I admit it; I used to be a Gringo (don’t tell anyone else). A long time ago, the only thing I knew about Mexico was what the United States media pushed out to everyone. I thought of Mexico as a destitute place where everyone was trying to cross the border into the USA. I could not have been further from the truth.
I had just started a job at a gigantic international company and my boss informed me that I had to go down to Aguascalientes, Mexico to meet my North American team. I begrudgingly did so, anxious at what I would find. When I arrived, I was in utter shock at how wrong my preconceptions had been.
Aguascalientes was a modern city with a thriving middle class. It looked like it was taken straight out of somewhere in the south east United States. Everyone I had met was proud to be Mexican and live in Mexico. They showed me around their city as well as bringing me into their homes and introducing me to their families. This had shaken me to the core; if I was so wrong about Mexico, what else was I wrong about? I then began my quest to open my mind and discover what I was missing on this great planet of ours.
What happened to my cultural perceptions paled in comparison to what happened to my culinary ones. I grew up thinking that I had liked Mexican food . . . Ha! I did not even know what Mexican food was!!! It turns out that most of the stuff (especially from the chain restaurants) is Tex-Mex, NOT actually what anyone would find anywhere in Mexico. The food I found in Mexico was fresh with complex flavors yet served simply. A real taco was not a hard shell jammed with as much things as one could fit, it was a soft corn tortilla, a well prepared meat and usually a lime on the side. If you wanted condiments, your choices were limited to the fresh salsas they had made right there or some hot local sauces . . . that’s it.
The only place where I saw massive accompaniments was at a restaurant that served Queso Fundido. If you haven’t tried this dish, which is similar to a Fondue, try it immediately! Here you get a boiling clay pot of melted cheese, plain or with your choice of an addition, soft corn tortillas and a tiered Lazy Susan of crazy condiments. This tray of splendor contained, the usual, guacamole, sour cream, etc., but it also contained grilled knob onions, mushrooms, chilis, and much more. Think of Queso Fundido as a Quesadilla on steroids. You could also order the melted cheese cooked with lovely things such as Chorizo sausage, mushrooms, onions, and/or so much more.
Whenever I went down there for business, I would usually go down early and leave late in order to take advantage of the weekends and visit some places, along with having some leisure time for myself to spend time with the team outside of work. During the work week, my friend Sergio asked if I wanted to go for a typical Sunday family breakfast at a restaurant the upcoming Sunday. There was no way I would ever pass up an opportunity like this, so I quickly agreed.
Sunday morning came and Sergio picked me up at the hotel I was staying in. Along the way, he told me that this particular restaurant had two restaurants side by side. One was open in the evenings for dinner, while the one he was taking me to was open only for breakfast. (What an odd use of space?!?) There, he introduced me to the most wondrous of all breakfast foods, chilaquiles. What are chilaquiles you ask? They are fried, crispy tortilla chips, cooked until ever so slightly softened with either red or green salsa and then topped with crema. From there you order it as is or with pulled chicken, egg, or whatever else they have on the menu. I know this sounds an awful lot like nachos, but believe me, they are so vastly different. Once you try them, you will want to start every morning with a plate of fresh chilaquiles. This is something I would have never thought I would love eating for breakfast.
One weekend, my buddy Fernando and his family took me up to the silver mining town of Zacatecas. On the way there, they stopped off in this small town to get, what Fernando and his wife said, were the best gorditas in Mexico. We pulled up to this hole-in-the-wall restaurant that was surprisingly clean, warm and friendly. Being the Gringo I was, I was surprised to see that they only served gorditas . . . no tacos, no tortas, no tamale, just gorditas. I quickly learned a valuable lesson. If you do one thing and do it extremely well, people will go out of their way to acquire what you are offering. That is a concept that is very foreign to people from the States.
Later on that evening, they took me to a restaurant dedicated to some famous general named Francisco Villa. The restaurant was decorated like a house/museum to this guy. Apparently, they thought very highly of the great achievements he did for Mexico. I sat there wondering why I had never heard of this general before. Then it dawned on me . . . I DID! Mexicans often have odd nicknames for their formal names. One nickname for Francisco is Paco. Another is Pancho. This was a restaurant in honor of Pancho Villa!!! Another life altering event happened at that moment. I suddenly realized that what we are taught in history class is completely subjective to where you live and who is teaching it. Villains could be heroes and heroes could be villains.
The only downside to visiting Mexico was that I could not eat what restaurants were trying to pass as Mexican food for years after that first visit. Eventually, I came to grips with it by calling it Tex-Mex. Also, in recent years there have been a lot of authentic Mexican places popping up from full blown restaurants, to street carts, to hole in the walls.
Overall, Mexico changed the way I look at the world. It proved that all I thought was fact was merely an illusion which others proposed to me. I knew from then on, that if I was to truly understand the world and its myriad cultures, I would have to get out there and discover it myself. In essence, Mexico changed who I was at my core and what I believe in as a citizen of this great planet.
The Cheat Sheet:
- Make your own judgments about locations and people.
- Immerse yourself fully in other cultures.
- Go outside of your comfort zone and try new things.
- Discover local history through new eyes.
- Shed your old beliefs, open your mind and discover the truth for yourself.
Author: Robert J. Gorman, Jr.