Gorging on Cal-Mexican Food: An Brief Look at Food and Place

Posted on March 8, 2012. Filed under: hodgepodge, rant | Tags: , , , , , |

My father pointed out that I came home with a bag of leftovers every day on my trip home to Northern California. “You seem a little bit obsessed with Mexican food, Hal B,” he said.

Big Art was correct. My Mexican binge was totally by design. I made a point to have a meal at a local Cal-Mex restaurant each day I was home, and I also made it a point to order more food than I needed; pozole, two tacos, a burrito all ended up wrapped and saved for a late-night snack. I stopped at a (pre-trendy) taco truck ON MY WAY to lunch–I could see the restaurant from the street where my hands were dripping with chile verde. My belly bulged on the flight home.

I think it’s terrific that, in this period of globalization, regional specialty food still plays prominently on the palate. Although there is a remarkable pizza maker just outside of Pittsburgh (and another delightful one just down the block from me), New York still haunts my dreams. Good BBQ is simply smoke, spice, and meat, and a exceptionally enjoyable one has just opened in Pittsburgh. Yet, the truly transcendent joints are the ones that perfume the air south of the Mason-Dixon line. And, for me, Mexican food is best from a strip mall/truck/hole-in-the-wall in California.

Why? People argue it’s the water that makes a New York pizza special. However, “imported” water, though not commonplace, feeds dough outside of New York. The pizza isn’t any better because of it.

A lot of this has to do with the food you “grew up” on. I have a deep preference for East Coast Angle-Chinese food; the greasy kind with iconic dishes. I judge by wonton soup and chicken & broccoli. My brother, who was 3 years younger when we left New York, has the opposite reaction. He prefers the authentic* Chinese food of the Pacific Coast. Less grease, thinner wontons, more seafood. This isn’t limited to childhood memory, either–though childhood influence in generally the strongest.

Specific geography can play a part in flavoring food. The first oysters I had were grown in the cold-water of Tamales Bay. Small, briny, deep mineral flavor. They FLOORED me. I figured I’d love all oysters after that, but that wasn’t at all true. The large, warm-water Gulf oyster didn’t make me dance inside. I learned that the size and flavor of an oyster are directly affected by the ecology of the local waters and the breeds that can grow in it.

I also think a lot of this has to do with the food-culture of the place. There was a recent New York Times article written by a vegetarian complaining about the lack of vegetarian food in Kansas City. He made some valid points, but he missed the big one–it’s a beef town. He went on to complain about the lack of “ethnic” restaurants in the city, ignoring the fact that Kansas City hasn’t been a historic center of multi-ethnic immigration. Does he think that “ethnic” should be ubiquitous? What a dink.

I’m fascinated between the connection between food and place. It’s an issue that I’m going to continue to explore. I hope you will, too. Share your stories.

*Authenticity is a complex concept, so I won’t spent too much time on it here. For the sake of this piece, let’s just say that it’s generally agreed that the Chinese food in San Francisco is characterized as “more authentic” than the food on the East Coast because it’s more directly connected to the foodways of China. There are holes to be poked in this argument–not to mention the fact that I’m totally lumping a heterogenous culture into one cuisine called “Chinese food”–but that’s the basic idea. 

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4 Responses to “Gorging on Cal-Mexican Food: An Brief Look at Food and Place”

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Thought you were going to give us some good texmex food resturants in pittsburgh??/

I wish I could! Selection is limited. Someone told me about a terrific taco stand somewhere…now I just need to find it. They made decent tacos outside of Reyna’s in the Strip (and you can get a lot of speciality items to cook with there, too). Verde just opened in Garfield–it’s pretty good, and has been consistently improving since they opened.

Not really tex-mex at all, but Yo Rita on the South Side has great seasonal creative tacos. Now that it’s almost spring, the root vegetable taco may not be on the menu, but if it is, it’s divine. There are a few tacos that are Mexican or Spanish in flavor, but nothing that would be considered “authentic,” however you may take that term. They’re affordable, too!

Apparently the margaritas are terrific (according to my husband). All around, great for a taco fix, but don’t expect Tex-Mex.

I really like some of the tacos at Yo Rita, but it never quite satisfies the Cal-Mex craving! The taco stand in front of Reyna Foods in the Strip eases my craving, though.


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