Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Guest Post- La Mexicana/El Senor’s

Enjoy this guest post from Beau Cadiyo at the Cleveland Sandwich Board...

When he was growing up in Mauritius, my father was always told by his parents that “variety is the spice of life.” When I was little, my father, like his father, drilled that saying into my head whenever we didn’t want to eat something. Back then it was annoying, but like Mark Twain, I thought him stupid at the time and am now impressed by how much he’s learned. He was raised on Indian and Chinese food, studied medicine in France and lived in New York for a couple of summers; when he moved to Cleveland in the 1970's, the food scene was comparatively limited. Much of the fare was beef, chicken and vegetables; nobody talked about anything more exotic than stir fry.

For anyone in Cleveland reading this today, that’s nearly impossible to imagine – the city is small, but we have an exceptionally diverse pool of restaurants. I submit to you that this is because of immigration: without immigrants, our diets would mainly be comprised of burgers, cold cuts, TV dinners and, perhaps, Salisbury Steak, and that’s true across the country. But thanks to immigration, I have Mexican, Indian, Japanese, Thai, Russian, Italian, Chinese, Greek and Lebanese food within a five-minute drive of my house, in as white-bread a suburb of Cleveland as you can get – and these restaurants are owned and run by Mexican, Indian, Japanese, Thai, Russian, Italian, Chinese, Greek and Lebanese people. The only downside is that arguments inevitably break out over where to go to dinner.

I grew up in Southern California, about twenty miles as the crow flies from the San Diego/Tecate border crossing. You’d be excused for thinking that, along the only border in the world that separates the first world from the developing world, there would be some pretty exciting and varied culinary scenery. But in fact, all that’s really on offer is Mexican food. I’ve eaten Mexican food in San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Oregon and throughout Baja California. I’ve eaten burritos in Washington, D.C., and I thought that they couldn’t get any worse until I tried one in Cardiff, Wales, where they mixed tinned? peas, broccoli and “salsa” (really canned tomato paste with spices) with the Heinz beans and bland white rice. (Even the Welsh hated it – that place closed within a month.) Now that I live in Ohio, whenever I go home people ask if I’ve missed the Mexican food in California.

The answer is an emphatic no. When I’m in California, I miss the Mexican food in Painesville.

Painesville is not the first place you’d expect to find amazing Mexican food; most people assume that Mexican food closer to the southern border is better. Painesville, though, is a center for Mexican immigration because of the jobs available in labor-intensive manufacturing and tree farming. There is a healthy Mexican population out here and, as with any immigrant community, they brought their food. Their amazing, delectable, delicious food.

It took me a while to realize that not all Mexican food is created equal. Japanese food in the US is pretty uniform – sashimi in Santa Barbara is going to be almost identical to sashimi in Miami. Mexican food is different – it’s a huge country with dramatic variation in its regional cuisine – not that most Americans, or even most Californians, are really aware of this.

By far, the best value item on their menu – and my favorite – is the burrito, Leon-style. They are made right before your eyes, in a time-honored method. First, the cook clears the grill with loud scrapes of his metal spatula. He slaps on shredded Mexican cheese and flings a large white flour tortilla on top of it. His internal timer tells him when he should scrape the melted, browned cheese off and flip the tortilla, toasting its other side, before scooping it into a giant Styrofoam container. Then, he ladles the filler in – rice, beans, whatever else you want. He makes a pass at wrapping it into burrito form; generally he’s filled it so full that it’s more of a tube than a neat parcel. You’re not going to be able to eat it with your hands, so you break out a fork and knife and dig in.

I don’t have a favorite filling; instead, I change things up. The egg with salsa is generally the safest bet, since it’s the least likely to put you in a food coma after lunch. The chorizo is spicy, spilling from a cut burrito in little brown nuggets of fatty deliciousness. The shredded chicken has the best texture of any of the ingredients and is milder than the egg, but still spicy. The tender, delicate pork chunks in green sauce melt in your mouth. Unfortunately, though, the beef is often tough – it’s my least favorite of all the La Mexicana options.

The most consistently beautiful thing about these burritos is the tortilla/cheese combination. The thick, toasted tortilla is simultaneously crunchy and chewy, resisting your teeth almost like chewing gum (as opposed to the Qdoba tortilla I ate last weekend, which only existed to hold the filling in and added almost no texture whatsoever to the burrito). The cheese also gets crisp from the grill, but retains a stringiness that can make it stretch out like fresh mozzarella from a good slice of pizza.

Recently, I’ve noticed more and more white and black faces eating at the bar counters and shopping for spices and pastries. The employees, in response, are learning more and more English in order to perform their duties. It’s a mutually beneficial trade – the immigrants get assimilated more easily and quickly into our country, the counter has different colored faces and the patrons get some of the tastiest Mexican food in America.

My dear father, Bernard Cadiyo, would approve.

La Mexicana Grocery & El Señor's Tacos
170 East Washington Street
Painesville, OH 44077

Thanks for the post Beau! Check out my guest post on The Cleveland Sandwich Board here.