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02.20.08

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Mexican Uprising

By Stett Holbrook


CALLING ALL would-be Mexican restaurateurs. Over the past few years of eating around Silicon Valley I've discovered a glaring gap in the area's food scene: Mexican food that goes beyond the same old tacos, burritos, enchiladas and chile verde.

Don't get me wrong. I love taqueria food. If I were on death row and had to choose my last meal, it would be a toss-up between a good plate of barbecue and some al pastor tacos with a side of rice and beans. And a cold Bohemia. In fact, I'm launching a feature on my new Livefeed blog (www.metroactive.com/Livefeed) called the "taco project," a systematic survey of Silicon Valley's taco offerings. But in the meantime, something's missing.

Mexican food is one of the world's great cuisines, right up there with the cuisines of France, Italy and China. But here in Silicon Valley, an area where approximately one in five residents are of Mexican origin, we only get a glimpse of the depth and breadth of this delicious culinary tradition.

Diana Kennedy is to Mexican food what Julia Child was to French food. Since 1957, she has been living in Mexico and writing about the diversity and wonders of Mexican food. In her book My Mexico she recounts being stumped by an interviewer who asked her to define Mexican food. "I found myself floundering hopelessly and helplessly—where to begin, what to encompass. ... To do justice to the foods of this extraordinarily complex country would take many lifetimes of research and travel. For complex Mexico is."

But in spite of Silicon Valley's diverse and longstanding Mexican population, you'd be hard-pressed to find much of that culinary diversity here. Bruno Figueroa, former consul general of the Mexican consulate in San Jose, called the lack of diversity among Mexican restaurants "the great paradox." While San Jose has the largest population of Mexican immigrants in Northern California and an abundance of good Mexican restaurants, he said they all serve variations of the same thing—tacos, burritos, tamales and enchiladas. Restaurants that specialize in regional Mexican food such as the eclectic and exotic cuisine of the Yucatan peninsula or the luxurious moles of Oaxaca are almost nonexistent.

I suspect there are a number of reasons for this. Assimilation to life in the United States means leaving some culinary traditions behind. Out with the octopus in guajillo chile sauce, in with the Hamburger Helper. Second, just because few Silicon Valley restaurants don't showcase the range of Mexican cooking, that doesn't mean people aren't eating great Mexican food here. I bet the best cooking goes on behind closed doors in the homes of Silicon Valley's Mexican-American population. You need an invitation to sample that kind of family cooking. And I stand ready and willing to accept such an invitation. Finally, Mexican restaurants are businesses after all and often feel the need to appeal to the masses. A restaurant that serves, say, squash vine soup (sopa de guias) or mole of black iguana (mole de iguana negra), might not have the crossover appeal of one that offers slushy margaritas and super burritos.

But I'm convinced there's a market for Mexican restaurants that dig deeper. There are enough Mexican expatriates as well as Mexican food lovers who would relish the opportunity to dig into more of Mexico's culinary diversity. Consuelo at Santana Row and Estrellita in Los Altos are the only two restaurants that I know of that serve regional Mexican food as well as the more typical stuff, and they appear to be doing quite well. We need more of these kinds of places.

So, please, somebody. Open a Mexican restaurant that goes beyond tacos and burritos. I'll be your first customer and I bet many others will follow. And in the meantime, if you know of a restaurant that serves something more than the same old rice and beans, please let me know.


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