A Gringo's Guide to Hispanic Food
By: David Harris
So you want to know the story? Well, it will take some time but please, have a nice, cool cerveza and I will tell you while we wait for our food. I was born in Laredo, Texas. My father was in the Air Force but didn't move around as much as other families. We moved several hours north to San Angelo when I was five. If it isn't obvious enough, I'm a gringo born to two gringo parents - not a shred of Mexican or any other Hispanic blood in me. However, my mother's best friend was a Mexican woman who would often bring over authentic Mexican dishes to our family on a Saturday night, or on Sunday after church. Her sons were my two best friends, and we grew up together playing cowboys and indians and soldiers in the Texas dirt. They would often speak Spanish to their mother, but they didn't like it and I almost never heard them speak it anywhere else. Sometimes I felt like they were a little ashamed of it, maybe feeling less American because of their family roots. Either way, I didn't really end up learning much in the way of Spanish as a kid, but I did learn to love Mexican food - not Taco Bell or El Pollo Loco, but the truly Mexican dishes like flautas and tamales. With one exception. When I was 11 years old I was served menudo. If you aren't familiar with this dish it's basically a glorified tripe soup. The base is the inner lining of the stomach of a cow. Even with my Mexican comida awareness, I couldn't do menudo. I politely excused myself and vomited profusely. Sorry! I know that wasn't a pretty picture, but it's one of the only things in the world of Mexican food I didn't like immediately. I eventually developed a taste for it, but it was a long fought battle. Nevertheless, I developed a sort of pride around my love of “true” Mexican food. I saw myself as superior to my peers. After church on Sunday when my friends and I would go out to lunch, I was always trying to make my scoffing attitude toward the suggestion of going to Moe’s or Chipotle as evident as possible, then suggesting we go to a “real” Mexican restaurant where we could get “authentic” Mexican food like carnitas and frijoles over arroz.
Following my high school graduation I took some classes from Angelo State University. I didn’t really like the college atmosphere - it wasn’t quite adventurous for me, so I decided to take a road trip after my second trip with my two Mexican-American friends. We drove deep down into Mexico and experienced the wide breadth of culture and comida. I also got to work quite a bit on my Spanish! I was nearly fluent by the time we returned to Texas (or at least I felt like it). What an experience or a young person to have! What an asset to the rest of their life! Ok, I’m getting a little off track here, sorry. Anyway, after hanging out on the beaches, flirting with muchas senoritas at different cantinas and climbing some of the highest peaks in the country, we returned to Texas. I ended up joining the Air Force and was stationed in El Paso. I made some great friends, one in particular, a beautiful young Mexican-American girl named Natalia. We met at the church I was attending there. The first time I saw her I nearly choked on my own saliva. I guess I’ve never been that good at talking to girls, at least not ones as beautiful as she looked that night. Anyway, I went up to her hoping to impress her. Hola Senorita, Como Estas? She gave me a slightly offended look. “I don’t really speak much Spanish. Sorry.” she said. I felt incredibly embarrassed. “I’m sorry, I’m just really into Mexican culture and stuff.” I said awkwardly. She still wasn’t impressed. “Ok, I should probably go now.” I started to walk away but she stopped me. “Well, how would you like to come over to my parents. I’m sure they would be excited to meet a gringo who speaks more Spanish than their own daughter. I’m already having several people over.” I went without any hesitation. I’m not sure if I was more excited at the prospect of being in a room with the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen in my life, or going somewhere where I might get some authentic Mexican cuisine made by actual Mexicans (it goes without saying that the “Mexican” food in the Air Force is about as Mexican as an Italian on vacation in Puerto Rico). Upon introduction to her padres, I made it my goal to impress them as much as possible, hoping it would somehow rub off on their daughter. I tried the same greeting on them I had on her. It worked much better (I’d always been better with the parents than with the object of my affections). They were impressed! Hola! Habla Espanol! O! Bueno, bueno! Quiera a vecas comida? They asked if I wanted some dinner. I responded in the affirmative. Obviously I made my love of “true” Mexican food as evident as possible. I told them how much I loved menudo and flautas. They were eating it up. “It’s a shame, Natalia doesn’t speak as good Spanish as you do! She also doesn’t know how to cook our traditional dishes! Shame.” Natalia glared at me. I told them that I was an aspiring, amature chef, trying to learn how to make my favorite Mexican dishes. Needless to say, Natalia’s parents liked me a lot more than Natalia at first.
I don’t know what’s more surprising, that Natalia eventually fell for me, or that she ended up attending culinary school and learned to make the Mexican dishes I loved so much better than I could have ever dreamed of. She was attending school in Austin, but whenever she was on break she would come back to El Paso and we would spend weekends making the dishes I loved so much with her mother and other relatives. I became very much part of the family, and my love of authentic Mexican food was surpassed for how I felt about Natalia. My contract with the Air Force was up just around the time Natalia graduated from culinary school. We were engaged that summer and got married in October. For me there was never any question about what we would do in our post-military/school lives - open an “authentic” Mexican restaurant. We moved to San Angelo where my father had purchased a place for us to get started in with me eventually buying the place from him once we met some success. I insisted we call the place “Natalia’s”, though my wife wasn’t all that happy with naming a Mexican restaurant after her before knowing if it would be successful. Luckily, Natalia’s was a hit in San Angelo, especially among the college crowd, as it was on the same street as San Angelo State. They loved the idea of eating “authentic” Mexican cuisine, maybe sharing somewhat in the superiority complex toward “other gringos” that plagued me. I took special pleasure in introducing guests to menudo, as well as our completely house made tortillas.
Ok, ok, I’m sorry, I know you didn’t ask for all this backstory, I’ll get to the point. A few years ago Natalia and I went on another trip deep into Mexico to get some culinary inspiration, leaving my recently retired parents to run the restaurant. After about a month on the road, getting some magnificent ideas from food joints all over Mexico, my lovely wife had an idea. Why don’t we travel to some other Hispanic countries to get some more diverse inspiration. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this, as I had a very one, Mexican track mind. We went to several different countries in South and Central America, as well as the Caribbean, gaining some great insight into other Hispanic food traditions. However, the most important of all these extra trips was the first. We flew to the Dominican Republic. My culinary and Hispanic obsessed world was shaken very quickly upon arriving.
After getting into the terminal, Natalia wanted to go to the washroom to freshen up and then call her parents. Knowing how long that usually takes, I made a beeline for a small cafe inside the airport to get a coke and maybe a quick snack, already considering any opportunity for culinary inspiration that might present itself. I sat down at the bar and asked for a coke and some fritas de maiz con salsa. The server looked confused. He said that they didn’t have any of those, but he could give me some plantanitos. I looked at him puzzledly. I asked what they were, realizing two things: 1- Each of these Hispanic countries had their own distinct cuisine that completely varied from Mexican food, and 2- I had almost no knowledge of Dominican food. He explained in a very different Spanish dialect that plantanitos were chips from the plantain - a banana like, but more savory, fruit. I asked if they served arroz con frijoles. He almost looked offended. “Senor, you’re in the Dominican Republic now, we don’t eat frijoles, we eat habicheuelas. I was confused, and the confusion didn’t end there.
We left the airport and started visiting different restaurants. I learned a lot over those next few days. For instance, sal cocho is a savory and delicious stew served with rice, or bacolao is a cod-fish based dish that can be served as a cold salad or hot over rice. I had no knowledge of the differences between Hispanic cuisines! I enjoyed my time there so much I’ve returned 3 times already to learn more and to make more contacts. Natalia likewise was impressed by the flavors we came across in the Dominican Republic. We traveled next to Chile and to several over adjacent countries. We also visited Spain a few months later to get an idea of where some of the original flavors of Hispanic countries came from.
And that my friend, is my story. That’s how how Texas got its first Hispanic fusion restaurant chain, employing cooks from almost every single Hispanic country, and how a gringo learned that his pride in knowing Hispanic cuisine was misplaced! Sorry I’m so long winded, but look, our food is here, here comes Natalia! This dish is menudo, I wouldn’t suggest diving right into it. Try a flauta first, they are great with the fried plantains. Oh, and make sure you try the asado, it’s a Argentinian styled grilling. Oh, don’t forget the…….