*This column was supposed to be about something else. And then I caught a story on the Today show about a woman whose first word to her husband after she awakened from a weeks-long coma was “Burrito.” She wanted to go eat Mexican food.
I know where that woman was coming from. Forget pondering the meaning of life. I want to talk about fajitas, tacos, chunky guacamole and huevos rancheros.
I love Mexican food. I could eat it everyday of the week. There have been stretches in my life when I’ve done just that. Once my belly is full, I often vow to take a break. But by dinner I could easily be dreaming of Chili Relleno.
Mexican is more than simply sustenance. Enchiladas generously filled with chicken, cheese or succulent seafood; dreamy green corn tamales, quesadillas that melt in your mouth and ingeniously stuffed burritos are all equivalent to a fluffed up pillow for the soul. I don’t know of an emotional load that isn’t somehow lightened by a good combination plate.
When I was a child, Saturday nights were usually reserved for Mama’s homemade tacos. However, no disrespect to Mama and the assorted Taco Bells of Oklahoma City, but I wouldn’t taste genuine Mexican cuisine until I graduated from high school and moved to Los Angeles to live with my Aunt Jewel.
One Friday evening a few weeks after I’d arrived, she dispatched my cousin Troy to a place not far away called Bill’s Taco House, down Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. Troy returned carrying a medium-sized brown paper bag with grease spots on it. I haven’t been the same since.
Truth is, to me a plate of enchiladas, rice and beans isn’t a meal; it’s a fix. Thank God that L.A., for obvious reasons, is a utopia of Mexican food. Here you eat Mexican every night and never succumb to one of those Mexican chain restaurants.
There are legends, both large and small–fancy, family run establishments with banguet-sized rooms, and tiny street stands not bigger than a porta potty with five people behind the counter, turning out enough fabulously tasty food over the years to put generations of family members through college.
Like anything else, Mexican food has its snobs. There are Americans who will tell you one type of Mexican food is more “authentic” than that of another (chains not included). I used to be one of those people until a woman named Ava set me straight a few years back.
She simply listened as I blustered into the phone about knowing where to find REAL Mexican in this town (is there any level to which a man won’t stoop to impress a woman?). Several days later Ava called and said all my talk about Mexican stayed with her. She wanted to treat me to some.
Ava emerged from her floor level duplex in the old part of Hollywood wearing faded jeans, flip flops and a white Nehru shirt. With the top down, her dreadlocks blew in the humid California night air as she directed me east until we came upon a sinister-looking industrial enclave on the other side of downtown L.A.
“Where’s the restaurant?” I gently pressed, trying to veil my unease. “Right there.” Ava pointed to a dingy catering wagon in the distance parked near some retired railroad tracks. Florescent lights from the kitchen’s interior, one of them threatening to flicker out, shone on a handful of poor, brown men and women, waiting their turn to order.
We parked, got out of the car and approached the kitchen on wheels, run by a weather-beaten old woman, a portly, middle aged gentleman and a lean man who looked just out of his teens.
“Where’s the menu?” I asked, feigning comfort at dining from a vehicle I was certain hadn’t seen any parts of an inspection from anybody’s health department. “The menu is in the pots,” Ava answered. “We eat whatever he’s got tonight.” Gee.
I was surprised when Ava, who spoke English like your average L.A. black girl, suddenly broke into conversation with the old lady using what sounded like perfect Spanish. We stepped away from the truck into the shadows to wait. Stomping sand off my black Converses, I casually complained. This wasn’t exactly an “authentic” Mexican spot. And where did you learn to speak Spanish like that?
“See the one making the tortillas?” Ava snapped under her breath, tilting her head toward the truck. The younger man, between preparing several different dishes at once, aggressively rolled and flattened corn dough on the cabinet. “Last week he was making them for his grandmother in Coahuila. He just got here–snuck into the country using the same route that I took to California ten years ago. Is that authentic enough for you?”
Before I could say anything, the old woman in the truck motioned us over. We ate by the light of a lantern, standing at a large wooden barrel that served as a community table. On our paper plates I recognized fish, chicken, rice, red beans, slices of lime, fresh mango and avocado. The rest I couldn’t tell you what it was, only that it was wonderful.
Driving back into Hollywood, we decided to visit Tower Records, en route discussing Cherry Vanilla Haaggen Daz and Automatic Man’s first album.
Later that night, Ava accepted my sheepish apology for being a Mexican food know-it-all. However, try as I might, she never forgave me not knowing that she was Mexican, too.
I wanted to return to that roach coach for more of that great food, but I was scared to go by myself.