifiable innards ... amazing stuff. You used to get two for 75¢. Now, you've got me wanting to go back! Heck, it's only down the block. But maybe I'll wait for the weekend because they only have the menudo on Friday and Saturday nights.

Sometimes I wonder if this is "authentic" or if they just sit back and laugh at the gringos who (me included) eat this stuff.
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Re: Mexican food definitions

Postby Jenise » Wed Jul 26, 2006 8:00 pm

Robin said:
You're missing a major, major category of Mexican taco, though: The Puebla style taco, which dominates the menu in taquerias - I mean real, authentic, Spanish-speaking taquerias - east of the Mississippi: It's a stack of two small, soft, corn tortillas, warmed but not fried, served open-faced and topped with meat (any of a half-dozen varieties from barbacoa to carnitas to al pastor to lengua), chopped raw onion and cilantro. Fold it over to eat; salsa rosso or salsa verde optional.


No, no, I didn't forget that, you just didn't recognize it from my clumsy description. It's the former of "tortilla is always corn, and it is either warmed and generally served two-ply or single and fried crisp." And yes that kind arrives open and then you fold it to eat vertically. Those are, in fact, the tacos of the taco trucks, where in Mexican restaurants in L.A. they will always be crisp.

I don't care much for Bittman either.

Bob Ross: Good call on fajitas. But chilequiles wouldn't quite go on that list since (in Los Angeles anyway) it's not restaurant Mexican, which is what I was addressing.

James: Taco Bell is crap Mexican food, but know what? If I'm stuck on the road, starving and want something to eat so that the hunger goes away FAST, a pair of Taco Bell tacos will fix me right up, and while it's not health food it's healthier than most fast food. About two weeks ago the NYT had an article about two reporters touring the California coast from L.A. to S.F. by way of the taco stands. Well, several years ago my friend Chris (who pops in here occaisionally) and I did the very same thing. Copycats! We were the first!

Gary: the Chris mentioned above to James lives near you--wonder if she knows about that joint?

John: now I'm hungry too. I've got a bag of chips left from a salsa and chips course that didn't happen a few weeks ago--chilequiles?
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Re: Mexican food definitions

Postby Bob Ross » Wed Jul 26, 2006 8:10 pm

Gary gets all the fajitas credit, Jenise: "¡You forgot the chilaquiles and fajitas!"

All I did was marvel at your main entry, compared it with Wikipedia, and made a silly joke about Bittman.

Very, very educational thread for me -- thanks so much.
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Re: Mexican food definitions

Postby Bill Buitenhuys » Wed Jul 26, 2006 8:40 pm

How about taquitos? :wink:

Not to be the complete contrarian, but I've had many a "taco" in Phoenix at Sonoran restaurants that were made with a soft flour tortilla. Typically they are thicker and smaller than ones used for burros or burritos. In fact, I much prefer flour tacos to corn.

Enchiladas in New Mexico can be ordered flat or rolled in most of the authentic New Mexican restaurants. Give me a carne adovado enchilada any day and I'm a happy guy. And yes, they are always corn tortilla from what I've experienced.
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Re: Mexican food definitions

Postby James Roscoe » Wed Jul 26, 2006 8:45 pm

Bob Ross wrote:Gary gets all the fajitas credit, Jenise: "¡You forgot the chilaquiles and fajitas!"

All I did was marvel at your main entry, compared it with Wikipedia, and made a silly joke about Bittman.

Very, very educational thread for me -- thanks so much.


Having been the smart a** at the beginning, let me ask a serious question; what is a chilaquiles? I have never heard of that.
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Re: Mexican food definitions

Postby Bill Buitenhuys » Wed Jul 26, 2006 8:54 pm

From Macayo's menu in Phx.

Sonoran Beach Tacos
Two flour tortillas are stuffed with your choice of grilled chicken, steak or carnitas. Served with rice, pico de gallo, cilantro, and fresh limes.

Or from Manuel's menu
Taco Platter.............................................................$9.95
Choice of two soft beef, chicken, or pork fajita tacos served
with beans, sour cream, guacamole, tomatillo sauce and Mexican
garnish. Choice of flour or corn tortillas.
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Re: Mexican food definitions

Postby TimMc » Wed Jul 26, 2006 9:34 pm

Jenise wrote:Are all East Coasters as unclear about proper Mexican-American food as Mark Bittman?


OK...quick story:

My wife [who is from Connecticut] and I flew back East to visit her Dad in Reading, Pennsylvania and her Mom in Danbury, Connecticut. We also visited her oldest sister in Upstate NY [and ate at a local Italian place where I foolishly asked to see a wine list; Taylor-Swiss Colony was the choice...a story for another time, but the waiter insisted it was good because it was from California. Ugh] all of which we did driving my Father-in-Law's car. Nice guy.

We saw some great sights [the Northeast is gorgeous in the Summertime], ate fish-and-chips in Niantic, Connecticut to pretzels in Lititz, PA....then we stopped in a place near Allentown, PA which served "Mexican food". It was a restaurant chain called Chi-Chi's...maybe you've heard of it. At any rate, we were seated and the meal was served buffet style so we got up to get in line.

I can tell you this: The place was decorated with your basic garden variety type Mexican trappings of colored blankets, sombreros, etc. replete with mariachi music over the PA. We got up to where the food was and made our choices. It looked like Mexican food, it smelled like Mexican food....but it sure as hell didn't taste like Mexican food.

Now, I was weaned on Mexican food [being a Native Californian], so I tried to be kind and keep mum. Everything was bland, blander, blandest...and even my wife said it didn't taste like it's supposed to and this is from a person who will take a bite of food, wave her hands before her mouth and say, "Ooo! The tomato...too hot, TOO HOT!!!"

Then I asked for some picante sauce or salsa...give me something to save this dinner from itself. The waiter looked at me like I had lobsters crawling out of my ears and said [I swear this is true], "Huh?"

So....[heaviest of sighs] I ordered another beer, instead.


Needless to say when we go back to visit now, we stick to the local cuisine: Steak and potatoes.
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Re: Mexican food definitions

Postby Bob Ross » Wed Jul 26, 2006 10:18 pm

Darned if I know -- hope Gary or Jenise chime in.
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Re: Mexican food definitions

Postby Robin Garr » Wed Jul 26, 2006 10:23 pm

Jenise wrote:No, no, I didn't forget that, you just didn't recognize it from my clumsy description. It's the former of "tortilla is always corn, and it is either warmed and generally served two-ply or single and fried crisp." And yes that kind arrives open and then you fold it to eat vertically. Those are, in fact, the tacos of the taco trucks, where in Mexican restaurants in L.A. they will always be crisp.


Oh, okay, my bad. :oops: I don't think you were clumsy, I think I just read too fast.
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Re: Mexican food definitions

Postby Skye Astara » Thu Jul 27, 2006 2:06 am

Chilequiles is a dish made of dried-crispy corn tortillas broken up to resemble tortilla chips (a lot of people, in fact, use chips as a shortcut or by preference) which are cooked in a sauce similar to enchilada sauce, with onions and garlic and fresh jalapenos or serranos. They sometimes have shredded chicken in them. In San Diego area mexican restaurants they are served mainly as a breakfast item. In that case they have a fried egg or two on top.

The San Diego taco shops are the one thing that I miss from that area. I finally found a taco shop not too terribly far from me, that is mostly in the style that I am seeking- I think when we found it I was so happy I was practically glowing.
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Re: Mexican food definitions

Postby Gary Barlettano » Thu Jul 27, 2006 3:14 am

Skye Astara wrote:Chilequiles is a dish made of dried-crispy corn tortillas broken up to resemble tortilla chips ...


Thank you, Skye, for jumping in! I just got home and am marvelling at this thread.

You've hit the nail on the head with the description of chilaquiles. It only remains to be said that some folks would suggest that they're a great way to use stale corn tortillas, tortilla chips and taco shells since they get soggy in the sauce anyway. (My mother did something similar with stale Italian bread and cannellini beans when we were kids.)
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Re: Mexican food definitions

Postby Chris » Thu Jul 27, 2006 8:42 am

El Grullense? We'll have to check it out. We like Los Panchos on Pacheco, also in a strip mall, for their carnitas; they also have a great enchilada sauce. We've trekked out to Pittsburg for the New Mecca Cafe - Jenise, that's the place that is open 10:00 AM to 1:00 AM, takes only cash, and seems to feature a chile relleno as part of every combo plate. Most times, there's a waiting line.

But for tacos? It's the Tacos La Playita taco truck in Napa, situated near the Wine Train depot. A plate of tacos just as Robin describes them - two small soft corn tortillas heaped with your choice of grilled chopped meat, topped with salsa and some chopped onion, grilled green onions criss-cross the top of the plate, with radishes and a whole pepper on the side. People generally get their order and stand around the truck, hunched over their plates, scarfing up the food. Reminds me of eating fish tacos at the Ensenada fish market back in the late '70s.
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Re: Mexican food definitions

Postby Carl K » Thu Jul 27, 2006 10:12 am

One good thing about Charleston, we have more Mexican restaurants than you can shake a stick at; and most of them are authentic to the point of constantly being in danger of being raided by INS! Indeed, the last time I counted them, I think I found something along the lines of 18 within a 25 mile radius of downtown. When I was living in PA, the only thing I knew about Mexican food is what I could learn at Taco Hell and Chi-Chi's.

Oh, and add another who is going to have to have Mexican awefully soon. Maybe I can talk Kristi into ordering from Los Arcos while Jannie is at Karate tonight.
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Re: Mexican food definitions

Postby Stuart Yaniger » Thu Jul 27, 2006 10:14 am

And one important part of chilaquiles: chipotle.

I made a variation last night in a saute pan- much less soupy, more like a thick sauce. Then I cracked two eggs over it, covered, and left it on VERY low heat for about 15 minutes (or until eggs were barely set). I spooned the sauce, then an egg, into a prewarmed sopa shell, then sprinkled on some chopped cilantro.

Not bad.
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