Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Where arugula and terrorist-hunters collide

Why does Mexican food, more than any other, inspire online reviews for each and every establishment that center on the place's inauthenticity? As if "authentic" or not matters more than if whatever it is tastes good? This comes up with every cuisine, but for some reason, inauthentic Mexican food is a crime against humanity, whereas inauthentic Thai food, sure, it's inauthentic, but you can just add some more hot sauce and stop worrying about it.

I'd always figured, in NY, that you're so far from Mexico that the ingredients themselves will never be right, and because of a vast uninitiated consumer base (recent arrivals from the upper Midwest, from parts of the world further still from Mexico) there's less demand for exact replicas of what's in Mexico, and while there are of course Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living in New York, there's not really a New York Mexican "authentic" fusion, as with Tex-Mex, Californian Mexican, etc. The complaints (I was, after all, reading stuff in English, not Spanish) seemed to be coming not mostly from those of Mexican heritage, but rather from those dealing with the culture shock that comes with moving from a part of the U.S. where there's good produce year-round to the mealy-tomato-and-yay-a-local-turnip Northeast. The real deal, I accepted, meant heading southwest.

But after doing my usual I'm-going-to-be-somewhere-for-two-days-and-might-as-well-be-prepared half-hour or so of Chowhound-and-such research... I learned that Tucson "Mexican food capital of the U.S." Arizona is filled almost exclusively with inauthentic Mexican restaurants, bland, overpriced, and aimed at "gringos."

Part of the issue, it seems, is that there are different Mexican regional cuisines, and if you're familiar with one, another (especially if it's a cuisine that involves heaps of melted cheese, which seems as though it must come from the neighbors to their north, and which indeed seems to come from a part of Mexico likely to be extra culturally influenced by the U.S.) will come across as inauthentic, even if it is in fact identical to what one would get in the region whose cuisine it's meant to be. And, food intended to mimic what's served at a restaurant in Mexico is not going to taste like Mom's home cooking, nor is it intended to.

And, there's clearly no answer, because what's recommended as the alternative to inauthentic by one self-proclaimed expert is, the next will insist, a tourist trap. I mean, everyone on Chowhound or Yelp could eat in rural Mexico, in someone's home, eat the food that family's been eating since forever, and deem it "Taco Bell meets Chipotle."

Well. Whatever this was, I enjoyed it, and can't vouch for its authenticity. Jo and I disagreed about where it stood relative to the gold standard, but it's also true that, as it happened, he'd ordered wrong. I, meanwhile, will just have to accept that I can't recreate this at home, and am unlikely to find it on Nassau Street.

The waitress seemed to think this would be too much food for one person. 

Wrong she was.

Oh, and this was unexpected: the best croissants I've ever had in this country. Also, alas, the most expensive (think over $3 for a pastry sold at a market, not a brick-and-mortar café) but you won't regret it. I know, one doesn't go to Arizona for croissants, but maybe one should reconsider?

And there was, of course, non-food-related excitement as well, with my husband and others who either research what he does or are married to that world. Mt. Lemmon and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (see photos below) were both pretty spectacular. So many cacti! And owls! A whole village of prairie dogs! Such landscape! Snow so near the desert! Both of these excursions presented an opportunity to wear my new boots and newish sunglasses in settings that actually demanded them. (My boots are covered in dust from the desert. How's that for authenticity?)

And I even ended up with a couple souvenirs - arugula seeds from a poodle-filled farmers' market in what I later learned is the posh part of town, supermarket (but superior to what I can get around here, I suspect) white corn tortillas, and opal earrings allegedly made by Native Americans and definitively the Shiny I'd long been trying to track down. Because we are fools, we didn't buy the thrift-store hat that said "U.S. Immigration."

Spouse of astrophysicist emerges from Mars-like landscape.

Stripes in both directions. Alternative explanation: I stayed put in NJ, but opted for a backdrop like those great-great-grandparents of mine, who left behind some amazing altered photos from the Old Country.

Hi! We're desert poodles.

Tucson struck me as a city of extremes. There's some unwritten rule that one must be either incredibly fit and biking up a mountain I found a bit steep as a passenger in a car, or obese at the level that the Daily Mail would do a story on your difficulties getting out of the house. Politically, going by bumper stickers and the like, it seems split between neo-hippies and "terrorist hunters." (Also: something along the lines of "Criminals Choose Unarmed Victims.") Signs tell you where you can't bring in a gun, providing a ready opportunity for visitors hailing from New York and Western Europe to reveal how out-of-touch they are with Real America. I'd been to Real, and have spent ample time in - and indeed grew up in - Fake, but had never seen that-which-is-Blue and that-which-is-Red so thoroughly intermingled. I've also never been to Austin, which I'd imagine might be similar.

Yuppie amenities - an espresso bar and, across the way, a food co-op, coexist with the presumption that one is armed.

I wanted to go into what I thought might be a Western-wear store. Then we saw this in the window.

This was an odd time to visit Tucson, though, given that it was exactly a year since the notorious shooting attack on Giffords and others. We ended up inadvertently catching part of a sermon about it, here. I suppose, given my own background, I'll never understand gun culture. I'll do what I can to atone for other parts of my parochialism, but this I'm OK with clinging to.

Anyway, now I'm back, one unimpressive DIY attempt at huevos rancheros behind me, one hefty (but well-earned) check to the poodle-sitter to mail, and one chapter whose self-imposed deadline is January 31st. 


PG said...

I don't think Austin is quite as extreme red-blue as Tuscon. Arizona as a whole has a weird political culture born partly of having so many people who aren't originally from there. Despite also having formerly been part of Mexico, it's far more antagonistic toward illegal immigrants, for example, than Texas is. (Don't know how closely you're watching the GOP primaries, but Texas Gov. Rick Perry basically torpedoed his chances when he said that people who oppose letting illegal immigrants who'd come as children attend college at in-state tuition rates had "no hearts.")

PG said...

Also, Dos Toros doesn't have tamales and thus is intrinsically inferior to wherever you ate that did.

Phoebe said...


Not watching incredibly closely, but I remember the Perry incident you're referring to.

Re: Austin, again, I've never been, never even been to any part of Texas (although, coincidentally, my husband is actually heading there in a couple days), and I'll take your word for it. I was mainly thinking of how a state generally known as very "red" is also where Whole Foods (which, granted, isn't all that "blue" at the level of leadership) is based. Most of what I know about AZ, other than from the news a year ago, comes from one previous visit for a conference, to Phoenix, and from the fact that, as it happens, another grad student studying French Jews happens to be from there. My impression of it is that it's somewhat like Florida (retirees, often Jewish; a substantial Latino population; a substantial "Real American" population; cheery college towns that are enough to make someone in a sleepy NJ college-town-that-isn't green with envy). But I don't have much of a sense of why that particular border state is most worked up about immigration.

Re: tamales - they're quite good, and this one was the best I'd had, and was ostensibly from the place to get them... but tamales aren't tacos. In foods of this nature, of whichever cuisine, I tend to prefer more filling, less dough. But if Dos Toros expanded its repertoire, I wouldn't complain.

PG said...

Tamales are a particularly exciting component of Mexican food for me because they're a little tricky to make at *all*, unlike a taco that can be thrown together in 30 seconds from any supermarket (though I tried Dos Toros once when I was downtown and they are good tacos). I found a sorta-decent Mexican restaurant in Bangkok (as opposed to the incredibly bad Mexican restaurants in Quito, Queenstown and Phnom Penh) that had tamales on the menu, but served them only on certain days when they'd made the masa. There is a weird authenticity-feeling to something with a recipe that begins with "1 lb. of lard."

Phoebe said...


A friend of mine had the worst Mexican food she'd ever had - and, frankly, the worst I've ever heard about - while in the Netherlands. It's not something I've ever tried to eat abroad (possibly relevant: I've never been to Mexico), even though there was an allegedly not-horrible taco place near my dorm in Paris. But I've now had Arizonan Mexican exactly three times, once in Tempe, twice in Tucson, one upscale place, one dive, and one place in between. None were disappointments, but nor did any make me think that Dos Toros, or (and this was the place where we introduced my MIL to the cuisine) Centrico, or other good Mexican places in NY are so terribly far off. None in NJ just yet, but apparently there's none worth trying anywhere remotely near where I live.