November 1, 2009

This is a post about Mexican food, prompted by a comment the other day by my old Top Priority bandmate and keyboard player Jerry “Keys” Palma. He remembers me and my brother Mark and I driving around after band practices or the rare public experience (keep in mind, this was before our televised concert at Che [Guevara] stadium) in my old 1969 Pontiac Tempest listening to The Beach Boys and Pink Floyd on 8-track tapes while munching on Jack-In-The-Box food.

Back in those days – I’m talking the years 1975-77 here, we’d wolf down Jack Steak w/Cheeses and tacos (the former a long-since departed delicacy, the latter still tasting exactly the same) late at night or in the wee small hours, since JITB was the only fast-food joint that stayed open past midnight back then.

Those JITB tacos must have triggered some genetic defect inside me – or perhaps it was a combination of JITB tacos and growing up listening to Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass because it wasn’t long after that, that I began looking for the real thing. The first authentic Mexican restaurant I ate in was while on vacation in Santa Cruz, California back in 1978, called Tampico Kitchen. I still remembering ordering my first taco/enchilada combo platter, and it was like an instantaneous crystal meth addiction: Mexican food became a comfort food that could make everything seem right with the world, no matter how bad things might be.

A few years later, I found a Mexican food soulmate in my old friend Mike “Doc” Frechette. The Doc seemed to know, or be able to locate, every Mexican restaurant in New Hampshire, and we tried everything from awesome to awful. Two restaurants – Tortilla Flat in Merrimack (their oven beef quesadilla is still not to be missed) and the Tio Juan’s/Margarita’s chain of restaurants became immediate favorites, and remain so to this day.

Even after we moved to Kentucky we found some great Mexican food there. My friend Jerome and I enjoyed many a tasty lunch at a little hole in the wall called Los Aztecas on Taylorsville Road, and I fondly remember going in there on Saturdays for takeout (beef enchiladas for me, huevos rancheros for Tracey) after a few hours of baseboard repair courtesy of our rabbit, Marble Junior. There was also good eating to be had at Ernesto’s on Shelbyville Road, where we’d occasionally lunch with our friend Jana. Ernesto’s chicken tortilla soup was to die for, and their spinach enchiladas were pretty damned fine too.

Here in the Valley of the Sun, finances and work schedules being what they are, Tracey and I don’t really go out much, let alone search for Mexican food. I mean, they’re ubiquitous with the landscape, so much so that it would be difficult to pick one that might stand out among the many chains and taco stands. But Los Olivos in Scottsdale has an outstanding red chili, and their guacamole is excellent once you add an additional twist or two of lime to it.

What makes a good Mexican restaurant to me? First of all (besides the usual cleanliness factor, of course), it has to feel like a vacation from the world. It doesn’t have to be brightly decorated like some Pancho Villa interior decorator gone loco – as far as I’m concerned the darker the better. And the salsa and chips are a key indicator – after all, if the owner doesn’t take pride in first impressions, what follows ain’t gonna be any better.

As a “feel” kind of guy (as opposed to a technician), so as long as the place feels right, I’ll put up with almost anything. Usually, a combo platter of taco/enchilada/refritos/rice is good enough for me. I’m not much of an experimentor when it comes to Mexican food. I don’t need to be – after all, for me this is comfort food, not fine dining. What it is, is the kind of food that no matter how often I eat it, my mind in some way goes back to that very first time at Tampico Kitchen, and back to those late-night joyrides munching on Jack-In-The-Box tacos with Mark and Jerry.

Filed in: Uncategorized by The Great White Shank at 22:43 | Comments (4)
  1. Oh Great White Burrito….Ernesto’s is alive and well and in a new location just down the road in the old Buckhead restaurant. My cousin’s know Ernesto and this their Friday after work cocktail location. The food is still wonderful. I eat at Los Aztecos near my office at least once a week. They opened a “sister” restaurant Sol Aztecos in the Highlands and it is very nice. I do miss our frequent meals at Ernestos, hell, I just miss you and Tracey every day. I miss going to Ramsis with you as well. Hope all is settling down and everyone is doing better. Adios.

    Comment by Jana — November 2, 2009 @ 5:23 am

  2. When I was in college one of our Spanish professors used to take a group of us to Tortilla Flat. I haven’t been there in ages. Also, I haven’t seen a JITB in a long time. I agree about the tortilla chips and salsa. That’s the best part anyway. If that’s weak, I won’t go back. It’s the same thing with fresh bread in other restaurants. I guess that’s why I like Bertucci’s. The food is ok, but those rolls and the oil dip are to die for.

    Comment by Jerry — November 6, 2009 @ 7:39 pm

  3. P.S. When is your official breakout day for the Herb Alpert & Tijuana Brass Christmas album? I usually try to hold off until after Thanksgiving.

    Comment by Jerry — November 6, 2009 @ 7:41 pm

  4. Day after Thanksgiving works for me, Jerry – that’s the day we put up our oh-so-feaux Christmas tree. After the way this year has gone, I can’t wait – anything to hasten 2010. Besides. Little Half Pint can’t wait, either – she hated seeing the Christmas tree and its hanging bells come down.

    Comment by The Great White Shank — November 6, 2009 @ 8:41 pm

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