I grew up loving Mexican food. I mean, who didn’t, really? I have a vivid memory of one particular trip to Taco Bell in which the employees neglected to put my order of two hardshell tacos in the bag. When we discovered this, we took another spin through the drive-thru in a hungered fury. Out of the kindness of their teenage hearts, the employees dumped not two, but FOUR hardshell tacos in my bag. It was a blissful afternoon.
It took years for my perception of this “Mexican” cuisine to morph into “Mexican-American.” Even my week-long trip to Mexico in 6th grade proved confusing–the food was so diverse and foreign that it never really registered as “Mexican.” Not to mention the unfortunate case of Montezuma’s Revenge I contracted while there severely comprised all memories of said trip.
I spent my 21st birthday dining at Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill in Chicago, where I discovered radishes alongside my guacamole and squash blossoms on my gourmet quesadillas. “This could be real Mexican food,” I thought, fleetingly, before remembering I was in a high-end restaurant in the Midwest.
Two years ago, I landed in New York City and began to find I what I felt comfortable calling authentic Mexican cooking. Taco trucks dotted the streets until 2am dishing out loud music and cheap grub. Hole-in-the-wall bodegas served giant tortas on paper plates. Steam from the tamale cart shed a romantic light on particular afternoons.
And then, I started dating my boyfriend, a native New Yorker whose parents migrated from Mexico. He holds tightly his identity as a Mexican-American, and reminded me that while this food I found in New York was often authentic Mexican, it was, perhaps more often, Mexican-American.
Here, in this tasty tRuth exclusive, he offers his perspective:
“Mexican-American food–what is it? Well, for me it is something I experienced most days of the week growing up in a Mexican family in New York City. I believe that Mexican-American cuisine is defined by what part of America you are in. In California, the food stays more traditional. For someone like me who comes from a family that migrated from the motherland to New York–a place so diverse and full of culinary inspiration from different cultures–our traditional dishes changed a bit. I am going to give you my experience, not that of every Mexican-American. My mother, the cook in my childhood experience, worked alongside Italians every day. She adopted a lot of Italian dishes, but kept the traditional Mexican flavors. For example, she often served her salsa roja with breaded chicken and pasta in a homemade Italian red sauce. The dish that made me say, “this is Mexican-American” most recently was an empanada stuffed with tinga (spicy chicken) and topped with lettuce, radish, salsa roja and an Italian caprese salad on the side. Mexican-American food comes down to what other cultures in America bring to the food at the dinner table. Luckily for me, all the influences have been nothing but delicious. Bring on the ramen soup with salami and Tapatio hot sauce!”
I found myself experiencing yet another perspective on Mexican-American cuisine when I cooked a couple of recipes from the cookbook Cocina de la Familia: More than 200 Authentic Recipes from Mexican-American Kitchens this past week. Maybe it’s my particular palate, but I find the flavors of the dish below to be incredibly fresh and vibrant. I had the odd feeling as I recreated this recipe from a Californian Mexican-American kitchen that I was back in Mexico (and this time Revenge-free). Whether it’s Taco Bell, a childhood in a Mexican-American family, or the Drunken Chicken recipe below, our perceptions of Mexican-American food will likely be every-changing, but always Tasty. ¡Buen provecho!
Makes ~4 servings
2 tablespoons safflower or canola oil
2 1/2-3 pounds chicken thighs or breasts
1 white onion, thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, chopped
4 ripe plum tomatoes or one 14 1/2 ounce can diced tomatoes
1 cup beer, preferably Dos Equis XX or an amber ale
2 sprigs fresh oregano
2-3 pickled jalapeno chiles, sliced
2 tablespoons vinegar from the chiles
Choose a good-sized skillet with a lid or a big Dutch oven large enough to hold all the chicken. Warm the oil over medium-high heat and saute the chicken pieces about 20 minutes, until golden. This may have to be done in several batches. As the pieces brown, remove them from the pan and set aside. Add the onion to the still hot oil and cook until quite soft and brown. Add the garlic and tomatoes, and cook for 10 minutes, scraping the bottom of the pan and stirring occasionally. Return the chicken to the pan, lower the heat to medium, and add the beer, oregano, jalapenos, their vinegar, salt, and pepper. (This dish seems to benefit from an abundance of pepper. Stir once and cover. Simmer for 20-30 minutes, until chicken is tender and cooked through. The dish can be cooked in advance or reheated, covered, in a 300-degree oven until warmed through. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve slices of avocado on the side and an herbed rice.