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Nov 1, 2011 08:10 PM

Authentic or not authentic gets thrown around quite a bit around here.

I am new to this forum, and I have been perusing some older posts and discussions, and have noticed a lot of discussions about whats authentic or not, especially in regards to one place.

In particular, there seems to be much debate on whether Las Cuatro Milpas is "authentic" Mexican food.

Mexico is a very large country, and what might be authentic to some, might not be to others, so I think that leads to disagreement.

I'm Mexican, I grew up in Mexico, and I find it odd that some people say that their tacos dorados, flautas, tamales, frijoles con chorizo, and burritos, are not authentic. REALLY??

First of all, it doesn't get much more authentic than a taco. Fried items are sold ALL over Mexico, from little sidewalk stands to fondas (small, comfort food restaurants) and large restaurants.

Just because the food sold at Las Cuatro Milpas isn't as fancy or intricate as mole, chiles en nogada, cochinita pibil or birria, doesn't make them un-authentic.

My grandma, who didn't live a day in the United States, made, among many other things, tacos dorados, flautas, frijoles charros (beans with chorizo added in), and tamales, her whole life.

Those types of food, and the types of foods sold at LCM are mainly Northern-Mexico style comfort foods, and no less authentic just because that type of cooking has been adopted and popularized by American culture, especially here in the border.

So I'd just like to say, that, as a Mexican guy that has grown up and traveled in Mexico, the food at LCM is authentic Mexican food, and damn good at that. Those flour tortillas beat the pants off any tortilla in this city and they surely compete with any other tortilla throughout Mexico, they are that good. Sure, the food is greasy, but most Mexican fried comfort-food is greasy, so if you're not used to it, you will probably recoil.

Just my dos centavos.

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  1. Perhaps it's the same problem as plagues Italian food. Regional differences of how things ought to be done. I've never heard LCM cited as authentic by anyone I know from Mexico, or people who've traveled extensively there, but that's not especially meaningful since I don't know *that* many people from Mexico.

    I understand that in Italy, you can have people from neighboring regions have intense arguments over which region's approach to a given dish is the most authentic. Perhaps Mexican cuisine is the same way?

    6 Replies
    1. re: Josh

      heck...dishes vary from household to household! What toppings go on the food, what condiments they are cooked with, flour or corn, what something is called, what color it should be!

      And yes, that's the way it is. Cuisine from states such as Monterrey, Sonora, and Coahuila (North), greatly differs from the cuisine from Veracruz, or Chiapas, or Yucatan.

      LCM is reminiscing of street food found througout Mexico, always different city to city but usually, at its core, fried, topped with basic ingredients, and sold at a quick pace. And Milpas has a huge line daily not because all these people are idiots, but because what they're serving tastes good.

      1. re: diyeiogt

        A huge line doesn't really equate great food.

        Filippi's Pizza Grotto has the longest lines in Little Italy and it is probably the worst restaurant there.

        1. re: stevewag23

          There's another good example of that, in Fashion Valley....

          1. re: stevewag23

            +1. hit the nail on the head again Steve.

        2. re: Josh

          The two people who introduced me to LCM as the "most authentic Mexican food in San Diego" are both Mexican. One was born and raised in Mexico City and came to the US to go to SDSU and the other was born on the US side of the border in Calexico, but spent his whole youth back and forth between the two countries.

          I don't know anyone who is Mexican or of Mexican decent that doesn't think LCM is authentic.

          1. re: scottca075

            That's why I'm saying it may be the same kind of situation you have with Italian cooking. I've met Mexican people who don't think of it as authentic. Perhaps it's a regional thing.

        3. I agree diyeiogt. The term "authentic" is the crutch of the food snob. It's a meaningless term that has no bearing on the quality or desireablity of a cuisine.

          Andrew Zimmern has made a career demonstrating that "authentic" food can be horrifyingly bad. Likwise, new interpretations of traditional food can be terrific. Hence the love of "fusion" cuisine.

          Thus, when someone gets all high and mighty regarding authentic food, I generally tune them out. A better inquiry would be asking where one can get a certain regional style of food. For example, "where can I get fish tacos like they serve in Mazatlan" or "I there a good Italian restaurant that serves Genovese style seafood dishes" etc. etc.

          With that said, I know I'm in the minority as food forums everyone are full of posts battling endlessly regarding what is authentic food.

          47 Replies
          1. re: wanker

            Well, let's be fair though. The reason for the quest for authenticity is solely due to the horrendous bastardization and commodification we've seen happen to food. When you grow up in the USA, outside of a good food city, and are presented with an endless parade of compromised dreck masquerading as Mexican/Thai/French/whathaveyou, then the desire to find authentic versions of these cuisines becomes a lot more understandable.

            1. re: Josh

              People are hypersensitive after years and years of apologizing for certain unnamed establishments in or near Old Town.

            2. re: wanker

              Thanks for expressing this sentiment! If you are in the minority, I'm right there with you. Too many times threads related particularly to certain types of ethnic or regional cuisines start out interesting but are reduced to a "more authentic than thou" sort of (vulgar term for urination deleted) contest. And as you say, discussions of quality and desirability are lost. As first expressed by the OP, the quest for authenticity is often a fools errand.

              1. re: steveprez

                Can you explain your last sentence?

                1. re: Josh

                  Sure! So a "fools errand" is sending someone to find something that doesn't exist. And my point, also articulated somewhat by the OP, is that if one goes looking for an "authentic" form of a particular cuisine, it can never be found because there is no objective determinant of "authentic". Instead, there are opinions and often directly conflicting opinions.

                  Make sense now?

                  1. re: steveprez

                    It makes sense insofar as I can comprehend the meaning of the words you wrote, but I'd disagree pretty strenuously.

                    Let's say that I'm making spaghetti carbonara - there is an established traditional recipe for this dish, comprised as it is of simple ingredients: spaghetti, egg yolk, parmigiana, romano, black pepper, garlic, and pancetta or guanciale. If I go somewhere and order this item and it's served with a sauce that incorporates cream and broccoli, I can say that is inauthentic, since spaghetti carbonara is a clearly defined item.

                    Spaghetti with the aforementioned ingredients, including cream and broccoli, may taste good to you, but that doesn't make it spaghetti carbonara.

                    Now it may well be the case that authenticity isn't applicable equally to every cuisine, or even to every dish in a given cuisine (is pissaladiere on pizza dough? short crust? puff pastry? you can find adherents to all three), but to say that it cannot be found by definition is an extremist position that essentially argues that language and the meaning of words is irrelevant.

                    That's not a world I want to live in.

                    1. re: Josh

                      Parmigiano dentro gli spaghetti alla carbonara? Forse se tu sei bolognese o qualcosa. Che peccato! Solo pecorino Romano. Questo piatto tipico è di Lazio, dove questo formaggio non esisteva..

                      Meglio usare "traditional" invece "authentic."

                      I miei due centesimi...scusatemi per l'italiano.


                      1. re: SaltyRaisins

                        Not according to the recipes I've seen. The only one I've seen with 100% romano was a sauce made from guanciale, water, and pecorino - forgot the name of it, but I've always seen carbonara with both cheeses.

                        1. re: Josh

                          No- the authentic recipe doesn't use parmigiano. It is a Roman pasta, and is an expansion on cacio e pepe- the recipe you saw with pecorino, guanciale and water is more on the mark. But in any case, I agree with you mostly, especially in the case of Italy which is still coming to terms with unification. But a key point you made is that the authenticity stamp does not work with all foods. LCM never struck me as inauthentic, except for the fact that it is not located in Lazaro Cardenas or something.

                          1. re: SaltyRaisins

                            If you don't mind my challenging your claim, I'd like to know why you feel so certain about the dish's origins. I've done a fair amount of research into it, since I was obsessed with it on my trip to Italy, and from what I've read the origin of the dish is unclear, and there are acknowledged regional variations (such as the use of guanciale vs. pancetta).

                            1. re: SaltyRaisins


                              That's fairly representative of the various recipes I sourced from Italian cookbooks (meaning, cookbooks from Italy).

                              1. re: Josh

                                Great site- like his tone. I am firm on the no parmigiano not because I know un sacco of the history of the dish (which I'm sure you have found to be as unclear as any traditional pasta preparation), but because I was recently chastised by a group of twenty absurdly academic Italians for purchasing parmigiano to add to our twice-weekly cena at the Middlebury Scuola Italiana, including the foremost expert on La Cosa Nostra, Antonio Nicaso. Very unsettling. They felt adding cow milk to a pasta with sheep's milk was flat wrong, and there was a consensus on that point in particular from Italians of many regions. Perhaps Clifford's son's friend was being kind to the city of his studies, Bologna, La Dotta. My personal experience gave me an insight into authenticity the same way Bourdain's did in Tuscany: my perfectly good, al dente and not oversauced noodles literally would have enraged some natives.

                                Then there's also the recipes at Buone Forchette, which call for none.

                                What do you think? A case for traditionality?

                                1. re: SaltyRaisins

                                  Very interesting. I wonder if that's a peculiarity of the region they were from?

                                  I know that there's a lot of partisanship in Italy over various preparation methods, it would be interesting to see if that's specific to Bologna.

                                  I just checked a couple of my Giuliano Bugialli books, and interestingly his carbonara calls for either pecorino or reggiano, but not a mix of the two.

                                  Thanks for the info.

                        2. re: Josh

                          Is the carbonara authentic at Spaghetteria in little italy?

                            1. re: stevewag23

                              Also: it's so easy to make yourself, I'd be hard-pressed to order it in a restaurant. It's one of the simplest pasta dishes to prepare.

                              1. re: Josh

                                This just weakens your original argument that I agree with. For many Italians, it's strictly 'solo a casa' where pasta is concerned. Every family has their particular variant. Hard to pin down authenticity in this case. I wish you'd picked risotto ai funghi porcini or pizza margherita or something. Spaghetti alla carbonara is particularly flexible. By all means, add parmigiano cheese if you like it. Artusi would probably have approved.


                                1. re: SaltyRaisins

                                  Well, I'm not really interested in defending a position. I'm more interested in finding out what would be done in Italy. When you put it in terms of mixing the cheeses from two different animals, that has a kind of integrity to it that seemed to be everywhere in the food we ate.

                                  So, to put it in the context of the OP, I feel like I'm actually reinforcing the argument that there *is* such a thing as authenticity.

                                  Another example: recently on Bourdain, I think, he visited a restaurant in Brooklyn that was doing Italian food with American ingredients. What I mean by that is these restauranteurs were taking the principles of Italian cooking (using regional ingredients) and applying them to the products they can get in Brooklyn from local farms.

                                  Now while their dishes might not be authentically Italian in composition, they are authentically Italian in terms of philosophy.

                                  So in the case of the carbonara, it seems one could say that an authentically Italian approach is to avoid muddying the clear flavors you get from sticking to only one kind of cheese in the dish, and not mixing.

                            2. re: Josh

                              Reading these boards can be so disturbing... Since when does an authentic Carbonara use Pancetta or Guanciale instead of Natto? And where did the Nori go?

                              (Just sneaking in a mention for one of my favorite culinary mashups, pasta done with Japanese ingredients...)

                              1. re: cgfan

                                Plenty of those in Japan, though I have never heard of a Natto Carbonara.

                                1. re: Tripeler

                                  Well a Natto spaghetti is essentially a Natto Carbonara - that is it replaces the Guanciale with Natto but still uses the egg. Wonderful if you like Natto!

                                  1. re: cgfan

                                    There is no fixed recipe for Natto Spaghetti. It is essentially Natto used in a pasta format. The minced natto, hikiwari natto, works well for natto pasta dishes since the beans are cut into small pieces and more easily adhere to the pasta. Apart from that, the only requirement I can think of is that coarse-ground black pepper is used to create the "carbonara" element of black shavings/particles that the name carbonara suggests.

                                    Yes, I love natto, and anything with it is wonderful.

                                2. re: cgfan


                                  I dig Japanese pasta big time. So...authentically Japanese. A sprinkle of nori on top just brings Marco Polo's trip full circle. Sometimes I think Japanese pop-cuisine gives the high-falutin' stuff a run for it's money. Takoyaki paahty!


                              2. re: steveprez

                                Most Italian recipes served in Italian Restaurants - and I mean most - are hundreds years old if not close to a thousand. Many without a single modification. The proof is in countless books that have survived. Furthermore, there is actually a certification process for certain categories of food such as Napolitan pizza which in excruciating detail confirms a place serves authentic Napolitan pizza.

                                There is such thing as authentic Champagne. It's made in Champagne, from Champagne grapes, using méthode champenoise. Those are the only three main requirements. It can suck to hell, but it would be authentic on that alone.

                                I'm only replying to the idea that there is no such thing as something authentic.

                                1. re: royaljester

                                  No, no, no! You've all got it wrong! The origin of pasta carbonara only dates back to WWII. When the American's liberated Rome the Italians were reduced to living off of their dried pasta reserves. Some creative ones "liberated" bacon and egg rations from the American GIs and added it to their pasta dishes and pasta carbonara was born. Thus if you want to eat truly, 100%, bona fide, authentic pasta carbonara, you must start with dried pasta (no fresh stuff) and use reconstituted powdered eggs and American-style, military surplus bacon (no pancetta nor guanciale). Anything else would be "inauthentic".

                                  So I'll turn off the sarcasm (apologies if it was overly snarky) and point out that there could be no more eloquent argument in favor of my point than the 15 e-mails above. While I was originally arguing that it's difficult to determine what constitutes an authentic ethnic or regional cuisine, these 15 posts show that one cannot even agree what constitutes an authentic version of a particular dish. 15 posts and no conclusion!

                                  I think the bigger point, getting back to wanker's (love the moniker BTW) argument, is that "authenticity" even if one could define it, is not a useful objective. I would think that time would be better spent discussing what are the best ingredients, where to source them, what are good alternatives or variations on the dish, etc.

                                  Now I'm off to kick-off SD Beer Week!!!

                                  My $0.02.

                                  1. re: steveprez

                                    Great post, steveprez! You've summed things up very well.

                                    1. re: steveprez

                                      A minor question about how Italians view the use of cheese in dishes is clearly not an argument against the concept of culinary authenticity. To say that it is requires some serious logical leaps that are normally only seen coming from the PR industry.

                                      It's akin to saying if people have a difference of opinion, then no kind of truth can be arrived at. That is some very shallow reasoning. If everyone thought that way, then we'd have no history, no rules of language, and no body of scientific research.

                                      Lastly, the origins of spaghetti alla carbonara aren't known for certain, but the story you quote is almost certainly apocryphal, since great pains are taken in Italian cookbooks to point out that bacon is never appropriate in the dish due to its smoky flavor.

                                      1. re: steveprez

                                        I agree....thats what I was trying to get at with my post. "Authentic" is something nearly unidentifiable. My problem with reading many of the other threads discussing authenticity was that some people seemed to outright dismiss the restaurant they were talking about simply because they deemed the food unauthentic, which really bothers me because I don't see authenticity as a way to deem something good or not, simply if it tastes well. I mean, who cares if it has sour cream as opposed to mexican cream, if it tastes good, thats what matters to me.

                                        Glad to see a lot of viewpoints and intelligent discourse throughout this thread.

                                        Rock on guys and gals.

                                        1. re: diyeiogt

                                          " I mean, who cares if it has sour cream as opposed to mexican cream, if it tastes good, thats what matters to me." - Agreed that it doesn't matter if you use something "non authentic" as long as it taste equally good but many restaurants take shortcuts and it often lacks in taste. I think nobody in this discussion thinks that authenticity should be more important than flavor/taste but it is a good and helpful way to describe a restaurant or dish, ingredients and preparation.

                                          1. re: honkman

                                            I remember once posting here about an enjoyable meal I had that included a Bolognese.

                                            My chops were busted because I didn't know if the sauce used only a single tablespoon of milk. I had not represented it as authentic- I'm certainly no expert.

                                            1. re: Fake Name

                                              Got a pic of those busted chops?? Aftertall, a tblspn of milk is so critical.

                                              1. re: Fake Name

                                                Your failure to identify the lactic kiss upon your gravy meats leads me to question your ability to authentically enjoy Super Sergio's CAB, unchanged for millenia and once a staple of the Toltec high priests. Kinda makes me question it all.

                                                Off to the ashram for a few years.

                                                  1. re: SaltyRaisins

                                                    To sour cream on the CAB or not to sour cream...that is the Super Sergio question..

                                                    All this carbonara talk is making me crave a big bowl..right now!

                                                    1. re: Beach Chick

                                                      Are you talking real authentic carbonara?? yum...yum... Yesterday I made some real authentic pesto, I get a 16 oz bag of fresh basil at the Costco Business Center for about $5.50.

                                                      1. re: cstr

                                                        Ha! If it isn't Genovese Basil, it won't be authentic LOLOLOL I'm just pulling your leg!

                                                        1. re: freia

                                                          However banging out a Pesto in my favorite kitchen aid food processor - my trusty granite mortar and pestle - IS a must! ...makes all the difference in the world.

                                                            1. re: cstr

                                                              LOLOL I remember being "spanked"by a friend's Italian guest when I brought pesto that I had made over for dinner at her request. I was grilled on the variety of basil and was told rather loudly that what I had made was Basil Sauce, not PESTO since my basil was neither the Genovese variety nor was it harvested from the slopes around Genoa. We didn't even get into the issue of my Costco pinenuts..lololol....sigh...good times.....

                                                              1. re: freia

                                                                Wow, tough crowd. I'd be afraid to bring anything but McDoubles!

                                                                1. re: cstr

                                                                  LOLOL totally learned my lesson, let me tell you! Now when invited I bring myself and flowers!

                                                          1. re: cstr

                                                            Do they also have a decent price on pine nuts? Been trying to find a good source for Pignolias. Last time I got them at Whole Foods, but it took a king's ransom for the privilege.

                                                            1. re: cgfan

                                                              At Costco, the bag is about $20 but, they're not from Italy. That doesn't bother me as long as they're fresh.

                                                            2. re: cstr

                                                              Nothing like fresh pesto..awesome sledge that you, the man, making the sauce of Kings..
                                                              What did you serve it on?
                                                              So easy to make but the Pignolias can set you back a Porsche payment..
                                                              TJ's has decent pesto for around $3..
                                                              Gnocchi with a pesto cream sauce with Turkey meatballs...sweet!

                                                                1. re: Beach Chick

                                                                  I like to make it with Farfelle, all the sauce gets into those little bow ties. If budget is an issue, you can use toasted walnuts or even almonds. OK, I'm going to get flamed for subbing pignolias! BC, you can make pesto in a jif!

                                            2. re: steveprez

                                              I agree that quality of food should be one of the most important factors to decide if a restaurant/dish is good or not. Good food, even if it is not authentic, is still good food. On the other side I don't think it is also good to completely dismiss authenticity as useless in describing food. It might be complicated to discuss authenticity of a particular dish in great detail as they often have many small variations already in the country of origin but every cuisine has some general characteristics which I would call authentic. You will have for example problems to find in Italy (as long as you don't go to a complete tourist trap) a pasta dish which is so heaily oversauced like in many "Italian" restaurants in the US as the sauce in Italy is more a condiment for the pasta whereas here it is often the other way around. Those dishes in the "Italian" restaurants in the US can still taste good but it is helpful to also describe them as not authentic. And you can find for all cuisines throughout the world certain similarities within a country which are authentic and are helpful to describe food outside of the country.

                                          2. They're not talking about food categories being authentic or not. Tacos existed before even the Europeans arrived. What certainly is not authentic is sour cream (as sold in America), hard shell factory tacos, or many of the taco preparations in the US.

                                            Secondly, in this day and age just because you can order it in Mexico by itself doesn't make it authentic Mexican either (McDonalds and KFC aren't Mexican.). When people refer to authentic, they're referring to traditional preparation methods and ingredients. These days, lots of Mexicans eat American or foreign food, including fusion. Fusion Mexican, even in Mexico, by definition is not authentic. No matter how delicious or well prepared it is. Look up the word authentic, it has nothing to do with quality or popularity.

                                            Taco Bell actually has stores in Mexico. That alone doesn't make it authentic. But people in Mexico are eating at Taco bell and McDonald's and make no pretense that it is.

                                            1. If the region from which a cuisine originated now widely uses a modern ingredient as a replacement for an old process, is it no longer authentic?

                                              (For example, ketchup in Phad Thai)

                                              1. This seems to be a pretty common debate. i guess the way I distinguish things is pretty simple, at least to me:
                                                1. Historical recipes can be traced back historically speaking. This doesn't mean that they taste good! If I pick out any recipes from any one of my vintage recipe books (and trust me, they're old, I collect them), they are actually pretty unappealing as they aren't for a modern palate. if you ever look at some of these recipes you can't actually make them. The ingredients aren't available and neither is the appropriate cooking method Ianyone use a cauldron over a wood fire lately?),and even if you could you most likely wouldn't enjoy it.
                                                2. Traditional recipes to me are those representative of a cooking style, like Mama used to make. It doesn't mean that everyone makes this recipe this way, its what you and your family/area/group you identify with usually make. It might not have the same ingredients as a similar recipe from the same region that another group of people might make, but that's ok. It's what you remember and what you like.
                                                3. Authentic recipes to me are those recipes that are directly identified with and can be found made the same way as "in the Old Country". This accounts for regional differences. So, when a restaurant says "Authentic Mexican Cuisine", I expect to have a meal that I could very very closely find made as is from the region they are claiming to be from. This accounts for modern ingredients and recipe creep (for lack of a better term) and you usually have to give a little be of flexibility with respect to the actual source of the ingredients. For example, pasta imported from Italy is different from pasta available in Italy -- the imported Italian pasta has a slightly different ingredient mix required to make it suitable for import/export. There is a flavor/texture difference. So technically, no pasta dish ever made in North America is actually authentic unless the pasta is purchased in Italy and hand carried into the country. Same goes for fresh pasta -- our flour grades are completely different here. You can get awesome pasta but it will never every be authentic if this is your definition of authentic. For me, I give some flex for this. If I got on a plane, went to Argentina and had empanadas, then flew back home and went to a Argentinian restaurant and ordered the same empanadas, and if the ingredients basically match and are made in the same way and it tastes the same, that would be an "authentic" dining experience. But, if I go to a restaurant here and it says "Authentic Italian Food" and I have a pizza Marguirita and it has a double cheese stuffed crust and is topped with ground pork and green peppers, then I'm not a happy camper.
                                                The thing is, alot of "authentic" menus simply aren't, especially when you get into Asian foods where the ingredients either aren't available here or aren't palatable to a Western market. If you have a bowl of noodles here and order the same thing in say Canton, you probably wouldn't be able to relate the two.
                                                And for me, any discussion beyond that is kind of irrelevant. At the end of the day, I gotta like the food. If that mean's it's Nona's recipe but not really like what you'd usually find in Umbria, or if tastes exactly like the gnocci con quattri formaggi that I had in that tiny restaurant overlooking the Ponte Vecchio in Firenze, it doesn't really matter. Because, really, at the end of the day, I have to like it regardless of how its categorized.

                                                3 Replies
                                                1. re: freia

                                                  It seems like the nonsense of authenticity is no longer a problem. Now I feel free to enjoy all the non-authentic dishes, Maybe a pizza with pineapple and jalepanos!

                                                  1. re: 4wino

                                                    "Maybe a pizza with pineapple and jalepanos"

                                                    It's good, especially with sausage & pepperoni. One of my Mexican pantry ladies makes it that way and we sell a lot of them. And you think I'm joking...

                                                    It's "authentic". Authentic what, I'm not sure, I'm just sure it is authentic

                                                    1. re: DiningDiva

                                                      I remember back in the day, pizza places offered Hawaiian pizza made with ham and baby shrimp and pienapple. I could never ever stomach the baby shrimp LOLOL