How can I make Mexican food as good as Frida Taqueria?
I'm based in NYC and while New York has a great deal of fantastic restaurants, one crticism the city has received over the years is that its lacking in true AUTHENTIC Mexican food. Sure Rosa Mexicana and the like are good...but on a recent trip to LA we had the opportunity to try Frida Taqueria. The menu was small, but the each dish (and I tried them all) reflected a true commitment, passion, and experience with Mexican food and culture. People often comment that Mexican is Mexican...beans are beans and tacos are tacos. The small taqueria proves that this is NOT the case. Here's my challenge...how can I learn to make tacos taste as good and as authentic as those at Frida's? Who should I talk to? I'm willing to take a class for a week to learn the ins and outs of how to perfect this cuisine!!
Short answer: you can't, unless you spend the next 20 years developing your technique.
Long answer: see the posts upthread (okay, that was short, but the incorporation by reference makes it long). Go. Eat. Taste. Cook. Taste. Read. Taste. Go out. Taste. Cook. Taste. Read. Repeat.
Note: fresh-rendered lard - lots of it - is indispensable.
Taqueria food is a delicious dining option unto itself. You may be surprised to know that not everything is "made from scratch"...especially if you're eating at a taqueria that ends in "berto". There are also specialty meat vendors as well selling marinated meats, i.e. beef adobada for example. The marinade or rub may be a proprietary blend, or it may simply be a commerical product they've found works for the majority of their customers.
You've gotten some good advice up-thread and I'm going to add a few other ideas.
1) Good salsa is essential to a good taco. The salsa at most SoCal taquerias (if it isn't a commerically prepared product) will be made from dried chiles. Most likely guajillo and/or chile de arbol. Since you are in NYC you should be able to source just about anything. Both guajillos and chile de arbol are workshorse chiles and should not be too hard to find. Latin markets, Carribbean markets, Indian markets, African markets, even some Middle Eastern markets...they should all stock them. If not, visit Http://www.mexgrocer.com . Get some dried chiles and practice toasting, soaking and blending.
2) Most recipes will tell you to slit a dried chile, remove the seeds and veins (where the heat is) then lay it flat on a griddle, skillet or comal and toast it on each side until you see a wisp of smoke. Alternately, you can heat up a wok, toss in the chiles whole, stir fry them for a minute or so then remove and soak. You can remove the seed and veins once their soaked or when you strain/seive the puree you'll get when you blend them with the other ingredients.
3) Some people will tell you to use the soaking liquid as part of a salsa. Be aware that the liquid often used for soaking chiles can be very bitter. Taste it first before you use it, and if you don't like the taste of the soaking water, just use water.
4) Chiles, especially dried chiles, like salt. You will need more salt than you think for a good salsa. The hallmark of a good salsa is actually how well balanced it is. Once you've gotten the salt right (and you'll know, the flavor "blooms") you can adjust the salsa to your tastes with sugar and vinegar.
5) The absolute best book for a beginner is "Salsa's That Cook" by Rick Bayless. This book as 8 or 9 essential salsa recipes. The instructions for making each salsa are excellent, but the real advantage of these recipes is that they are scaled for various yields and Rick provides suggestions for varying each recipe with different chiles. The last half of the book is 50 recipes using the essential salsas.
6) I'd be surprised if there wasn't a tortillaria (tortilla making buisness) or two (and probably more) somewhere in NYC. If you can find a tortillaria, go there and buy good corn tortillas. You can't make a taqueria-style taco with the corn tortillas sold in mainstream grocery stores. It just doesn't work.
7) If you can't find a tortillaria, purchase a bag of Maseca brand masa harina (para tortillas) and a cast aluminum tortilla press and make your own. It's not as hard as you think. Go to your local library and get a copy of Diana Kennedy's "The Art of Mexican Cooking" where there is a lengthy description of how to make tortillas along with some basic photos. Xerox the instructions and practice, practice, practice. Get a feel for the dough, how much pressure you need to apply with the press, how long to cook on each side, etc. It won't take you long. Hint for the tortilla press, cut a sandwich size ziplock along all sides (including bottom) so that you've got 2 pieces of plastic. Use those to line the tortilla press and transfer the dough to your skillet or griddle to cook. If you get a tortilla to puff when you turn it, you've hit the jackpot :-)
8) A taco can be stuffed with just about anything imaginable. Both Rick and Diana have numerous recipes for taco fillings. If you're looking at recipes the word "deshebrada" will indicated a shredded filling such as chicken, pork or beef. There are recipes for cooking the meat to be shredded for taco and other antojitos.
9) Visit a Mexican market (or meat market) and learn about some of the cuts of meat used. The cow is butchered differently and using the appropriate cut of meat for what it was intended can make all the difference in the world in the final product. I live in Carne Asada-land, all of our Mexican markets carry carne asada and with a little seasoning and grilling it's easy to turn out a great product. Not so great if you're trying to recreate the thin sliced carne asada from a bigger piece of meat that might, or might not, really be what carne asad is cut from.
10) Mexican tacos are most often served with just some chopped white onion, mince cilantro, a lime wedge and an array of salsas.
I think the point with tacos is just to have fun, experiment and keep trying until you get something you like. You should be able to source almost anything you need somewhere in NYC or on line.
I am a fan of both Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy, though I tend to prefer Diana Kennedy just smidge better than Rick. Check their books out of the library, xerox the parts you need and get cooking. Don't worry about making mistakes, as long as it tastes good, it won't matter :-)
Do your research (try the library for books on ethnic foods), source good authentic ingredients, don't compromise, test and taste recipes, experiment on your friends...BE the taco!
If the people of Bejing can have ready access to Kentucky Fried Chicken, there's absolutely no reason you can't have access to and prepare with your own two hands authentic Mexican food in New York City, which has got to be cheaper than moving to LA or eating at one of Bobby Flay's places.
I've got a stack of cookbooks including a couple printed by family restaurants, and I've assimilated/improvised enough from them to make some acceptable dishes. But I still like to go out and eat "the real stuff" to keep my taster straight.
Nice job KiltedCook- great advice!
I live in Mexican food oasis, IMHO- and I am finally trying to re-create some stuff in my own home besides the basics...Rick Bayless is a great start.
I like these sites I am following with here- sometimes I just read them to familiarize myself with names....I go to my used book store alot- I pick up any book I can- most recent book is THE GREAT CHILE BOOK by Mark Miller- from the Coyote Cafe, picked it up for a quarter!!
Good Luck! I am getting really good at tamales- if I can say so myself!
The notion that the food you had in L.A. was in someways more "authentic" than the food you have in NY is kind of silly. I have heard the arguments about there being no "authentic" Mexican food in NYC (like the Mexicans cooking in L.A. are more authentic than the ones cooking in NYC) ..but people think they , in their homes will cook better more authentic mexican food...I have travelled for business throughout the southwest, California, and even Mexico City..and yeah the food may be overall better in some establishments..(defintely not all of them)..Its in no way any more "authentic"..Its just prepared better at those restaurants, stands, etc..(again this isnt true of every Mexican place out west)..you can find all the ingredients you need here..just as some of the better places both up scale and mom and pop do..not every place in NYC makes Mexican food out of a can...
I favor Rick Bayless' recipes/books.
First thing you have to know about Mexican food is that it doesn't come in jars/cans/bottles. Granted, some of the constituents do, at least here in Yanqui-land. But you want everything as fresh as possible. If you're in NYC and you can't find authentic Mexican products in one of the Hispanic community Tiendas (stores), then go by Bobby Flay's restaurant(s) and ask him where to find it. He does, and so can you.
Second thing is there is no ground beef in mexican food. Shredded beef, yes, but not hamburger.
Third thing is you have to get your hands on a variety of dried and fresh Mexican chiles and learn to use them by making dishes such as sauces, moles and salsas. Real authentic recipes.
Fourth thing is other real authentic ingredients - Hatch's brand Green Chiles or fresh Ahaheim/New Mexico chiles; fresh poblanos, fresh serranoes, etc. Ripe Tomatillos not from a can. Fresh un-popped hominy. Fresh masa or at least Maseca brand Masa Harina para Tamales not corn meal or grits. Cumin seed that you toast and crack, not stale powdered dreck... You get the idea. Use those ingredients to duplicate EXACTLY - no substitutes - some of Rick's or Diane's recipes. No butter for lard, no "I can't find masa", no "can I use bell peppers instead of serranos?" Duplicate recipes exactly. Taste then dishes. Become the dishes. Read everything you can and try to understand the culture.
Learn to make tortillas not buy those things with all the preservatives. That alone will change your ideas about what makes good Mexican food.
Then find someone who is from the southwest or Mexico - Arizona Nevada, New Mexico, southern Calif; someone of Hispanic heritage who grew up eating and making these dishes. Persuade that person to teach you what they know.
This sounds daunting, but it's good advice, and can be followed. It's like cooking an elephant; first cut it up into small packages. Here's a website that's very good and reliable for ordering dried chiles, etc.
And here's one that's excellent for recipes and general information:
And here's an entertaining blog that has good recipes as well as lots of info:
Rick Bayless can teach you EVERYTHING. My favorite is Mexican Everyday because I find it simplest and most "modern" (which doesn't mean inauthentic, he's ALWAYS authentic). But you won't go wrong with any of his. If I could learn how to make tortillas from his books, using supermarket Maseca brand Masa Harina, ANYBODY can learn. (Tip: Buy a press, a heavy cast iron one, I got mine mail order and it simplified life. They're not really expensive. A comal comes in handy for cooking the tortillas on, and it's not so expensive by mail order either. I have to do that because i live in Western MA where no such things exist; in NYC you should be able to find just about anything.
)I do think KiltedCook is a little severe, sometimes you have to bend a little on ingredients. Better something than nothing, I say.
Do you have a slow cooker? Get your library to get a copy of Rick's Mexican Everyday, try Guajillo Spiced Pork and Potatoes, and you'll never look back!
Some unnecessary snide remarks here. I agree with KT - Diane Kennedy's books would be ideal - as well as Rick Bayliss. I buy a lot of cookbooks - any that interest me - and have a large collection. Read the cook books - learn different region's foods or what food that interests you. I also "collect" recipes - and have many Mexican recipes that I have not gotten out of cookbooks (found on the internet). I've traveled and knew what recipe I was interested in and found it on line.
Search the internet - you can find recipes and information about regional foods. Practice cooking different recipes and enjoy.
Why, don't, you, um, move to LA and see if you can get a job there in their kitchen? Or, move to Mexico for a few months and get a job in a kitchen? I highly doubt they're going to give you their recipes. The real authentic Mexican food (which, I agree, you'll pretty much never find in NY... although I did find a place that came close out in Yonkers), is learned by years of experience... not a weeklong class. Or, consider buying a cookbook from an author named Rick Bayliss and save yourself flying all over the world... he does a lot of authentic regional mexican cooking.