Real Mexican at Fast Food Prices

Since Ponce de Leon first set foot on our sandy soil and declared it "Floor-EE-dah!"— land of flowers — our pantry has been heavily stocked with the foods of Spanish-speaking peoples. And since large numbers of our early settlers were from Spain and Cuba, it is their dishes that dominate. In Tampa Bay, this has meant a bounty of black beans and yellow rice, of saffron-kissed chicken and mojo-marinated pork. Just as the rest of the country knows Seattle for Starbucks and fresh salmon, it knows Tampa for the Columbia Spanish Restaurant and Cuban sandwiches. But at the end of the last century, the tide of immigration began to shift. A flood of new residents began flowing in from Mexico, adding a new diversity to our historically Hispanic culinary table. Today, the hungry traveler can crisscross from Clearwater to Tampa and back to St. Petersburg, sampling all sorts of delicious Mexican dishes at a number of humble restaurants called "taquerias." Their menus range from familiar enchiladas and tamales to more ethnic dishes like menudo (beef tripe stew) and lengua (beef tongue.) Even when we're familiar with the names of many of the dishes, their flavors can surprise us. The seasoning of Cuban food tends to be subtle. Mexican flavors are often much more pronounced, zesty from liberal applications of the hundreds of varieties of chilies native to Mexican soil.

In Mexico, a taqueria is a fast-food affair. It may be anything from a street-corner stand where a woman slaps corn tortillas between her hands and fills them with roasted goat to a small building with just a few tables, where the cook prepares slow-cooked soups and stews. Most of the Mexican restaurants so recently opened in Tampa Bay call themselves taquerias, which signifies the cooking is flavorful and filling, but not fancy, and prices are very, very low. You'll find them open seven days a week, often from dawn to well past dusk. (Bless that immigrant work ethic!) Business is cash on the barrelhead. Leave your credit cards at home. And fair warning — if everything you know about Mexican food came from a talking Chihuahua, you may be in for a shock. Real Mexican food is not covered with shredded yellow cheese and chopped iceberg lettuce. Beans are not reconstituted from dried powder. And "nachos," an idea as American as apple pie, is not on the menu.

At the recently opened Taqueria El Maguey in St. Petersburg, I found delicious food and a surprisingly familiar face in the kitchen. Chef/owner Martin Rivas spent almost 10 years cooking, most recently at well-known Pinellas Park restaurant Carmelita's, which favors an upscale approach to the Taco Bell menu. "I was always encouraging Carmelita's to serve real Mexican food," says the chef, "but they didn't think Americans would accept it. They'd say, "Americans only want what they already know. They won't try anything they don't know.' But in my own place, I prepare the traditional taqueria food of Mexico, and while most of my customers are Mexican, I have many Americans who come in as well. I find people enjoy it once they get the chance to taste it."

El Maguey, with just a few tables and chairs in a Spartan, spotlessly clean dining room, resides in a small storefront in a tiny strip plaza. The daily specials are listed on a grease board behind the counter, with offerings like beef tongue with green salsa, "lengua en salsa verde) chicken in a chocolate-laced salsa, "pollo en mole." A brief, two-sided menu, printed in Spanish, offers "a la carta" on one side, where a taco or tamale is purchased as a single item, and "menu" on the other, where items like chilies rellenos come with beans, rice, and an assortment of hot, flavorful sauces.

If crunch is the texture that makes your mouth smile, check out the big container of chicharron (fried pork rind) on the front counter, or flautas, tortillas stuffed with shredded pollo (chicken) rolled into flutes and fried. Gorditas also offer a nice crunch; thick tortillas are fried and stuffed with beans, cheese and spicy chorizo sausage ($5). A stranger combination to American tastes is a fried, doughy gordita filled with chicharron and red sauce ($5 for an order of four). This item offers crunch to the max, but forget it if you're counting calories! Tacos ($1.50 each) are the real thing, soft wheat shells filled with meat — nothing more. The meat is prepared with few spices, often nothing more than a bay leaf.

The diner, who picks and chooses from a selection of pungent salsas, adds additional flavor later. A burrito grande ($3.99) makes a meal in itself; a large wheat shell heaped with rice and beans and roasted beef. It comes with three sauces, all made fresh in house: a bright, fresh tomato salsa, blazingly hot; a delicious salsa verde, a tart, mild green salsa; and my favorite, chipotle, smoky, hot, with a full, robust flavor like barbecue sauce. Dipping into the different sauces gives the meal-size burrito delicious variety, and a cooler filled with Mexican refrescos (soft drinks) in very sweet fruit flavors like tamarind and orange nicely soothe the burn.

Next door, El Maguey's grocery store sells Mexican food products, most especially chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, which seems to be showing up in recipes in every food magazine these days, from Gourmet to Food & Wine.

In other areas around the Bay, you can taste true taqueria flavors at Mexico Lindo, a clean little taqueria and food store in Clearwater, serving a similar menu, but with a broader selection of fillings for tacos and burritos, including lamb. In Tampa, La Calenita, seems more like the rag tag taquerias I've eaten at in Mexico, a charming change from the institutional atmosphere and food of Taco Bell. Again, the menu is similar, with gorditas de chicharron, pollo flauta, true tacos, even fajitas. Do try horchata, a traditional beverage of almond-flavored rice milk, to cool the burn of fiery foods.

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