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When is a Mexican restaurant not a Mexican restaurant?

As I look at the boards I notice that some posters will talk about the lack of authenticity in a resturant without actually talking about the quality of the food at that resturant. I was wondering if the classification a restaurant gives itself effects the way you feel about its food?

I have a sister that loves her local Mexican restaurant. I have been to this restaurant and it is not Mexican food and it is not Tex-Mex food either. It is some sort of Midwestern fake Tex-Mex (not a very good explanation, I know).

Here is the thing, she likes the taste of the food. She doesn't like Mexican food and doesn't particularly like Tex-Mex food either. In fact, she has been to Mexico and does not particularly want to go back because she doesn't like the food. However, She does like the flavor combinations that this restaurant provides.

So my question is, is this a bad Mexican restaurant or is it just a restaurant that has good food but has mislabeled itself? If you go into a Mexican restaurant and the food is not authentic can you get around your expectations and evaluate the food on its own merits or does it always disappoint you because it is not what it presents itself to be?

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  1. A Mexican restaurant is not a Mexican restaurant when it is a Chinese restaurant! :)

    Sorry, i couldnt resist. Anyway, to me, you've raised two issues here. One is the whole issue of authenticity. The whole question of what is "real" Mexican?

    The other question is about good food, that if mislabelled, will it disappoint?

    For me, the entire idea of "authenticity" is a touchy subject. I define it as being true to the taste, preparation, culture, and "spirit" of the food. Mexican dishes prepared in LA, for example, are often better than their counterparts in Mexico. They can have better ingredients, better kitchen conditions, and more importantly, chefs with greater exposure to other cultures. A restaurant like Babita keeps true to "authentic" roots and inspiration, while not producing an identical result.

    American Mexican, Tex Mex, or even bastardized Tex Mex, often is "developed" to appeal to the less adventerous, mid-west American taste. Lots of cheese, no strange spices, safe ingredients like beans, rice, shredded lettuce tomatos. To me, this is no longer Mexican, because you are trying to change what a dish is. There's nothing wrong with it (i like Chipotle, Baja Fresh, and Freebirds), but i do recognize it for what it is.

    As for good food mislabelled - I know i personally can get around these expectations, but more often than not, i would say this is a tough thing to get around. The failure to meet expectations usually leads to disappointment, even if the meal was fantastic or amazing. If your expectations were just a bit higher, it's only human to be disappointed.

    In the end, people will like what they like. Taste is a personal thing. It isnt up to us to judge what other people like - if it works for them, great! Of course, it's my perrogative not to eat with them as well :)

    4 Replies
    1. re: yen

      When it's Chipotle???

      My own personal rule of thumb is that if the menu has combo plate numbers on it, it's Americanized past the point of recognition to a Mexican.

      However, to the poster above, I don't know if one can really say that a Mexican restaurant in LA can make something better than in Mexico because of the kitchen - and especially the ingredients. The ingredients and ingenuity of dealing with the surroundings are what created the inspiration for a recipe in the first place.

      To argue that point would be to suggest that Keller or Adria or Aschatz can make a better "authentic" pizza than your current favorite place (which probably isn't all that authentic to begin with as few are). You know a great chef could do a more stylized version, but would it satisfy you in the same way - and for the same price? You know in your heart that's not necessarily true.

      But it seems that's what you're suggesting.

      Example: Having lived in Mexico, when I went shopping for chicken, they were routinely yellow - much yellower than anything available in any supermarket I've been in. Yellow due to being almost totally corn fed. That creates a different taste. And because there wasn't the same type of institutional chicken processing, there was a different texture to the birds as well, which leads to different types of cooking (not saying it was as hygenic as US chicken, but seems to me it might well have been given the horrors we've witnessed from US chicken processors).

      Granted, you had to pull hairs out... but those chickies were flavorful.

      Another simpler but nevertheless great example mentioned here often is the Caesar salad. You can't beat a Caesar made with a raw egg tableside at decent restaurants throughout Mexico. But you can't do the raw egg in most places in the U.S. (can you do it anywhere?).

      Suggesting there's better Mexican in LA than in Mexico seems a lot like saying you're from Seattle therefore you know all about coffee (although I'll believe you if you worked for Schomer).

      As far as exposure to other cultures, that can work for fusion places or for places with no identifiable heritage, but in the context of a regional cuisine, I'd question if that's an asset.

      I personally don't want pineapple in my huachinango veracruzana, nor soy sauce in my pork adobo. But I know i can find both. As well as people who swear those recipes are wonderful.

      But better or more authentic? Not for me.

      1. re: Panini Guy

        I've been trying to write a response to your post, but i continue to give up in frustration. It's an essay i want to write to respond, but im too tired to put my ideas down. All i want to say is that i think you've misinterpreted a lot of what i've said, but i respect your opinions. I will try and explain my position in a way that is clearer:

        1. I am not some Xenophobe who is a proponent of America is better than Mexico. I was only trying to highlight why the idea of authenticity is such a tricky one. Just because something is made in the States does not make it inherently less authentic than something made in Mexico. There are many situations where all things really are equal when you compare the two - the labour, the ingredients, etc... there isnt any reason why it often can't be better.

        2. Nowhere in my post do i even suggest that some celebrity chef could do a better job - im not sure how you came to this conclusion? I'd take someone who grew up in the food culture over someone who didnt any day of the week.

        3. Better access to ingredients and better sanitary conditions are generalizations - not a rule. These do highlight some of the general differences, and serve to explain why there are differences that may make the food in LA a better fit for me and someone of a "North American" palate. I like LA Mexican, in general, better than many of the meals i've had in Mexico. It fits the statement. But it's not always true. You're right that the original recipe was spawned from the creativity and ingenuity of working with the conditions they had, and the ingredients they had available. That doesnt mean, in my mind, that something that alters these recipes in ways that stay true to their "spirit" is any less authentic.

        4. I think other exposure to other cultures is an asset - i think you're taking a fairly limited view to the influences of other cultures in cooking. Im not necessarily talking fusion - specifically, ingredients. It can also refer to technique, timing, style, temperature, heck, environment, and a million other factors that play a role. I am NOT a purist. The way it was done 1000 years ago is not necessarily the only way, or the best way, in my mind. Everything can be improved. I believe that people with an appreciation and exposure to other food cultures develop a more balanced view of food, and are far more open-minded in their approach to optimizing what they deliver.

        Regardless, as i tried to reiterate, taste is subjective, and the idea of authenticity is touchy. There is no definitive answer. If you can find meals you enjoy that work for you, great. What's difficult is trying to define what is actually "authentic".

        1. re: yen

          Yen,
          I'm in Pittsburgh. All we have are combo plate places. It's a nightmare.

          I used to do a lot of trade shows in LA and ate out quite a bit. I had good Mexican, but I personally didn't find it better than what I ate in Mexico. Part of that might also relate to the coffee thread, where the "best cup" is not necessarily the "best prepared coffee", but the surroundings experienced when drinking it. So it could be as simple as I prefer hanging out in Mexico to LA ;-)

          That said, I've been happy with numerous Mexican restaurant experiences in Chicago. I like Maya in NY and Forest Cafe in Boston, the latter which was run by a CIA graduate and specialized in Veracruzana style foods before changing hands and dumbing down the menu a few years back (still good, but used to be better). So I'll agree there are examples out there that reflect your assertions on points #1, #3 and #4

          To the celebrity chef question in point #2, I used Keller, et.al. as a counterpoint to your argument about better ingredients and better kitchens. Who has more access to better ingredients and more toys in their ultra-clean kitchens than the trio I mentioned? I wasn't trying to put words in your mouth, just taking your assertion to a logical extreme. Hope that clears up the context of that remark.

          I cringe when I see "authentic" on any menu because invariably it's not. And I get a bit crispy at the "I'm from X, therefore I know all about Y" that's so prevalent on CH - not suggesting that you do it, but plenty from LA/San Diego who apparently couldn't tell a chunk of huitlacoche from grey tile caulk cite themselves as experts on Mexican cuisine.

          Thanks for the thoughtful response. Maybe we should both spend more time on eGullet instead of here ;-)

          1. re: Panini Guy

            I'm from Calgary, Canada, so you think Pittsburgh is a nightmare? We can't even do faux fast-food tex mex right. This city is absolutely begging for a Chipotle, which is a very sad statement of affairs. Authentic doesnt really matter here, we'd settle for edible!

            Re: celebrity chef - that's definitely an extreme! About one logical step too many in my books :) With respect to better access to ingredients, I was trying to explain the following: your point about local ingredients in Mexico was bang on - in season, when available, they have some amazing ingredients to work with. However, Mexico is an export country when it comes to food items - they ship a lot of goods out, but don't bring any back in. They work with a limited set of ingredients, a limitation a country like the US does not have because they not only import a lot of fresh, good quality, in season ingredients year round, but they also have the ability to bring in perishable ingredients that otherwise couldnt be exported (like fish from Tsukiji for example) via FedEx or some other just in time delivery service.

            Your point about X and Y is a valid one though - my own personal philosophy is im no expert on any cuisine. I enjoy them all, and more importantly, i enjoy learning more about every cuisine. I think all the food cultures in the world have something to teach us, and we should continually push our boundaries to learn to ensure that food continues to grow and evolve over time; growth and evolution NOT referring to the whole idea of food art (i hate foam), genetically modifying ingredients, nor heavy industrial processing of foods to make a "super chicken" that can produce more lbs of breast meat per carcass.Growth and evolution meaning that food, flavours, tastes, and execution continue to change, adapt, and improve over time.

            As for the other board, no comment ;)

    2. It appears that one can get better food in filipino and Colombian restaraunts in the US than in the Philippines and Colombia respectively. What are they? I don't know.

      1. A restaurant that labels itself something and delivers something else entirely is bad. But a place which delivers some modicum of the cultural food it is representing in a good fresh appealing tasty way is always a good thing. While that restaurant may not appeal to everyone and every taste it still delivers a good product. When that restaurant delves from the path of what it claims to deliver and you get a rather nasty surprise on your plate (Iranian flavored tex-mex) something not so kosher has happened in the restaurant marketing business.

        1. OK, my favorite Mexican restaurant is staffed entirely by Mexicans (I live in Florida, near but not too close to a migrant community). I know that doesn't mean "authentic" because restaurants cater to the taste of their clientele -- and I am not in an area known for sophisticated palates.

          Can someone please list some examples of "authentic" dishes, as well as some examples of "Tex-Mex" (as I've never eaten Mexican food in Texas) and other categories of Mexican food. (Oaxacan, etc.) I gather enchiladas, chimichangas and the like are Tex-Mex, and that seafood dishes are another category. I hear "tacos al pastor" a lot but don't quite know what that is.

          My family is from New Mexico, and I was told the test of authenticity was an abundance of pork dishes, as that was the cheapest meat available and normal households in New Mexico (and I assume, by extension, Mexico, though I'm sure there's a difference) couldn't afford chicken and beef all the time (in olden days of course, not now with Wal-Marts, etc.).

          5 Replies
          1. re: Covert Ops

            tacos al pastor are pork tacos - the pork is cooked on a spit - usually vertical, not horizontal. There's a name for the cooking apparatus but I don't remember what it is. Pineapple is usually attached to the top of the meat so that that juices can run down while cooking. The pork is sliced off of the large piece of roasting meat and is served in a tortilla with various sides - different salsas, pineapple, etc.

                1. re: kare_raisu

                  The correct name of the vertical spit for tacos al pastor is 'trompo'.

              1. re: Covert Ops

                Tacos al Pastor are tacos, usually in small corn tortillas, made of thin pork steaks seasoned with adobo (a traditional Mexican seasoning) skewered and overlapped on one another to a sum of about 100 or so steaks as they're placed through a spinning rotisserie called trompo, cooked by a flame as it spins. Usually the "taquero" spins the trompo, slices the hottest burning piece of meat, catches it with the tortilla, adding a small slice of pineapple (which would be sitting on top of the trompo) and some hot red chipotle sauce, onion, cilantro ("con todo" which means with everything on it - or the works.) And don't forget to add some lime on top.
                There's another variation, called GRINGAS, which is pastor meat, with cheese, on flour tortillas. Think of a pork meat quesadilla.
                Hope this helps.

              2. Many years ago Nashville, Tennessee had one "Mexican" restaurant. It was called "La Fiesta of Mexican Food," and it served fried tortillas topped with canned chili and shredded American cheese, or rolled around same, and "Spanish" rice and canned refried beans, and what they grossly mislabeled "hot tamales." In an attempt to remedy this, the singer Marty Robbins brought in a Mexican couple from Texas and set them up in business across from his race-car garage, in a place named Rosa's Cantina, which served authentic Tex-Mex for a few months and then started pushing fried tortillas, canned chili and shredded American cheese...

                And then the real Mexicans started moving in, going from an insignificant minority to a major presence in about a five-year span, during which the available Mexican food went from real tacos to real menudo to sopes and gorditas to birria de chivo, all of which and more may now be found in rich abundance in Nashville. And I think La Fiesta closed down long ago. But the question was: was that a Mexican restaurant or not? The man I worked for, a fine guy in almost every respect, thought it was, and he loved it dearly. It served the kind of "Mexican food" he grew up with, the kind he EXPECTED, and he did not enjoy culinary surprises. And if all those Mexicans hadn't come to town, that'd still be the only kind of "Mexican food" you could get there.