I love all forms of Mexican food. When I crave authentic, I visit the low-key place serving the best tacos in town. But on road trips, I can be tempted by the fake Mexican allure of Taco Bell.
After three long years I finally went back to California to see my friends, and it was glorious. It was on this trip that I was reminded of how ubiquitous good Mexican food is there. Angelenos take it for granted that most Mexican joints wouldn't dare serve tacos topped with shredded yellow cheese.
In Virginia, knockout Mexican restaurants don't often have margarita happy hours, and are harder to find in general. Those in the know whisper it like a trade secret, but I'd rather democratize down-home Mexican cooking. Let's blow the top off this thing!
So what makes real Mexican food so much better?
All of the citrus
No one should eat a taco without a wedge of lime. The acidic tang complements the meat - whether it's fried fish or carnitas. When Mexicans marinate carne asada, they soak the beef in orange juice to tenderize the meat and boost the flavor profile.
Unpopular opinion? Lard
There are the beans that come from a can, and then there are the creamy beans with a deep, almost smoky umani flavor that could make a bean and cheese burrito stand on its own. That would be the lard speaking. Pork fat and beans are mates for life, and the sooner we embrace it, the better the beans will be.
The only reason people like flour tortillas is because they're bendy. Flavor-wise, it's almost a void that dulls the flavor of foods it wraps around. Corn tortillas are much more malleable if you apply heat to them. Butter or grease a pan a little bit, flip and lightly salt for a minute, and not only do you have a bendier, tastier taco - you have a stronger one that won't rip or get soggy.
Switch toppings from blah to aaahhh
Not enough people use cilantro. Iceberg lettuce can be refreshing in a burrito, but when it comes to tacos, cilantro, onion and lime are king.
I know Tex-Mex enthusiasts love their dairy on a taco. Big pinches of cheddar cheese that lack flavor or the ability to melt. The sour cream I get - it works. But if you are going to go for cheese, use cojita. It's crumbly for spreading and salty for a flavor boost.
A lot of Tex-Mex-style Mexican restaurants use ground beef in their lunch specials and combo meals, because it's a cheap cut and some people wouldn't know any better.
This is not the case with authentic recipes, where the meat options for sopes, burritos and tacos are carnitas (roasted pork), carne asada (marinated steak) and chicken, which is often char-broiled. Meat does take center stage when it comes to quality food.
Going back to California really put things into perspective, culinary-wise. Throughout my trip, I dined on fish tacos, white mole with pomegranate seeds, and burritos stuffed with carnitas and salsa made from cactus (nogales).
It's my hope that we can incorporate more bold flavors into our Mexican food. Citrus, fire, and umami create fuller flavors. And if you're not into that, there's always Taco Bell.