My love affair with the vibrant culture and cuisine of Mexico began many years ago. As a kid, growing up in South Florida, where at the time Mexican meant Tex-Mex and the restaurants were often chain, the idea of Mexican food felt so very exotic, so foreign in an otherwise white bread existence.
There was something magical about that never-ending basket of greasy tortilla chips dunked into bland, but somehow tasty, tomato salsa. Mom allowed us kids the wondrous treat of sipping on a virgin version of the fruity cocktails the adults were drinking; I sucked down my goldfish bowl-sized, insanely sweet, strawberry margarita with my eyes widened in childlike wonder. Flaming platters of fajitas floated through the piñata-filled dining rooms in a steamy cloud of smoked scented with onion and pepper. My siblings and I greedily gobbled up melty, gooey, queso fundido, scooping up massive, cheesy, dripping tortillas into our red daiquiri-stained mouths.
Mexican dinners out were always extremely festive feeling. Joy was a make-your-own meal, and I stuffed my doughy flour tortillas with chile-marinated shrimp and an always-embarrassing amount of guacamole. I couldn’t imagine anything being more bueño, but that was right about the time when the typically sombrero-clad, server would dramatically deliver the true highlight of my childhood Mexican meal…the fried ice cream!
I don’t know what about this dessert made it particularly Mexican, but believe me, my little kid brain certainly didn’t care. It was ice cream! And, amazingly, it was fried! Could anything be more mind-bogglingly beautiful to a kid? The huge round scoop of ice cream, at its best, was cinnamon (still my favorite flavor to this day) and dunked into a thick, sweet batter and dropped into a deep fryer. It often took two or three tries of jabbing our spoons into the solid golden shell before we reached the still-frozen core. The hot crust and mind-achingly cold cream made our little heads swoon.
It wasn’t until I first visited San Diego as a teenager that I began to understand, to truly get a taste for, the beguiling flavors of the authentic regional cuisines of Mexico. Bright, fresh herbs, and the addictive flavors of fresh, smoked, and dried chillies of every imaginable hue and heat level all became addictive tastes that my mouth would crave ultimately for the rest of my life.
The introduction to Baja fish tacos on that very same trip sent my world reeling, beginning an obsessive quest to consume the absolute best I could find north or south of the border. The almost tempura-like batter clinging to the delicate, sweet white hunks of fish all perched on what was my first taste of an authentic, just-made corn tortilla was truly one of the earliest experiences that would ultimately direct my life towards working in the world of food.
The corniest, still warm tortilla, the salty, crunchy fish, the perfect crisp shredded cabbage; the whole beautiful concoction doused in a mysterious, but insanely good creamy white sauce — all washed down with a zingy Pacifico — simply changed my life.
After finally moving to California, traditional Mexican street tacos proceeded to blow my mind with their scrumptious simplicity. Heaven, while eaten standing on the roadside; wonderfully fatty pork carnitas and gamey exotic bits like lingua and tripa are my favorite, scattered with a bit of pungent white onion and chopped cilantro, always a squeeze of lime. Taco trucks and roadside stands are one of my most-loved ways of dining, chatting happily with the locals, smiling with oil slicked lips that are often on fire from the burning, but beautiful heat of that particular vendor’s homemade salsa. Mas cerveza por favor!
Travels to Mexico now border on an addiction. I go not only because the people are utterly and genuinely gracious, the culture ancient and fascinating, but because of the food.
Changing from state to state, from the sea to the mountains, each region boasts specialties like a million spice-filled, crazy-exotic moles, complex salsas and sauces of every imaginable color and tongue-numbing variety, dried corn stews, spiced meat-filled tamales, and even insect-based dishes all of which tell stories of that area’s amazing history, and taste truly delicious too. I go because of the glorious markets which I wander joyfully, aimlessly meandering among the stacks of fragrant cinnamon bundled together with twine, jugs of potent vanilla sitting alongside unrecognizable leaves and herbs, massive piles of garnet hued chillies, heady, flowery-scented tropical fruits, and corn are present stacked and being prepared in every color and every form.
I go because a whole fish just tastes better when eaten on the beach in a bikini, and a margarita is always more ideal when sipped while watching the sun sink into a steely grey sea. I go because everything about Mexico has settled into my soul, my heart, and particularly my belly.
Four faves for Cinco de Mayo
Not that I ever require an excuse to imbibe in a perfectly prepared margarita or consume mass quantities of fresh, slightly spicy, decadent guacamole, but Cinco de Mayo for most Americans is just that. A happy reminder to slow down, find a chair in the shade and appreciate our area’s incredible Mexican heritage with an icy Pacifico beer, with lime — of course — or a platter of heavenly, hopefully a bit greasy, pork carnitas. Here are my favorite Mexican spots locally.
El Molino Central. Organic corn from Nebraska hand-ground every morning and painstakingly made into fresh tortillas and tamales. Flawless café au lait. Breakfast of chilaquiles made with the aforementioned tortillas, perfect super soft scrambled local eggs, avocado. Seasonal vegetable tamales and the quintessential Baja-style fish tacos. Enough said. Highway 12, Boyes Hot Springs, 939.1010.
La Carniceria Chapala. If you’re planning on doing your Cinco de drinko at home, this Boyes Hot Springs gem located in the Fiesta Plaza on Highway 12 is your best bet for gathering the ideal Mexican goodies. The immaculate little Mexican meat market and bodega stocks an uncommon selection of authentic and affordable cuts that are perfect for grilling. An entire party can be deliciously assembled here. Start with the house made salsas or the super fresh ceviche, simply grill a plentiful portion of carne asada, serve with fresh tortillas and finish with individual, decadent ramekins of flan. If you’re not up to cooking, inquire about their already prepared carnitas, carne asada, and addictive chicharones. Just don’t forget the limes for your margaritas!
La Bamba Truck. Parked in the auto body shop directly across from the Sonoma Mission Inn, La Bamba is my go-to Sonoma taco truck. The truck itself is charming, with its fun, colorful logo that includes the Virgin Mary and golden bulb lights, the truck itself blocking the traffic whizzing by. Quality trumps quantity here, the menu is smallish, but the food skillfully prepared. The carnitas, or roasted pork, is easily my favorite, always tender and succulent, slightly wonderfully crispy around the edges. Braised tongue, is a happy combination of juicy and mucho meaty, a must here if you haven’t tried it before. Tortillas are lavishly mounded with whatever meat you choose, a ladling of tart, homemade salsa verde always spooned on top.
Maya Mexican Restaurant. I like to sit in the thousand pound chairs at the bar here and let Brian whip up what is easily the best margarita in town, a splash of blood orange juice if they have it makes them especially yummy! Freshly fried chips are dangerously addictive, delivered with two salsas that are actually better when mixed together in my humble gringo opinion. The guacamole is always perfect, the sour orange laden Cochinita Pibil is fun to share, and the noise level always hovers at a festive roar. 101 East Napa Street, Sonoma Plaza, 935.3500.
The Aloha Bar’s Sunset Margarita
On a recent, sun and sand filled trip to Sayulita, I spent each heavenly evening watching the sun set and sipping on this perfect margarita at the Aloha Bar; the ideal spot for people watching and whiling away the early evening with the locals and salt covered surfers. Serves one.
In a cocktail shaker, combine juices, tequila, and Agave with plenty of ice and shake until well combined and slightly frothy. First dampen the rim of your glass with lime juice and then rim in Kosher salt. Fill glass with ice and pour cocktail into glass, serve with lime. Enjoy immediately!