Mexican Food in the Midwest

IMG_0008The Midwest is where Mexican food goes to die. Or maybe Mexican food never found its way to the Midwest. Whatever the case is, behind my family and the ocean, access to quality Mexican food is what I miss the most living in the Midwest. This is not to say the Midwest is devoid of Mexican food. The town of Grinnell, boasts two quote unquote Mexican restaurants: La Cabaña, and Casa Margarita. In fact, Grinnell’ citizen-Mexican-restaurant ratio is approximately 4,500/1. Compare this to the 12,702/1 citizen-Mexican-restaurant ratio Los Angeles – a city with arguably the best Mexican food North of the border – has, and immediately the question arises: why is Mexican food in the Midwest inferior to Mexican food in Los Angeles? Whether or not this is actually a question regularly asked, I intend to answer it. The short answer, meat, salsa bar, and noise, will be expanded as I help solve this mystery in the following paragraphs.

Sorry vegetarians, what makes a Mexican restaurant special is the meat. Whenever I go a new Mexican restaurant, I get one carnitas, and one carne asada taco. Carnitas (pork) is more delicate, in both texture and taste, and therefore should be consumed before carne asada. Perfectly cooked carnitas is juicy, tender and smokey, almost melting in your mouth. Carne asada (beef) is tough, and requires a good deal of chewing. The effort is well worth it. Savory and juicy, carne asada is like glorified jerky…if jerky was grilled. Neither carnitas nor carne asada come from particularly fine cuts of meat, and neither of them require any difficult cooking techniques. Midwestern Mexican restaurants do not even know what Carnitas is, let alone how to cook it. As far as the Midwest is concerned, “taco meat” is the meat of Mexico. “Taco meat” isn’t bad, it just does not have the potential to be special. The monopoly of “taco meat” essentially makes every quote unquote Mexican restaurant the same: bland, brown, and crumbly.

The Midwest loves buffets, so it is surprising they haven’t embraced the salsa bar. A salsa bar is where all things spicy and tomatoes meet. Salsa can be broken down into three categories: red, green, and chunky (salsa roja, salsa verde, and pico de gallo). Even the most frugal salsa bar will contain all three of these. A decent salsa bar will also have spicy picked carrots, which are embraced by both carrot lovers and carrot haters. Aside from dipping chips in, the variety of salsas can be put on a taco. Each salsa gives new life to a taco, keeping the restaurant exciting. The only type of salsa the Midwest knows is Tostidos, which despite coming in a variety of consistencies, all tastes like ketchup. A Mexican restaurant with a salsa bar will make the mouth comfortably numb, serving as a reminder for hours thereafter you ate quality Mexican food.

I have yet to see one taco stand in the Midwest. This is not to say all good Mexican restaurants are taco stands – in fact the majority of them are sit down – but where there are taco stands, there will be good Mexican food. This is because taco stands represent everything that makes a Mexican restaurant good. Ordering at any authentic Mexican restaurant –stand or sit down – is done at a counter. You’re given a number, and wait until it is called. Once you get your food and sit down, there is a constant frenzy. Mariachi music is blasting, while an accented voice calls out numbers. For some reason, conversation is also louder at Mexican restaurants. On top of this, good Mexican restaurants have to be cheap. As a general rule, I never spend more than $7 for a lunch consisting of two tacos, a pile of chips, horchata, and the salsa bar. Because they are so cheap, authentic Mexican restaurants serve food on paper plates and tinfoil. Getting Mexican food on an actual plate feels wrong, and is something done constantly in the Midwest. Furthermore, Mexican restaurants in the midwest, despite the inferiority, treat the dining experience in a fancier manner. Candles at the table, a waiter taking your order, Mariachi playing softly, it all feels out of place. If they were serving quality food, then sure, this would be acceptable, but because the food is not good, it comes across as forced.

Aside from the lack of Mexicans, I think the reason good Mexican food is scarce in the Midwest is because dining is treated differently there. Even fast food joints are quote unquote fancier. The Midwest takes food seriously, and authentic Mexican food may not be considered serious food by some. The Midwest seems to embrace neat looking plates. Steak, potatoes, and greens may share the plate but by no means should they be combined in the same bite. The two staples of Mexican food, tacos and burritos, are the antithesis of this. A bunch of ingredients piled on a tortilla, there is no room for separation, as everything is consumed together. This culinary barrier makes it impossible for Mexican food as I know it to take root in the Midwest. Barring a miracle, I will savor Mexican food at home, and dream about it when I’m in the Midwest.

Edit: I may have used the term “Midwest” too broadly. I am confident good Mexican food exists in Chicago, St. Louis, and other large cities. What I am referring to then when I say “Midwest” is rural Iowa, and other similar areas.

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