Mexico is a vast, diverse nation with culinary influences stemming from Spain and the New World alike. And then the importation of Mexican cuisine to the United States has itself wrought several distinct foodways: Tex-Mex and New Mexican styles are really their own legitimate cuisines. In many cases, Americans over the years became accustomed to Tex-Mex as representing Mexican cuisine period, which was somewhat unfortunate since it created expectations for Mexican cooking that actually stem from a different, unique tradition. However, in recent years, especially with the influx of Mexican immigrants throughout the South, Americans have started to see the full spectrum of Mexican cuisine and its authentic origins.
In parts of the South where food crops are found, such as parts of Georgia and South Carolina, or places like Ocala, Florida, where the local horse industry relies heavily on Mexican immigrants for labor, you will especially find authentic Mexican cooking. Even rather small towns like Williston, Florida, or Estill, South Carolina, have tiendas, or Mexican grocery stores, to serve their ample Mexican-American populations. Often the tienda will be combined with a small restaurant and sometimes, as in one case in Live Oak, Florida, with a laundromat as well. The concept is to allow families who may live in rural areas a distance away to get a lot done with one trip: clothes washing, shopping, and supper as well.
As the primary customer base is actually Mexican-Americans, the food is genuinely authentic at such establishments. Most of it is in the style of traditional home-cooking, and there is some regional variation, though much is from the northern or coastal areas of Mexico. Conventional tacos are of course common and come with a variety of meats—marinated delicacies such as al pastor (pork with pineapple) or barbacoa (slow-roasted beef)—plus the staple seasonings of onions and cilantro.
The heaps of cheese and sour cream you may have encountered in Tex-Mex tacos, however, are absent here. Instead there is a green sauce and a red sauce commonly brought out with the tacos—not to be confused with salsas served with chips—and you’re welcome to use one or both. They are both spicy, though the red one more so than the green.
Chips and salsa probably have also been brought out too, however, though in some smaller taco stands this courtesy is absent due to the inexpensive and quick nature of street food. If chips do appear, they may come with a red salsa or a green one, and possibly a very salty but not spicy cilantro-based one that is nearly akin to a wet dark green paste and is to be used sparingly. A variety of salsas based on chili peppers and not tomatoes also may appear, varying by region and by what peppers are currently on hand in the kitchen or over in the adjoining tienda. Empanadas, more associated in the popular mind with Cuban, Caribbean, or Central American cuisines, also can at times be found as quick tienda fare: the Mexican variant normally is larger than the Caribbean ones and also served with a slight covering of grated white Mexican cheese.
Enchiladas, common to Tex-Mex and New Mexican cooking as well, are a vital aspect of true Mexican cuisine, and while enchiladas verdes with a green sauce are frequently found, the real place of pride is for enchiladas rojas, with a dark red mole poblano sauce. The exact origins of mole are unclear, but it combines roasted chili peppers, spices, and chocolate. One legend of its origin claims that a convent learned at the last minute that the archbishop was coming the next day for a visit, and the poor nuns realized they had little to feed him. Searching the kitchen for anything that might do, they came up with some ingredients that were rarely combined, and, determined to make the best of the situation, produced the mole sauce and roasted a couple of chickens over which they poured it. Of course, the unique dish was a hit with the archbishop and word spread, bringing mole poblano to kitchens everywhere.
Seafood also plays a central role in Mexican cooking, something more or less lost in the Tex-Mex and New Mexican traditions where beef, pork, and chicken instead are the stars of the show. Shrimp and fish are the main attractions here, with the options at many restaurants, such as Ocala’s La Hacienda, to choose the sauce or style of cooking for the given seafood items you desire. For example, you could select shrimp and then pick ranchero style which is a tomato sauce rich with onions and oregano and some garlic. Or you could combine the same shrimp with Veracruzana, a style based on hot chili peppers, onions, lime juice, and often olives. Numerous other approaches and regional styles of cooking fish exist as well, all centered around sauces commonplace to their respective regions. You may not think of oregano as typical to Mexican cooking, but it is—walnuts are as well, and chocolate, which predates the Spanish in the New World and was known to the Aztecs and Mayans—though they produced a frothy drink instead of using it in candies and cooking as it is today.
Speaking of which, sweets in Mexico are highly varied and omnipresent affairs. Natillas, a custard brought over from Spain, is common in a variety of styles, but baked sweets and pastries known as pan dolce are even more frequently seen, especially for sale in tiendas. These pastries, sweet breads, cookies, and donuts are commonly baked every day or so at the tienda, or perhaps at a nearby bakery, and so they are store-bought treats and not things most people would prepare at home. That said, they are staples and not meant only for special events. The donuts are often consumed at breakfast and are larger than many American donuts but coated with icing or coconut akin to their American cousins.
The sweet breads, called conchas for their shell-like look, are just that: breads high in sugar, sweet in taste, and often dusted with cinnamon—some are small and pastry-sized, and some are large and like a loaf of actual bread. Campechanas in contrast are pastries proper—square but somewhat like what we often call a Danish pastry. One of my favorites of these is flavored deeply with anise. Marranitos are small pastries shaped like piglets and flavored also with cinnamon. If you get there when the baked treats show up, you’ll find them being wheeled over on large carts to the traditional cases of white shelves behind glass doors, and often a line of customers is already waiting for their arrival.
While the larger tiendas often have an attached restaurant, smaller ones are more like typical corner shops. They sell a limited selection of groceries with a concentration on Mexican essentials not commonly found in American supermarkets and may not have meats or frozen goods (the larger tiendas often have good-sized butcher departments). Phone cards to call relatives back in Mexico, soccer jerseys of Mexican teams, and sometimes other goods associated with the old country are often found in tiendas, but the central emphasis is always soundly on food. They are grocers, before all else. Despite the fact that some do have restaurants attached, their emphasis is also on cooking at home, which is more affordable and also a central aspect of Mexican culture—the home-cooked meal, using produce locally-grown if not from one’s own garden. In many parts of the South with a high Mexican-American population, there is also a strong agricultural presence and this helps inform and encourage the same type of focus on local goods and food that begins in the local soil.
Tex-Mex and New Mexican cuisines have their own very important contributions to American foodways in the South, but the arrival of authentic Mexican has added other options and new tastes to experience. Moreover, while often you have to travel to a large city to experience the highest quality of authentic Chinese, Japanese, or Italian world cuisines, the best of true Mexican is often located in humble circumstances in the small towns of the South, making it our own and very exciting indeed.
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