I have never been to Mexico.
To clarify further, I have never even been close to any of the states next to Mexico except maybe LA, which I’m not even going to use as my pathetic credentials on real Mexican cooking which is to say, zero to none. I’ve heard that Taco Bell is about as close to real Mexican food as fortune cookies are to being Chinese. I’ve also heard that they don’t actually “nacho” much over there. Aside from that, Mexican food has remained quite a romantic mystery.
But even though I don’t know enough to say what’s Mexican food, whatever it is, that tasteless borderline-inedible crap we were served with the other day near Beijing’s embassy area, was definitely not it. Given that it was a very hot day hence we weren’t feeling particular choosey, we thought those more-than-a-handful patrons who were present during off-meal hours were a good indicator that the restaurant at least serves human food. WROOONG! I mean seriously, seriously, how inhumanly difficult is it to serve passable tacos to someone who’s never had a real taco! Not so freaking hard is it? Why!?
We left the place feeling psychologically hungry. The trauma only left me wanting more of what I’ve never had – dainty Mexican tacos good enough to fool myself. Then before long, my discontent took my memory back to a cookbook I’ve owned forever but never cooked from – Off the Menu: Staff Meals from America’s Top Restaurants, which features A.O.C in LA and a recipe for their tostadas-tuesday. OK, the critically acclaimed restaurant is not Mexican, and tostadas are not tacos but more like tacos with fried tortillas. Do I have problem with any of that? I mean do you?
Since this is starting to look like someone with no Mexican cooking experience, starting off from a recipe by a non-Mexican restaurant, I thought it won’t hurt much more to impose further ungrounded twists. A.O.C’s recipe sauté the ground beef with aromatics and spices, but I want it to be more “Mexican-y”… whatever that is. So I made a puree with soften dried chilis, onions, garlic and thyme, and a spice-mixture that includes something I’ve never used before in savoury dishes – unsweetened cocoa power.