El Salón México, Part 3

The reason my feelings toward Mexicans are warm is simple. I have a Mexican grandson. Well, half Mexican, one quarter Cuban and one quarter Hoosier. That has meant a slew of Mexican in-laws, added to another flash mob of in-laws in Mexico from my own marriage to a Cuban whose uncle migrated to Mexico City and his descendants are now third-generation. My grandson's father, my son, shares with me a passion for Mexican food, and also like me he likes it best at the vernacular level, which doesn't prevent him from an appreciation of the very trendy Baja Med movement, precisely from Tijuana, where the boy's mom comes from and which is mutating from its earlier image as a less than dignified border town to a foodie destination.

In fact, even before that transformation set in, Tijuana had darn good eats, and my son and my new in-laws took me to sample everything from the best street tacos to the toniest Baja Med -- accompanied by very good Baja California wines. I had already visited Tijuana and knew some of its dining spots, some of them surprising, like Los Arcos, a big, brightly lit restaurant one would suspect was a tourist trap, except the entire clientele was Mexican. And Sanborn's, a local branch of the famous chain of stores, where the cocktail lounge was a soft refuge from urban hustle and the food was authentic and quite good.

In Miami my son and I were always on the lookout for the best taquerias and taco trucks. And on weekends we'd drive down to the mostly Mexican farmer's market/flea market in Homestead, which is full of small downhome restaurants serving the most authentic chow. At the market I would buy fresh nopales cactus, peeled on the spot by the vendors, and was always on the lookout for verdolaga (purslane), a delicious green I'd learned to eat in Mexico. The vendors were kind and helpful, amused that this Cuban was so enthusiastic about Mexican cooking. They taught me a simple and delicious recipe for verdolaga and also told me how to cook items that I'd simply ask, what is this?

This was all peasant food, which is my favorite from any culture, including the US. Haute cuisine is a whole different matter, though distinctions blur. The great writer about Mexican cuisine, Diana Kennedy, has sadly commented on how dishes are disappearing at a fast rate with the disappearance of Mexico's myriad indigenous cultures. These are sophisticated cuisines, and I'm aware that the "authentic" dishes I look for while I turn up my nose at Americanized combination plates (wrongfully called Tex-Mex since tejano food is quite wonderful) are but ragged remnants of vanishing Mesoamerican cultures.

Still, I'll make do. And, yes, I'll enjoy the real Tex-Mex, like the weekend barbacoa I've had in San Antonio. And nuevomexicano cuisine, the food of New Mexico, one of America's greatest. I've had fantastic burritos in Tucson, but only when I drove deep into the barrio -- eggs with machaca/carne seca are the best. For that matter, there's nothing wrong with American-born items like Arizona's chimichangas, though I find them daunting. Or even chili con carne, though I prefer a red chile from New Mexico, and like Mexicans and Mexican-Americans I like my frijoles de la olla on the side better than mixed with the meat.

Such a gastronomic treasure house, Mexico. Tamales: I can't count how many kinds. Restaurants that specialize in pre-Colombian dishes, everything from grasshoppers to the worms we know from the bottom of mezcal bottles. And tacos, forget it! I'm fond of the nasty bits: head, tongue, chitterlings, and though not as forbidding but very tasty, cheeks. It gets more intense, so I'll stop here. No prairie oysters for me. Heat, yes, up to a certain point for me. Chilies are incredibly varied and what's important is not the heat but the diversity of flavors. And some dishes are mild, or somewhat milder. But that's what cerveza is for. Pacífico Clara goes well not just with Baja fish tacos (dude!) but everything. Tequila? I prefer white or reposado. The practice of keeping the bottle in the freezer is for me. I have one in mine right now.

So, ¡salud! And, ¡viva México, cabrones!