Mexican Food Traditions in the Strip

    Coming fast out of the West and Southwest, poised to knock Chinese out of first place as America’s favorite ethnic food, is Mexican cuisine.

    There are many theories as to why that is so, ranging from the fast-growing Hispanic population, which leads to increased availability, to just being the latest wave especially with younger diners. But my theory is that the food is simply delicious, easy to make, and contrary to popular assumptions, not necessarily much hotter than the hot peppers on your pizza.

    Just ask Edgar Alvarez of Edgar’s Best Tacos, a delightful, cheerful man who greets his many lunchtime fans from his cozy kitchen in the courtyard off 18th Street in the Strip. You may remember him as the chef at Mallorca, the owner of Taco Loco on the South Side, and proprietor of the stand he used to have outside of Reyna Foods. That’s a lot of talent cooking for us.

    Edgar’s Best Tacos’ Edgar Alvarez

    Edgar’s Best Tacos’ Edgar Alvarez

    Alvarez says that heat is no longer a discouraging factor. “In the States, people want food spicier than they do in Mexico. They like it,” he says. “When they ask for chile arból and I say that it’s spicy, they say, ‘Yeah, yeah, we like it spicy.’ Okay, then; so I go ahead.” Would he eat it? “No, my body says enough.”

    My 11-year-old granddaughter Elana is a star example of youths who are riding the heat wave. Recently I held a chile-tasting event for her with a very few of the roughly 60 varieties that are used in Mexico. I’m planning another so she can savor the latest chiles I bought; I want to know if she likes the differences between a regular pasilla chile and the harder to find pasilla de Oaxaca. Chilehead that she is, I expect that she will discern those flavor nuances, an important skill as the deft use of chiles is often thought to be the essence of Mexican culinary art.

    Let’s talk about that hot feeling, the result of the chemical compound capsaicin. When capsaicin meets flesh the brain reads hot and then causes eyes to well with tears, among other responses.

    How much capsaicin does a pepper have? Just check the Scoville Heat Unit (SHU) scale (see chart on page 12), which rates many of the 1,500-plus peppers used worldwide. Pure capsaicin is about 15M SHU. At the other extreme is the familiar bell pepper, which rates 0. In between are arból at about 15-30k SHU, jalapeño at 2.5-8k, and poblano (which is typically used for stuffed peppers) at 1-2k. Those peppers on your pizza typically run 100-1k.

    Reyna’s Linda Jones

    Reyna’s Linda Jones

    Carolina Reaper chiles, currently holding the Guinness record for hottest at over 2M SHU, are sold seasonally at Reyna Foods. “People ask for them,” says Linda Jones of Reyna. It is her great pleasure to grow those chiles in a large field she farms. She is currently thinking about adding the South American aji chiles, which have a sweeter note than their Mexican cousins and of which there are several varieties. “I’ve expanded my line of hot salsas. I’m always looking for hot-flavored products, like extra-hot candies.” Elana would like those.

    Other than chiles, ingredients for Mexican cuisine are an amalgam of influences from every culture that has ever graced the land. Corn is indigenous, but wheat is not; it was introduced by Spanish priests because it was the only grain allowed for making the Host used during Mass. Lebanese immigrants brought the cone-shaped meat grilled for gyros, but soon substituted pork and added pineapple to get al pastor, a wildly popular
    street-food dish.

    Each of the Mexican states brings specialties. Japanese fishermen settled in Baja California in the 1930s, introducing the country to fish tempura, which was quickly adapted and eaten in tacos. Oaxaca is famous for moles, while in Jalisco it is birria, traditionally a lamb stew.

    And please don’t use that disparaging term Tex-Mex. American innovations are on their own branch of the Mexican food tree. Hard corn taco shells are said to have been invented by Mexican Americans. Cheddar and jack cheeses are also American additions, but do try Oaxaca, cotija, and queso fresco (with or without crema) for interesting changes. And as for the ubiquitous barbecue, it is a descendant of barbacoa, traditionally a method of slow-cooking meat in a deep pit.

    Scoville Scale

    Edgar’s recipes are from Mexico City, where his mother worked in his aunts’ restaurant. “They are family recipes. I think of what my mom would want to put in.” He grills his tomatoes and adds salt, serrano peppers, about 8-22k SHU, and spices. Be sure to order a very satisfying horchata with your lunch. Containing rice milk, vanilla, and spices, it is one of the several Mexican drinks available.

    Want to try your hand at making Mexican food from scratch? That’s where Reyna Foods comes in. It is a one-stop destination for all edible things Mexican, even epazote, an herb that has gone viral worldwide; try a pinch or two in beans. Reyna also offers homemade wraps and a selection of foods using in-house recipes.

    “When I first started working with Mexican food people would ask what an enchilada was,” recalls Linda. “Now grocery food sales have taken off like a rocket.”

    Purchase a readymade salsa, add your favorite meat or veggie, choose a wrap, perhaps a cheese, and there is instant dinner. Or cook a homemade salsa in about the same time it takes for some Italian versions.

    Be sure not to limit yourself to just the wraps and fillings of a vast and varied cuisine. Try Chiles en Nogada—stuffed poblanos with walnut salsa topped with pomegranate seeds. Or choose from one of the many red and green salsas that enrobe meat and fish, such as Pescado en Chile Colorado (fish in red garlic salsa).

    However you arrange your meal, enjoy every bite.

    ¡Viva México!

    Reyna Foods is located at 2023 Penn Avenue in the Strip;

    Edgar’s Best Tacos is located at 2627 Penn Avenue in the Strip (in the courtyard behind an iron gate); 412-849-8864;

    Notes from Cynthia: A) See Wikipedia for a fuller discussion of capsaicin. And always, always wear gloves when working with hot peppers and avoid touching skin and face. B) My Mexican-food bible is Mexico: The Cookbook by Margarita Carrillo Arronte, although you can’t go wrong with the many recipes that are available on the Patti Jinich website. Other references include Diana Kennedy’s several volumes and the Dos Caminos cookbooks.

    Cynthia F. Weisfield is a freelance writer whose articles about art and food appear regularly in multiple publications.