Cocina de los Sueños
It was late, and I was in an unfamiliar town down South. I was hungry, and in the mood for Mexican. These were the days before smartphones and Yelp. I drove around until I found a little hole-in-the-wall joint. There was no sign, but it was a warm spring night and I had the car window down; I could just smell the joint almost before I could see it.
I walked in, and it was obvious that I was not only the only Anglo who in the place, but I was likely the first Anglo to set foot inside. The menu was handwritten on notebook paper and taped to the order counter in a plastic cover. I don't speak Spanish, and I won't even make a pretense of trying. But I know Mexican food.
I ordered the turkey in mole poblano, a couple of tacos al pastor, a hearty side of rice and beans, and a cold bottle of Negra Modelo. No one bothered with chips and salsa. The other patrons stared, occasionally commenting to each other in Spanish. Occasionally, one of them would say something that merited a sharp glare from the presumed owner/chef taking my order.
I sat down in a plastic lawn chair at one of the mismatched tables, where I could see clear into the kitchen. There was grandma, making tortillas; two young children shucking corn into a 5 gallon bucket; a young woman appeared to be doing her homework in between dicing onions and chopping cilantro.
I knew this place. I grew up in a restaurant very much like it, a little 13 seat diner in Clifton Forge, Virginia. We served the hearty Appalachian cuisine that had fed generations of my people back in the mountains. We all pitched in to run the place; I learned to cook at my mother's elbow, beginning at the age of seven, making the next day's specials at home.
The young woman left her homework and prep station for a moment and brought my order out. She was bright, pretty, and spoke better English than I did.
She asked me, very politely, how I knew about the place. It was implicit in her choice of words that she was really interested to know why a big ol' hillbilly like me was sitting here in front of her in a place not conducive to drawing the Anglo tourist trade.
I told her I was from out of state, and that I found myself in her town due to a planned stop at a motel by the highway. I had a taste for Mexican, and I make it a rule when on the road to never eat at chains or touristy joints. In fact, I had passed by a fake adobe place with a mural of a bullfighter all over the front of the building to get here. She smiled. She knew the place.
Then, I told her about my own experiences in a place a lot like this. I had done my homework many a time while tending a stovetop covered with various pots and pans of whatever needed to be cooked at the moment.
We talked for a little bit. She had been born here, but her family was from a little village near Puebla. Her mother died of cancer when she was young, leaving her father with three children. He poured his heart and soul into this restaurant, and developed a good enough clientele from the Latino locals to provide a decent life for his family (as long as they all pitched in to help). Grandma came a few years later, newly widowed herself, and declared that no store-bought tortilla would ever befoul one of their plates again. The mole sauce I was eating was her recipe, taught to her by her grandmother when Pancho Villa was still alive.
I left happy and full, both body and soul. If the place had a name, I've long since forgotten it. If I'm honest, I'm not sure what town it was or even what state. In those days, I was in constant motion, traveling over 300 days a year. But of all of the little joints, dives, mom-and-pops, and holes-in-the-wall, this is still the one I remember most. The food, the family, and that exact moment in time are still with me 25 years later. And no matter where I am or how good the food is, I know the very moment I smell a mole poblano; it's not as good as grandmas.