Domino's pizza

I had some pizza with my sons the other day and I remembered how difficult it was finding food for them to eat in Mexico. It’s not that they don’t have good food in Mexico. It’s just that my sons didn’t like Mexican food made by Mexicans that wasn’t like the American Mexican food that we usually eat in Chicago. We went to Pizza Hut in Celaya and the menu listed many of the same combinations available in the U.S. Of course, they also served pizza with jalapeño peppers. I would have been surprised if they didn’t offer jalapeños. This is a country that always adds some sort of condiment to whatever food is served. If you sit down to eat, you are expected to put red or green salsa on just about everything you eat. So, I was surprised by what I saw at Pizza Hut. People put catsup (in Mexico, it’s hardly ever ketchup) on their pizza. I tried explaining that the sauce on the pizza was made from tomatoes, but everyone said that pizza didn’t taste right without catsup. Well, the surprise was that they actually ate a food item that wasn’t spicy!

Please pass the catsup

Taco Loco

You can’t go to Taco Loco anymore. But I often do. If only in my mind. I remember it well. On the corner of the public parking lot at the northeast corner of Wabash and Balbo, in the shadow of the Conrad Hilton Hotel. Sacrificed to expand the parking lot and Chicago’s dwindling parking availability with four more parking spaces. I should post a picture to show you where it used to be. In the 1960s, we often drove past it. We, as Mexicans, always wondered who would name a Mexican restaurant Taco Loco. We never ate there because Mexicans didn’t eat at Mexican restaurants in the 1960s. They only worked there. In fact, I never even heard of any Mexicans ever eating in a restaurant. If we ate outside of the house it was at someone else’s home or we brought our own tortillas, bolillos, carnitas, peppers, and salsa. When my parents divorced, my father would pick us up for visitation in his flourescent-avocado-green 1971 Ford Maverick. Sometimes we would drive southbound on Wabash past Taco Loco. I was always curious about Taco Loco, a small, white brick building that didn’t look very well-maintained. In fact, it always looked like it was about to fall over until they knocked it down.

As an adult, when I could finally do everything that was prohibited by my parents, I finally went to Taco Loco. I loved their food. Let’s just say that forbidden fruit tastes the best! No one who worked there was a native English speaker, if you know what I mean. Luckily, I spoke Spanish. I ate there whenever I was downtown. The food was really cheap, too, especially if considered that this was a downtown restaurant. In 1992, during the World Cup semifinals, I was eating, sitting near the window. I saw some drunken soccer fans across the street, waving German flags and singing German songs. Suddenly, they ran out of songs to sing and they started shouting, “Baseball sucks!” They were scaring me. Luckily, they didn’t see me and their bus came right away.

When I taught Spanish at Columbia College Chicago, I often ate there after class. Then one day, the Spanish coördinator told me that I had to take my Spanish classes on a field trip. I wasn’t sure where to take them. When I tried to arrange a trip, we couldn’t agree on a time because every student was a full-time student. And many of them also worked. Talk about complications. So I’m sitting in Taco Loco eating enchiladas when it occurred to me that I could take them to Taco Loco! We were only a block away from our classroom and we could meet in Taco Loco instead of going to class. This actually worked out well for everyone. Since Taco Loco was open 24 hours, we met there for our 9:00 a.m. class. Everyone ordered their food in Spanish from the non-English-speaking waitress and they spoke Spanish as much as possible. Even the Spanish coördinator liked our destination for the field trip. No one else had ever thought of going to Taco Loco. I guess I’m just a trailblazer. I can’t help it. 🙂

Where did Taco Loco go?

My father

José Diego Rodríguez Rosiles

My father is a very unique person who has his own way of doing things. He was a factory mechanic who could work wonders with duct tape. No matter where we were, he always had some tools in his pocket. He was proud of being mechanic. If someone had some sort of mechanical problem, my father would volunteer to fix whatever needed fixing. No problem was too small for him. A squeaky door? He carried an little oil can with him. Door knob keeps falling off? My father would attach it with his tools and extra screws that he always carried with him just in case. I should write a novel about him: My Father, the Super Fix-It Handyman. Or maybe make him into a comic book superhero who can fix any problem no matter how small. My father was always fixing bicycles, skates, skateboards, and automobiles for everyone on the block. He had just enough mechanical aptitude, talent, and expertise to keep him trapped in the middle class the rest of his life. And, it turns out that I’m not much different than him, although I’ll never be able to make repairs just like my father.

When I was a boy, my father often embarrassed me. He always liked to attract attention to himself by telling jokes in his broken English. I was afraid to bring home friends when my father was home because then he would want to get in on the conversation with them and he didn’t speak English very well. So most of the converstation would involve a lot of repetition because he didn’t understand everything that was said, but he wanted to show that he was eager to learn English. It’s now forty years later and he still does this. He has never stopped trying to learn English. If I talk to him in Spanish, he still insists that I speak to him in English so he can learn English. In fact, if I talk to him in Spanish, he doesn’t understand a word I say.

Another thing about my father was that he was always so Mexican. He could just stand there silently and everyone would know that he was Mexican because he always stood there looking so Mexican. He was about 5’6″, thin, with black hair slicked back with vaselina, brown eyes, and a Cantinflas mustache. Plus, you could see the tools bulging from his pants pockets, along with a small jar of salsa or peppers, just in case.

Whenever we did something together, he would always preface it by saying that he used to that activity in Mexico when he was a boy. When we played basketball in our backyard at 4405 S. Wood Street in Back of the yards, he told us that he always played basketball with his brothers in Celaya, Guanajuato, Mexico. When I was eight, I actually thought that basketball was a Mexican sport. While playing, my father told me that once I stopped dribbling the ball, I couldn’t dribble it again. I had never heard of such a rule. I told him, “I don’t want to play the Mexican way.” Of course, I didn’t know any better at the time even though there is a rule against double dribbbing.

For breakfast, my father would prepare this concoction that he learned to make from his father in, you guessed it, Mexico. He would pour some Mogen David grape wine into a glass, put in a raw egg, and mix it up together.  He would drink the first glass to show me how it was done. Then, he would hand me a glass and I would force myself to drink it. At first I didn’t like it and I told him that I didn’t want a Mexican breakfast, but I eventually learned to like it. I also learned to eat raw eggs right out of the eggshell by poking to holes at either end of the egg. I learned from my father because this is how he ate breakfast in Mexico. This was long before I had ever heard of salmonella. I guess God does protect children and idiotas. 🙂


My father loved his salsa. In fact, he always carried a jar of salsa in his coat pocket just in case of an emergency. By an emergency, I mean that rare event when we actually ate a non-Mexican house or restaurant that had never even heard of salsa, peppers, or even Tabasco sauce. My father was always at the ready with his jar of salsa. He was prepared for just about any disaster of this type. At Burger King, when they asked him if he wanted everything on his Whopper, he said, “Yes, everything. And salsa!” When they would tell him that they didn’t have salsa, he would say, “That’s okay! I brought my own!” And he would pull out his jar of salsa from his pocket. He loved watching their facial expression when they saw that he actually had a jar of salsa. Some days, he felt that one jar of salsa alone would not suffice, so he would also bring a jar of jalapeño peppers. He ate jalapeño peppers like some people eat olives.

At home, my father tried to instill in us the values of our Mexican heritage. Number one on the list was teaching us how to eat salsa or peppers at every meal with every food that we were served. We always put up an argument every time. He even wanted me to put salsa on my corn flakes once! He loved to make his own salsa, but no one else liked it, not even my mother. Once he made some salsa and I saw him put a spoonful in his mouth. He had made it extremely hot. It was too hot even for him. He drank a tall glass of water, but it took a while before he actually cooled off. Then, he offers me some. I said no, of course. But then he gave me the “What kind of Mexican are you?” speech and I felt compelled to try some of his salsa. My father had tricked me into tasting it by telling me that it wouldn’t be that spicy. I did taste it, but grudgingly. He told me to try a piece of diced potato that had been floating in the liquid of his homemade salsa jar. I think, how hot can it be? It’s just a potato. Wow! I bit into this potato and it was hotter than any jalapeño pepper I had ever tasted.

When I was growing up there were people starving all over the world, but our parish and school decided to collect alms for the starving children in Biafra. They showed us pictures of these Biafran children who were basically nothing but skin and bones with bloated stomachs. On the one hand, these children so evoked our sympathy for them that we donated our candy money to feed these starving children in Biafra. On the other hand, some boys soon forgot about the starving Biafran children and invoked the name of Biafra for other purposes. In fact, they started calling the skinniest boy in the school Biafra. Biafra, I mean the skinniest boy in the school, happened to be in my class. And whenever someone wanted to poke fun at this skinny boy, he would go up to the Biafra collection can on the nun’s desk, drop a coin in the can, and say, “This is for Biafra.” Of course, he would then take a long look at the skinniest boy in the school. I’ll never understand why the skinniest boy in the school just took it, instead of exploding and just start pounding someone. Anyway, back to my father and his salsa. Nice segue, no? Sometimes my father would cook our food and put the salsa in it while he cooked, as if we wouldn’t notice the flavor of salsa in the food. And as a diversion, he would put a big jalapeño pepper on the plate, too. One day, my brothers and I were just sitting there staring at our food on our plates. We were starving, but we couldn’t eat it. Then my father got angry at us and said, “You should be grateful you have food to eat. There are starving children in Biafra!” I said, “Well, why don’t you send the food to them?” But then I realized that no matter how hungry someone was, he or she wouldn’t eat my father’s food anyway. I tried to imagine a skinny boy in Biafra receiving my father’s care package and seeing my plate of food with a big jalapeño pepper on top of the food. How hungry would he have to be in order to eat my father’s spicy cooking? No, I never could imagine a Biafran boy eating my father’s food.

And what did I learn from all this? Well, I learned a valuable lesson that I sometimes share with my own sons. It’s part of our family tradition. So when my sons are sitting around the table complaining about the meal, sans salsa, that I cooked for them, I tell them, “You don’t know how lucky your are! There are starving children in Africa who would like to have an X-Box 360 Elite!”

Le hace falta un poco de salsa.


Señor Jalapeño is everywhere.

I just drove through the McDonald’s in Pilsen and was I ever surprised! You can now buy jalapeño peppers for 25 cents each at McDonald’s! Where were those jalapeños when I was little. Whenever we ordered at McDonald’s or Burger King, my father would invariably ask for salsa or jalapeños, depending on his mood. Of course, they would always tell him that they didn’t have salsa or jalapeños. And my father, being my one and only father, would say, “That’s okay! I brought my own!”

Spanish in Burger King

Burger King in Mexico City

Last night, I was in Burger King with my sons. A Mexican family was standing behind me in line. I joked around with the cashier who took my order. We spoke in fluent colloquial English and I have a Chicago south side accent. The father of the Mexican family then ordered his food in broken English. Later, while I was waiting for my order, the father spoke to me in Spanish about his son who had just learned to walk the week before. I was surprised! I’m always surprised when total strangers speak to me in Spanish! I told a Mexican friend about this and she said, “But you don’t even look Mexican!”

As a boy, my father would take us to Burger King a lot. We would order our food and I dreaded waiting to hear my father’s order. After completing the order, my father would always ask, “Do you have hot peppers?” When the cashier would say no, my father would say, “That’s okay. I brought my own!” He would then pull out a jar of jalapeño peppers from his pocket. My father had hundreds of ways of embarrassing me in public.

That's okay. I brought my own peppers!