Mexican Chinese food


A Chinese restaurant in México City.

While I was in Mexico, we went to several malls, which were very much like many American malls I have visited, only newer. Since finding a restaurant that was appetizing for my sons and the rest of us was was a huge challenge, the mall provided the perfect solution with their eateries and their variety of restaurants. Each one of us could order our favorite food at different restaurants. My sons chose Subway, not surprisingly. I wanted to try new food that I had never eaten in Mexico before. I found a Chinese restaurant in a hidden corner near one of the mall exits. I just love Chinese food! But I suspected that Mexican Chinese food would be different from American Chinese food. And I was right. The choices on the menu were different and I didn’t recognize all the entrees. But true to the Chinese restaurant tradition–even in Mexico– I was served very large portions and at a very economical price compared to the surrounding restaurants in the mall. An elderly Chinese man served me. He understood all of my questions about the menu. However, he barely spoke Spanish and had a difficult time communicating to me. I think the best Chinese restaurants are the ones where the cooks only speak Chinese. Yes, even in the U.S. Well, the food was delicious! But I was hungry a half an hour later. Yes, even in Mexico! I was disappointed that they did serve green or red salsa. I mean every restaurant in Mexico serves salsa!

I would like soy sauce and salsa!

More salsa


Peppers and salsa are a daily part of Mexican life.

I heard on the radio that salsa is the number one condiment in America! And I was glad to do my part to help. You see that pepper underneath this blog post? I did my part to publicize salsa over the years. So Mexico, or whoever it is who makes your salsa, can thank me whenever they have time. I’m following in my father’s footsteps. My father, who always carried a jar of salsa with him wherever he went, always had to have his salsa on everything we ate, from Burger King to Dunkin Donuts. This is such a happy moment in my life, even though I don’t eat that much salsa, thanks to my father. He always wanted me to put salsa on all my food. Once when I was about eight years old,  he made some salsa and wanted me to try it. At first, I refused. But then he told me to try a small cube of potato that he took from the salsa. He was happy when I did. But even the potato was spicy! It had absorbed the hotness of the salsa. It’s no wonder I don’t like to eat salsa very often.

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?

Salsa


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.

McJalapeño


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!”