Panama City. No, not the one in Central America. The one on the Florida Panhandle. Someone told me the reason for naming this city after the one in the isthmus, but the story was so banal that I forgot it. It's my metropolis. It's where I go for anything not found in my small backwater town, which is just about everything. And where I find what we call ethnic restaurants -- as if some folk lacked ethnicity.
Mexican restaurants. Plenty of them, mostly awful. These are the ones with full bars serving margaritas. I have to admit that they usually, not always, have the the better tequilas I like. Patron to be sure, the hip hop gootch of choice. But also don Julio, that's nicer. Herradura, Cazadores, Cuervo Tradicional. Still, a good shot of tequila is not worth Mexican food made for the most bland non-Mexican tastes.
Not that these places are not owned and run by Mexicans. I pass the kitchen and only hear Mexican Spanish. But the recipes are for the mainstream, and in this neck of the woods the mainstream can be very savvy about collard greens, field peas, smoked sausage, Gulf shrimp, river catfish and hush puppies, but not about Mexican food, which they prefer bland and covered with nondescript cheese.
There are exceptions. La Michoacana (4003 W. 18th St, Panama City, FL 32401; 850-747-8009), a storefront in what I can only call a Mexican strip mall -- there are a couple of other small establishments there offering goods and services in Spanish. Their tacos are the real item: small, soft, made with corn tortillas and lightly filled with choices like head, tongue and tripe, besides chicken, pork and beef. On the same road, El Paisa (1900 W. 15th St., Panama City, FL 32401; 850-215-5771) must look forbidding to non-Mexicans who haven't bothered to look it up online. It looks funky, which to me is a plus. Like all Mexican joints, even the ones deep in the big bad barrios of big bad cities, it's very friendly.
Hipsters are good guides, and that's who told me about this place, a guy at Leitz, a terrific music shop in downtown Panama City specializing in guitars. The man had traveled through Mexico and he convinced me El Paisa was real. It was. Again, great tacos, though the music man told me to try the fried whole fish, which can feed two and comes, as all Mexican main courses must, with tortillas -- in the end, most Mexican food is eaten like tacos. Their tortilla chips are fresh and the salsa tastes homemade -- I asked for one that was more picosa and out it came, spice-hot and delicious.
I had a gift certificate to Maddie's La Casita (561 Harrison Ave., Panama City, FL 32401; 850-784-6817) , a Mexican restaurant downtown, so I asked my sister to join me there, knowing its menu consisted of the usual cheesy combination plates. Lo and behold there was an attachment to the menu of new items that were mostly tacos -- including tongue and chitlins'. I had a couple of tongue and they were as good as what I'd had at the other places -- or at any respectable taco truck that caters to Mexicans.
I asked the waitress, whose husband, I learned, was the cook and owner, about the appearance of these body parts usually shunned by the local mainstream. People were asking for them, she said. Mexicans? I asked. No, she replied, los americanos. And she elaborated, people come here from Texas and other Western states -- the beaches in the region are the most beautiful in the nation, making this a tourist destination, plus the fishing is legendary. Of course, Westerners, regardless of ethnicity, know their Mexican grub, just like my hip guitar man downtown.
I remember interviewing Henry Cisneros back in the 90's and he insisted on one of his big talking points, the Hispanization of the US, backing it with the then new statistic about salsa outselling ketchup. That was then, this is now. Sure, supermarkets carry a wide range of salsas, but these are generally not for connoisseurs -- or Mexicans. Cisneros' trend has been kicked up a notch, and now there are now non-Mexicans looking for authentic Mexican flavors.
I'm one of them, I guess, even if I order in Spanish. I always thought national cuisines brought by immigrants became degraded with the passing of time, as I observed in my last post. But Mexican immigrants just keep coming, the politics of which I will put aside for the moment, for, if nothing else this flow is making Mexican food in the US a hell of a lot better. Non-Mexicans are catching the wave, as I saw at Maddie's, which, unlike my other two favorite spots, caters mostly to los americanos. And I'm one happy Cuban who loves Mexican food.