Thursday, January 7, 2010

Viva La Raza!

I spent my college years in the sprawling heat of Los Angeles, a city with a very strong Mexican influence.  I used to really enjoy going down Olivera St., listening to the mariachi bands and eating Mexican food.  But for all of the time that I spent in L.A., I still don't really feel that I know what authentic Mexican food really is.  Yes, I've eaten my fair share of Mexican food, but I've always felt like it was Tex-Mex.  Mexican food, as interpreted by or watered down for gringos.   Watching Anthony Bourdain only served to amplify this apprehension, because he has been so vehement about his love for "real" Mexican food and his dislike of "fake" Mexican food, like Chilis.   Have I only ever been exposed to the fake stuff?  Have I never tasted the true Mexican flavors?  Even I know that hard shell tacos, and anything slathered in sour cream or nacho cheese certainly isn't real Mexican food.   I want to know what Mexican food tastes like, if it were made by a grandmother in Puebla.  What I really need is a Mexican friend who would take me home for a family meal, to get the true flavors (of course the same goes for Filipino food and Indian food).   Until then, I'm stuck eating whatever the restaurants deem fit to serve, regardless of how authentic it is.

Hawaii does not have nearly the same level of Mexican influence that L.A. does.  Whereas on the mainland, it is really beneficial to have all the signs and instruction booklets in English and Spanish, in Hawaii it is much more practical to have them in English and Japanese.  However, my friend Marie at the Latin Business Association, would kick me if I said we had no Hispanic population whatsoever.   We certainly have a number of Mexican restaurants, but without a large Hispanic population, there really isn't anyone who would notice if they got it wrong.  Nevertheless, they certainly are popular enough. 

My favorite Mexican restaurant used to be Compadres in Ward Center.   They were always a little more upscale than any other Mexican restaurant, and were part of a California based chain (both things which always made me wonder if this wasn't more oriented towards gringos).  But their food was always fresh and tasty to me.  I particularly liked their taco fiesta platter for two, which gave you a nice warm stack of tortillas, some beef, some chicken, some pork, some cheese, some guacamole, some sour cream, some jalapenos, and a few different types of salsa, and let you build whatever combinations you wanted.  I think the variety of little dishes just appealed to me, as did the ability to assemble whatever I wanted.  But, was this really how families in Oaxaca eat?  Since our Compadres abruptly closed (as did most of the chain), I will never really have the chance to compare.   I've also needed to find a new place of my Mexican fix.    I know that Jose's on Koko Head has been around for a long time, but somehow they've never clicked for me.  Residents on the Aiea side certainly swear by Banditos, but it's a little far to go just for a burrito.  But I found a small little watering hole, right in Market City Shopping Center, called Torito's Mexican Food, that not only serves what I perceive to be authentic Mexican, but definitely some of the best Mexican food I've ever tasted.

Tortilla Chips & Salsa at Torito's
To begin with, instead of bread and butter, like any good Mexican restaurant they give you tortilla chips and salsa.   But this is not your ordinary bag of Tostitos and a bowl of Pace Picante.  The chips at Torito's have an extraordinary texture.  They're perfectly crisp, but do not any hint of oiliness to them.  They don't have all of the bumpiness and salt of a tostitos, and are overall thinner and lighter.  They have an amazing crunch for something so thin in fact.  They are so totally addictive, your hand just seems to pass them to your mouth on automatic.  But it is the salsa that, to me, is out of this world.  They only have one type, not a long bar like some other places, but with salsa this good, all you need is one.  Whereas Pace has the consistency of ketchup with some chunks of vegetables in it, the salsa at Torito's has the texture of finely minced fresh crisp tomatoes.  It's similar to the texture of the green onion and ginger that you get with good cold ginger chicken.  It's not so much a sauce as it is a relish.   Like good lomi lomi salmon, it is served nicely chilled, which conterbalances its spiciness.   To me, it is also the perfect blend of spiciness that doesn't overpower the fresh taste of the other vegetables in it. I have had a lot of different salsa, but the one at Torito's is my favorite.  Of course, if it isn't spicy enough for you, you can ask them for some of their special "hot" salsa.   It's a green salsa made with jalapeno peppers and habanero peppers (infamous for being on the very hot end of the Scoville scale).  It is so hot, it will be burning your tummy for the next 2 days.

Taquitos at Torito's
Once you've gotten past the chips and salsa, Torito's makes a mean taquito.  When I was little, the taquito was always my favorite Mexican dish.   I think it was because I didn't, and still don't, like the texture of refried beans.  While most places put refried beans in just about every dish, a taquito is just a cigar shaped roll of meat.   With just meat and nothing else, except a little guacamole or sour cream to dip in, and a shape that is just perfect for little hands to hold and little mouths to wrap around, it's no wonder I loved them as a kid.  The taquitos at Torito's are fantastic because, at a lot of places the taquitos are crispy on the ends but the middles get soggy with oil or soaking in guacamole.  At Torito's the taquitos are crunchy from end to end, but the meat is still juicy inside.  What more can you ask for?

Chimichanga at Torito's
As I grew older and learned to tolerate a little bit of refried beans, my favorite Mexican dish became the chimichanga.   I know, with the amount of sour cream and jack cheese on both my taquitos and my chimichanga, I'm really only wading into gringo fare.  I'm sure that no real Mexican grandmother from Veracruz would ever deep fry their burrito.  But they just taste so good, especially the one at Torito's.  I especially like my filled with carnitas or roasted pork.   In fact, Mexican carnitas aren't too dissimilar from kalua pig, except for a difference in seasoning.  Diving into layers of juicy pork, cheese, rice, guacamole, sour cream, and other goodies, my mind shuts down and I just never want to stop trancelike shovelling it into my face.  

Tacos Al Pastor at Torito's
As good as the standard Tex-Mex fare tastes, watching Bourdain made me really want to experience more authentic south of the border cuisine.  One of the most enticing things he ate was a specialty of Mexico City called tacos al pastor.   He said that they were so good, they became the preferred meal option for the entire crew for the entire trip (which really says something).  So imagine my surprise when I saw it on the menu at Torito's.   Just looking at them, you know you're geting something different from the usual ground beef, refried beans, sour cream, lettuce, jack cheese, tomatoes and olives that pretty much defines Tex Mex food.  This was a fresh, soft, tortilla that actually had a lot of corn flavor.  Atop was some tender, juicy sliced pork, topped with a superbly fresh salsa.   However, as delicious as it was, it was a little disappointing too.   My understanding was that tacos al pastor was a Mexican version of the meat that you get on a gyro or shwarma in Greek cuisine.  But the meat in the tacos al pastor was more similar to thinnly sliced pork chops, than it was like the super soft, super savory shavings of beef and lamb that you find in a gyro.   This was one dish that, albeit tasty, left me wanting something more.

Chicken Mole at Torito's
If there was one dish though, that I thought was truly authentic Mexican grandmother food, it would have be mole.  Mole is a spicy, chocolate based sauce that I first found out about reading a webcomic called Wapsi Square, whose lead character Monica is part Mexican.  The fact that I had never even heard of it before, lead me to the believe that this was something truly authentically Mexican.  For one thing, you hardly ever see it on the menu at a regular Tex Mex place.   For another, it is a spicy savory blend of chocolate and chilis.  For most of the country (or the world for that matter), we have a hard time thinking of chocolate as anything other than a sweet confection.   Therefore the idea of chocolate covered chicken seems kind of repugnant.  But originally, raw chocolate (which isn't sweet until you add sugar to it) was used by the Aztecs in the same way that chilis and other spices were.  So a savory spicy melange made with chocolate would be very uniquely and authentically Mexican.  When I first got to taste it at Torito's, I was really floored.  Although chocolate may seem familiar, and Mexican spices may seem familiar, the mole had a flavor that I had truly never experienced before.  It was at once firey and earthy.  The fragrance of the chocolate danced around all of these different heady, picante spices.  The chicken, while moist and tender, really was nothing more than a vehicle for this savory concoction (to call it a gravy or sauce seems almost degrading).  I had finally tasted something, I could thoroughly imagine a Mexican grandmother cooking for me.

Enchilada Plate at Torito's
Torito's has a number of other goodies that I have yet to try which are also classically Mexican.   They've got a fish ala veracruz.  I have always wondered what authentic Mexican seafood dishes taste like, and I'm not referring to the fish tacos you get at Taco Del Mar.  Veracruz is famous for being Mexico's seafood capitol.   Torito's has tamales, which are sort of a Mexican version of joong, and equally as beloved by its constituents.  I have never been a big fan of the masa (or corn meal) and corn husks that they use instead of rice and lotus leaf as in joong.  But then that may be because I've simply never tasted the authentic homemade thing.    They've also got huevos con chorizo (or a Mexican style eggs and sausage).   It's also something I've never tried authentically, although I understand that good chorizo is not too different from good Portuguese sausage.

Salsa at Torito's
I don't know that I'll truly ever be able to distingush the truly authentic Mexican cuisine from the gringofied Tex Mex that is so pervasive around the country.  While Torito's has their fair share of deep fried, sour cream, and jack cheese dishes, they also have things like tacos al pastor and mole, which may be as close as you can get in Hawaii.   I don't know that they're truly authentic, but I do know that they taste really, really good.

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