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Why is Mexican so hard?

A very inauthentic chili relleno

Other than those Americans who live close to the Mexican border, or in California, most Americans know very little about good Mexican cuisine. Readers in Europe: Do you have Mexican restaurants at all? I’m guessing not.

At the risk of being snobbish about restaurants in America, there is low Mexican cuisine, and there is high Mexican cuisine — just as there is a low and high Chinese cuisine, and a low and high Italian cuisine. Americans by the millions love Mexican, Chinese, and Italian restaurants. But what millions of Americans don’t know is that what they’re getting is a low cuisine. Most Americans wouldn’t be willing to pay for truly good cooking, nor do they necessarily like good cooking if they’re exposed to it. Most Americans just want low cuisines and big servings. When I was living in San Francisco, I’ve taken visitors to superb Italian restaurants in North Beach, and the visitors didn’t even recognize the food as Italian. It went way over their heads, because it wasn’t the usual spaghetti and lasagna.

At the grocery store a couple of days ago, I came across some beautiful, and perfectly fresh, poblano peppers. I bought some, and I resolved to go home and try to make chili rellenos. As I looked at recipes, I realize that there was no way that I was going to go to all that trouble. The peppers are supposed to be fried in a batter that includes whipped egg whites re-mixed with the yolk. There is just no way I was going to do so much work to add so many calories. I ended up grilling the pepper, doing my best to peel it. I stuffed the pepper with grated cheese and some leftover hummus. There was nothing authentic about my chili relleno other than a stolen concept. Then again, lots of cuisines stuff peppers.

I did not cheat on the salsa, though. I made it from a grilled tomato and onion, chopped in the blender, seasoned with garlic and cilantro, and heated just short of a simmer. Mexican cooking from scratch is hard. That’s why people buy it in kits. The low-end Mexican restaurants also buy things in kits from food services, which is why, if you’ve been to one low-Mexican restaurant, you’ve been to them all.

The best Mexican cuisine I’ve ever had was in San Diego. (It has been 40 years since I was in Mexico, and I don’t remember much other than the refrescas, which I believe have now been corporatized. When I was there, they were made fresh by the roadside.) San Diego is just across the Mexican border, and the San Diego population can support good restaurants. The San Francisco Bay Area had a reasonably good chain of middle-brow Mexican cuisine, Chevy’s Fresh Mex. But I ate at a Chevy’s once in provincial Sacramento and was shocked how different (and low-cuisine) it was compared with the same chain in San Francisco. What can I say. Provincial Americans love their low cuisine and actually don’t like what more demanding foodies like.

I know nothing about the history of Mexican cuisine. I wish I did. But my guess would be that it’s a fusion of a Mediterranean sensibility with an Indian sensibility, with lots of New World ingredients. How could you beat that?


  1. MHK wrote:

    I agree with your comments on “real” cuisine. Try to find an authentic Thai restaurant. Even when a restaurant starts out authentic, usually a hole-in-the- wall place, it becomes “Americanized” and the authenticity goes out the window. Most people want large portions of gloppy food and live for the sign “all-you-can-eat”.

    Thursday, June 13, 2019 at 6:24 pm | Permalink
  2. Chenda wrote:

    Indeed, Mexican is not a thing here at all. Indian is king, along with Chinese and increasingly Thai. French and Italian is now somewhat indistinguishable from the British vernacular.

    Come to think of it, Spanish food is not really a thing either, paella aside

    Thursday, June 13, 2019 at 6:40 pm | Permalink
  3. daltoni wrote:

    Hi, MHK: Sigh. In these parts, that happens even with new restaurants featuring American cookery. They sometimes start out with good intentions, but they get complaints and have to revert to what their customers find familiar. For example, a place in Danbury (now closed) started with nice little salads with good mixed greens. But within a couple of months it was all iceberg and fake-cheese shavings.

    San Francisco was an incredible pizza town, with so much Italian influence. I had Southern visitors who had some delivered North Beach pizza who said they had never tasted anything so good in their life. Had they known what it cost, though, they would have been shocked. In rich San Francisco, pizza makers compete on quality. In these parts, pizza competes on price. So there is no such thing as local pizza around here that isn’t a terrible waste of calories. I guess that’s a good thing, though, because I’m never tempted to have any. 🙂

    That’s why I cook at home — and I feel sure that’s why you do, too. 🙂

    Thursday, June 13, 2019 at 6:40 pm | Permalink
  4. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Chenda: I had some very good food in Delhi. The old market there was just incredible. That Britain should have good Indian food (I’ve had a bit of it) makes perfectly good sense.

    What’s sad, though, is that international cuisines are crowding out traditional cuisines. When I was last in Ireland 15 years ago, there was superb traditional cooking. But, last year in Scotland, we found traditional cooking almost impossible to find. Wherever tourists go (which is most places in Scotland, I suppose), local cuisines have been supplanted by what I call international tourist cuisine. International tourist cuisine is not a bad cuisine at all, but I pine for the old local cooking.

    Ken says that the south of Scotland is far less touristy and is very fertile. On some future trip I must check that out, because it sounds like a place where local cuisines might have survived.

    Thursday, June 13, 2019 at 6:51 pm | Permalink
  5. frigast wrote:

    In my town in Southern France, we have 2 Mexican restos.
    I tried out most of the restos – of a reasonable standard – when first getting here.
    I remember eating on a Mexican one on my birthday 🙂
    Surely good and special 🙂

    Friday, June 14, 2019 at 1:23 am | Permalink
  6. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Frigast: How nice! Are Mexican restaurants common in France, or are they more common closer to the Spanish border?

    Friday, June 14, 2019 at 7:15 am | Permalink
  7. frigast wrote:

    The thing is that only the greater cities can afford an educated chef de cuisine.
    In the provinces, where most of us live I don’t perceive overly many chefs 🙂
    Sometimes one can have the impression that if wanting to, just put up a table and a couple of chairs outside – cook some food, and vupti, you have a resto – lolol.
    Well, the advantage could be that such thing gives a bigger variety of food served, whereas the food from the (half-)educated ‘chefs’ are more likely to being copy food, food they think will sell the best, but also that kind of food every resto makes 🙂
    So-o-o David, come down here and we’ll put up a boot outside, for you to be opening an Abbey food resto – how bout that ??
    Lololol !!
    And yes, the Mexicans are mostly to be found in Spain where they normally will speak the language – much easier 🙂

    Sunday, June 16, 2019 at 5:49 am | Permalink
  8. Tom wrote:

    Fish tacos and charro beans with rice. Low cuisine no doubt. Fortunately the place that serves this dish is only a mile from my house. My waist line permits an indulgence only about three times per year.

    Sunday, June 16, 2019 at 9:32 pm | Permalink
  9. daltoni wrote:

    Tom: Yum. 🙂

    Sunday, June 16, 2019 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

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