June 20, 2013 Sections
Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
No Canadian visiting Italy would expect to find pizza pops reheating in the microwaves of Roman kitchens. Likewise, no Manitoban on a tour of China would expect residents of Beijing, Hong Kong or Shanghai to actually consume deep-fried breaded chicken balls drenched in a neon sweet-and-sour sauce.
Yet thanks to the geography and cultural history of this corner of North America, many Winnipeggers continue to maintain bizarre ideas about what constitutes Mexican food, particularly when it comes to the staple street snack, the taco.
In every region of Mexico, the tacos sold by roadside street vendors involve a double layer of small, freshly made corn tortillas, moistened with a bit of lard and topped with a dollop of a savoury stew, a few slices of grilled meat or maybe a morsel of deep-fried fish.
These tacos are often but not always adorned with a little bit of fresh onion, some chopped cilantro and in some regions, a few drops of hot sauce. Common toppings include pork, goat, chicken, offal or sausage. Cheese is all but unknown.
And while some tortillas are occasionally rolled and fried, nowhere in Mexico will you find the curiously orange, seasoned ground beef that used to pass for taco filling north of the U.S. border.
"Most Mexicans I know just laugh when they think about the crisp, U-shaped tacos heaped with ground beef, lettuce and American cheese -- the ones that come with beans and rice and pass for a Mexican dinner in the United States," Chicago chef, restaurateur and culinary missionary Rick Bayless wrote 25 years ago in his seminal cookbook Authentic Mexican.
"They're a long way from the authentic double thickness of corn tortillas, a little greasy from the griddle, wrapped around a biteful of meat, sprinkled with sharp sauce and a little fragrant onion and fresh coriander."
Bayless, likely the only American chef to possess a doctorate in anthropology, has made it his life's mission to educate Americans about real Mexican cuisine, whose complex sauces and seasonings bear little resemblance to the cheese-smothered, stodgy Tex-Mex food that used to pass as Mexican in the U.S.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, he and other Mexican-food proselytizers were aided by the migration of actual Mexicans into every corner of the U.S., where many opened the taquerias that wound up introducing Mexican street food to broader audiences.
Unfortunately for Canadians who love to eat, few Mexicans crossed the 49th parallel during the same period. Up until recently, the largest sources of Latin American immigration to Manitoba were Chile and El Salvador, whose expats have given us delectable empanadas and pupusas, respectively -- but little in the way of actual tacos.
Happily, Winnipeg's days as a taco wasteland are finally ending, but not because of a sudden influx of Mexicans. Rather, decades of winter-vacation travel to Mexico -- along with TV shows on the Food Network -- seemed to have primed the Manitoban palate for tacos.
Over the past four years, at least a dozen restaurants have opened in Winnipeg that either try to serve authentic Mexican food or actually do so. Some are burrito joints inspired by the Mexican-American taco bars. Some sell tacos along with Tex-Mex and Salvadoran dishes.
But a few actually make taco fillings from scratch in an attempt to approximate authentic Mexican street food.
"It's been a challenge for us. We have people come in who are familiar with Mexican tacos and some who don't understand. A lot of people come in hoping for Tex-Mex," said Daniel Simon, one of five partners in Modern Taco Company, an Academy Road restaurant that opened in December.
Modern Taco Company menu does not include burritos but does feature a few toppings that would be familiar to actual Mexicans, including pork carnitas, chicken tinga and carne asada. While the River Heights spot plans add a ground-beef topping to satisfy Winnipeg restaurant-goers who grew up with Tex-Mex food, it will never revert to serving massive plates of beans and rice smothered in cheese, Simon said.
"I expect in the next six months to a year, people will begin to get this," he opined.
It's likely they already have, to some degree. Taco del Mar, a fast-food chain that serves tacos and burritos, opened its first Winnipeg franchise in Linden Ridge last year and followed it up with a William Avenue location near the Health Sciences Centre.
J.C.'s Tacos & More, which serves tacos, burritos and pupusas, expanded from its original Elmwood location to additional digs in St. James and Island Lakes. The independently owned Burrito Splendido, which squishes out fresh tortillas using a dough-flattening press, opened last year in St. Charles, within sight of the Perimeter.
All fill tacos and burritos with variations of the Mexican-inspired stews popularized in the U.S. by chains such as Chipotle's and Qdoba -- carnitas, tinga and beef barbacoa.
"The more competition the better," said Ray Ferchuk, a manager at Osborne Village's Burrito del Rio, which became the first Winnipeg restaurant to take a stab at serving Mexican-American food, rather than Tex-Mex, when it opened on River Avenue in 2010.
Ferchuk figures most Winnipeggers have never had a real taco, unblemished by cheese. "People have come in here and said, 'Thank God you're here, because we haven't had anything Mexican since Chi Chi's,'" he said, referring to the 1980s Tex-Mex franchise, which remains infamous in restaurant circles for serving up decidedly non-Mexican foodstuffs such as fajitas, which is actually a staple of Texan cuisine, and deep-fried ice cream, a confection that likely originated in deep-fryers of the U.S. state-fair circuit.
Winnipeggers who travel to Mexico, of course, have had the chance to taste the real thing. So have visitors to southern U.S. cities such as Los Angeles or Austin, where an army of taco trucks compete with taquerias based out of stripmalls.
By celebrating trucks and taquerias, Food Network programs such as Eat Street and Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives have helped create a demand up north. El Torrito, Winnipeg's first taco truck, began circulating between Portage Avenue and Henderson Highway in 2011. It will face competition this summer from Habanero Sombrero, which plans to sell tacos, burritos and banana splits topped with habaneros in Winnipeg, Selkirk and Grand Beach.
"People have finally woken up to this," said Mark Langtry, Habanero Sombrero's St. Clements-based operator. "I mean, who doesn't like a taco? Most people have never even tried a real one."
Some of the more common varieties of taco fillings, on both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border:
Al carbon: Grilled beef tacos from northern Mexico, usually served with soft flour tortillas and grilled green onions. Tacos al carbon are similar to the Texan fajitas, which are traditionally made with skirt steak.
Al pastor: Pork marinated in pineapple juice and bright red achiote paste, packed on to a skewer, cooked on an open rotisserie and then shaved. The dish, which literally means "shepherd-style tacos," is a Mexican adaptation of the lamb shawarma brought over by immigrants from Lebanon. In Canada, you're more likely to find a grilled version.
Asada: A generic gringo term for chopped-up beef bits, cooked until crispy on a flat grill.
Barbacoa: Traditionally, barbacoa is slow-cooked, pit-roasted sheep, lamb or goat, although beef is more common in northern Mexico. Although this is what inspired the English term "barbecue," the word now applies to stewed and shredded beef in the U.S. and Canada, thanks to its appropriation by the burrito chain Chipotle's.
Birria: Slow-cooked goat.
Cabeza: Meat from a cow's head, often but not always the tender, beefy cheeks.
Carnitas: Traditionally, pork braised in its own fat until extremely tender. North of the Mexican border, pork carnitas are usually roasted and then pulled.
Chorizo: Mexican sausage, traditionally minced more finely than the Spanish or Portuguese sausage by the same name.
Lengua: Beef tongue, usually grilled.
Nopalitos: Stewed strips of prickly-pear cactus paddles.
Pescado: Fish tacos, usually deep-fried fish, were popularized in Baja California and then made famous in San Diego, where beach stalls served them with the now-familiar toppings of sour cream-like crema and cabbage slaw.
Tinga de pollo: Stewed, shredded chicken, smothered in a chipotle sauce.
-- Bartley Kives
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 27, 2013 C1
Updated on Wednesday, February 27, 2013 at 11:22 AM CST:
replaces photo, changes headline, adds fact box