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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Alamos dos: Street food vs. ....

It's a lesson I've learned nearly every time I've traveled to foreign lands. And yet. With each new journey, I seem to lose the lesson, only to repeat the same mistake. I'm sure you've done the same.

Imagine the scene: After two days of driving, we arrive at our destination, a small town in northern Mexico. We pull the deerslayer -- our trusty but stinky minivan -- up to our friend John's humble casita. As soon as we drag our stiff bodies out of the car (followed by the wrappers from the only fast food place open in the Tucson region on Christmas Day), and into the distant clatter of ranchero music and John's dusty yard, which has been plagued by the neighbors' chickens, we are overpowered by the scent of guavas and limes and an undercurrent of smoke.

Something's always burning in Mexico.

Naturally, we eat street food. Carne asada, mostly, the kind you can get from a little nicho off the alameda from the young and unusually lithe woman with short hair died golden blonde almost orange and the big sunglasses. For five bucks we get a container of carne, a dozen tortillas, salsa, grilled onions, guacamole -- enough for four people.

What's not to like? But here's the age old dilemma: One day, we go to a small town in the hills. After a hike, our judgment impaired somewhat by sun, we stumble upon a restaurant that promises "gourmet international food." John says it's a five star establishment (judged by whom, I wonder, but don't ask). We look at the menu: twenty bucks a person, plus. Looks nice and quiet inside, with the promise of sophisticated conversation over wine. Just outside the restaurant, in the plaza, sits our alternative for dinner: A long, white table holding only several large jugs of red sauce with three bare lightbulbs strung overhead. Flames leap from a grill, black with many many uses. Two men cook something over the fire.

After a bit of back and forth and counting of pesos, we decide that the five star restaurant might be kinda nice. There is a logic to this decision that goes like this: If we can pay five bucks for a great meal on the street, then shouldn't a meal costing ten times as much be ten times better? It's based loosely on the axiom: You get what you pay for.

We sit down. We are immediately assaulted by the proprietor, who tells us how great his food is, how great his restaurant is, how everything is made by hand right there in that tiny little town. This is red flag number one (why's he blabbing to us instead of slaving away over masterpieces in the kitchen?). Still, the margarita is exquisite, the Chilean wine decent. Then the food comes: The garlic-saffron soup tastes suspiciously like french onion. The bread has a tight, bleached crumb (passable with a big coating of butter). The salad is fresh, but not remarkable. The chicken is chicken, no mas, no menos. Then dessert. The proprietor had promised that his chocolate gelato was "killer." So we ordered it. Or we thought we ordered it. Instead, we got vanilla ice cream (store bought, I'm sure), smothered with more talk from the proprietor, and then the bill, smothered with an obvious gringo tax that John and I paid just to get away from the guy's incessant, arrogant, blather. You get what you pay for.

What had we done? Our lesson learned, we've indulged in street food three times a day ever since. Lots of carne asada, sure, but also tacos pescado (frito), with crispy fresh salsa and cucumbers and onions and avocados and yellow sauce and pink sauce out of squeeze bottles and a Coca-cola from the old glass bottles. Bare light bulbs hanging overhead just a few feet from the cars cruising the alameda and the man with a blue cloudy eye looking out from the darkness of his pickup truck and the men in the white cowboy hats and the women glittering from their eyelids to the sparkly studs on their black jeans sticking to every curve and fold and the competing ranchero music and a little brown bag of churros crispy and still hot, their grease seeping into the bag, and Negra Modelo in a bag of ice and lime and chiltepin hot sauce so hot "I can feel it my chest" says Wendy and the bus station across the street lit up and cold and, next to the Tecate store, in a sunken empty lot, a canopy with candles burning and people sitting solemnly and silently oblivious the the carnival on the street paying their respects to the man or the woman or the child in the coffin under a shawl bathed in the orange light of the fake candles under the canopy in the empty lot next to the store where they sell Tecate and only Tecate, ice cold.

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