“Let’s go out for Mexican!” Sounds great, but what does that really mean? Like Italian or Chinese, Mexican cuisine can’t be defined by a few “typical” dishes. With 31 individual states, Mexico has regional differences based on history, climate, natural resources and traditions. Mexican eateries can range from fast food to food truck, from region specific to generic tex-mex, and from carefully prepared regional specialties to everyday tacos and burritos.
Tortillas are the building blocks of Mexican cuisine. Hard or soft, small or large,corn or wheat flour, they are used to wrap delicious fillings in a variety of ways. Originally, corn was ground into a dough called masa, formed into a ball, patted by hand into a flat round disk, and cooked on a hot griddle. These fragile corn tortillas were reinforced with wheat flour brought by the Spanish conquistadors to become today’s all purpose wrap.
Chilies or peppers are another native food fundamental to the cuisine. Found either in the dish, in the sauce, or as a garnish, peppers in varying degrees of heat are a defining part of Mexican cooking. Eating Mexican is a spicy business.
Mexican restaurants in our area run the gamut from fast food to sophisticated regional cooking. Across the board, Mexican offers value: plenty of heat, bold spicy flavors, and a wide range of choice.
Our friend Gregg, who lived in Mexico for a time, recommended Los Poblanos on Westport Ave. (lospoblanosrestaurant.com), so we made a date to go together. He could both introduce us to Chef/owner Juan Bautista and guide us through the menu. The brightly colored, small dining room is decorated with folk art, banners and posters from Juan’s home town of Puebla. The capital of the state of the same name, Puebla is known for its superb cuisine and love of eating.
As we looked at the extensive menu, Gregg directed us to the blackboard specials – his first choice for fresh and seasonal. Juan gave us a run-down of the daily specials and a primer on the cuisine of Puebla. When I asked what I’d be eating if I was in his hometown, his eyes lit up as he said, “Mole!” “I’ll have it,” I exclaimed, and it was the chicken Enchiladas de Mole for me. Marsha went for the Chilies Rellenos, and Gregg, a fan of soups from all cultures, ordered the Pescado Sopa.
Tortillas filled with freshly grilled chicken were the basis for my Mole – a complex sauce, dark and rich as the earth, flavored with spices and a hint of chocolate, ladled generously over the enchiladas then dusted with sesame seeds. In the Rellenos, also a Puebla speciality, sweet poblano peppers were stuffed with cheese, breaded with ground corn, fried, and bathed in tomato sauce. Gregg’s soup, served in a heavy ceramic crock, was a rich spicy seafood broth with shrimp, mussels, and chunks of fish. It came with ramekins of fresh herbs and additional hot pepper to kick it up some more.
While our dinner was cooked to order, we enjoyed a chunky fresh-made guacamole, well-
seasoned and topped with diced tomato and chopped onion, and Mexican beers served in frosty mugs – Modelo Negro, Victoria, and Corona. The dinners came along with a basket of warm tortillas for scooping food and mopping up sauce. It was all exceptional.
A few days later we visited Tacos El Azteca, a food truck at the corner of Main Ave. and The Post Road. Owner Juan Martinez was eager to have us sample from his menu of tacos, quesadillas, burritos, tortas, and cemitas. A sampler of beef, chicken and pork tacos started us off – the small tortillas doubled up for extra strength, served with pico de gallo, and a lime, cucumber, radish garnish. Next was a shrimp quesadilla – packed with tender shrimp, silky with guacamole, and rich with mozzarella.
Juan, originally from Durango, came up through the restaurant ranks cooking at a country inn, an Italian family restaurant and an authentic Italian deli. He does the cooking, simmering the meat and sauces throughout the day. I asked about the remarkable taco pork filling. “Slow cooking, lots of spices, and a touch of vinegar.” he said. All this was washed down with Jarritos Mango and Guava sodas from Mexico.
A neighbor suggested that we include Rio Border Cafe at 330 Connecticut Ave. (riobordermexicanrestaurant.com) (next to Marshalls and Best Buy) on our exploration of local Mexican food. The stripmall exterior opens into a colorful dining room, with colorful hanging pinatas, vintage showbiz photos on the walls and an open kitchen. The family-friendly menu is organized by ingredient (beef, chicken, pork, vegetarian etc.) rather than preparation. Again, I had the Enchiladas Mole, filled with chunks of grilled chicken. This time the sauce had a more pronounced chocolate flavor, putting the spices in the background – different and delicious.
Other Mexican restaurants that I’ve heard good things about are Tacos Mexico in East Norwalk and Rincon Taqueria on Connecticut Ave. If you’re in a hurry, there’s always Chipotle south of the border in Darien. (Fast) Food with Integrity is their motto. The chain set the fast food industry on its ear by using fresh ingredients (local when possible), antibiotic free meat, pasture-raised dairy, and non GMO ingredients.
Mexican food is mainstream in our culture, and we’re all familiar with the basics. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll learn about the culture and diverse regions of Mexico, meet some great people, and, of course, eat well.